Outlaws of the sidewalk, no more.
Once considered the preferred mode of transportation for vandals and punks, skateboarding is a craft no longer carried out only in drained-out swimming pools, church parking lots and on the handrails of city hall.
The sport has been reclaimed by entire families of skaters – and they’re changing the landscape of parks all around metro Detroit.
The same kids who trespassed to find a place to skate 25 years ago are helping set up turnstiles and turf so their own kids can skate where they once would have been ticketed.
Today, more cities than ever across southeast Michigan are seeing or planning the installation of legitimate concrete skate parks in their municipal recreational facilities.
Ferndale dad of two Brad Dahlhofer, for example, helped move forward a skate park project in his city that’s expected to open by late summer or early fall at Geary Park.
“The rise in skate parks is a great thing because kids (often have to) skate on the street or on sidewalks in the city, and it’s hazardous to themselves and people walking around,” he says.
Having a place for families to skate will be “a great outlet,” he says, and a big accomplishment for the city.
“Growing up we never really had skate parks,” says Dahlhofer, who has been skateboarding since 1983 and says his sons, ages 8 and 11, are now into the sport along with him.
“We always wished we did, but skateboarding back then was always thought of as less desirable. People thought that skateboarders were ‘bad kids,’ which was not true – but that was the perception.”
Those misconceptions have been changing since the ’90s with the likes of Tony Hawk and the X Games, and skateboarding’s mainstream favor may be at an all-time high with the sport’s upcoming Olympic debut at the Tokyo summer games in 2020, says Trevor Staples, a board of directors member for Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, a nonprofit that helped build the popular park in 2014 and now helps maintain it.
“What we’re seeing now is people like me, who either used to skate or still skate, their kids are starting to skate and it’s becoming more a family thing where you can take your kids to the skate park and everyone can skate,” he says.
“I think it’s a key point in history where there’s enough people who are involved with skateboarding or have a history with it that it’s becoming a more mainstream, accepted activity – even though there is the underground sort of gnarly aspect of it, which it needs to have.”
Grant funding boost
The project in Ferndale is one of several made possible thanks to the Built to Play Initiative, a partnership between the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the Tony Hawk Foundation. It awards matching funds up to $250,000 for each skate park project, helping cities build bigger and longer-lasting facilities.
“One of the key aspects of this program is to make sure the skate park is accessible to people who need to have it, (especially in) low-income areas where there are maybe not as many recreational opportunities,” says Staples, who serves as skate park manager for the Built to Play Initiative. “What we support and help with is developing skate parks that are going to be free to use for everybody.”
So where are skate parks opening next?
In addition to Ferndale, new parks in the works thanks to grant funding include projects in Wyandotte, Redford Township, Pontiac, Detroit and Flint. They’ll join existing skateboarding hotspots like Riley Skate Park in Farmington Hills, which opened in 2009.
Funds are available for permanent, concrete skate parks usually 10,000 square feet or larger. On the plus side, “the maintenance costs are super low compared to just about any other park amenity,” Staples points out.
Communities get to decide which specific features they want in their skate park – some have more street-style aspects with stairs, ledges and handrails, while others include more bowls and transition areas that look like swimming pools – but most parks have space for various ages and skill levels. This helps foster a sense of community at the parks.
“Once a public skate park is built in a community and people of all ages can come out, they see, ‘Wow, everyone’s getting along, people are being active. Here’s a 60-year-old person skating with a 7-year-old, and they’re learning from each other,'” Staples says. “It’s pretty wild how it works out and how community-driven it is.”
If there’s not a skate park in your area, consider getting involved to make it happen.
“So far in Macomb County and Monroe County, we don’t have any projects that are starting,” Staples says. “So if there are people in those counties (who want one), they should definitely contact me if they’re thinking about developing a skate park.”
Making it safe
The National Recreation and Park Association reported in May last year that skateboarding popularity is quickly growing. In addition to promoting an active lifestyle, skate parks could help prevent accidents by giving skaters an appropriate place to practice rather than uneven surfaces or in the street, the association noted.
That’s an important distinction for parents concerned about the safety of the sport. Plus, parents shouldn’t make snap judgments about safety based on extreme skateboarding videos, Staples says.
“I’ve gotta think that some of that (parental worry) comes from YouTube and TV shows that show the most extreme crashes on skateboards,” he says. “Statistically, injuries don’t happen any more – and probably less, I believe – than football, softball, baseball.”
Skate parks might also appear chaotic or risky to a parent who visits one for the first time.
“Everyone’s going every which way,” he says. “Just like any popular spot … I encourage people who are beginning to come out maybe early in the morning, when the park is pretty empty. It’s a good time to try out different parts of the park.”
Building a gem
Giving kids a safe place to skate was a key priority for the city of Ferndale as it planned its $500,000 skate park, says parks and recreation director LaReina Wheeler.
“This amenity will allow them to be free and practice the sport in a safe environment as opposed to being in the street or somewhere where it’s unsafe. It’ll be designed for them to do everything they want to do,” she says.
It also needs to serve people of all ages. As the city studied what residents wanted in the park, “It was eye opening because you had parents who skated in the ’70s and ’80s – and at that time it was skating in pools and around your neighborhood – who now have kids who are 2, 3, 4 years old who are skating,” Wheeler says.
Once a skate park is built, it tends to become a community gem beloved by all who use it. Staples says he’s even seen kids shovel out the Ann Arbor Skatepark after a big snow.
“It’s pretty wild. It’s great,” he says. “It’s one of the busiest parks in Ann Arbor, and that is usually what happens in a municipality or town or village, is it becomes one of the most popular features of their park system.”
Gear + costs
The introductory costs for skateboarding are relatively low, says Staples. A decent complete skateboard costing between $50 to $100 and a helmet around $20.
“Once you have a helmet and a skateboard, you’re off and can do your thing,” he says, adding that some people also choose to wear elbow, wrist and knee pads.
Free-to-use public skate parks typically don’t offer rentals, he adds.
When Can I Skateboard?
“We encourage public skate parks to be open year-round,” Staples adds. “Michigan winters aren’t consistent, and even when it snows, skaters shovel the snow so they can ride.”
But some spots lock gates outside the summer months. Check ahead to see when yours opens. To find a skate park near you, visit Metro Parent’s roundup of skate parks in metro Detroit and Ann Arbor.