By Kendra Theriot
When was the last time you pushed your edge in public? Or really connected with your kids learning a new activity together? How often does your tween or teen get excited to turn off the video game and go somewhere and be active? Have you ever wished your son or daughter felt a sense of belonging in a community of peers outside of home or school?
At the Ann Arbor Skatepark, positive peer-to-peer community building happens every day. Youth and adults alike are rediscovering the motivation to play, experiment, and connect with each other creating a culture of inclusivity and support at a time when we are often divided.
My 14-year-old son opened my eyes to this community back when he was 12 and all he had was an old Razor scooter. He would ask me to drive him to the skatepark after he finished his homework and I’d sit on the bleachers reading a book. One day he decided to try skateboarding and borrowed a friend’s board. Soon he was hooked and making friends and learning basic tricks. Now he bikes to the park on his own, he skates the bowls, and is paying it forward teaching younger kids the tricks he knows. He also enjoys a sense of belonging — that reassuring familiar feeling when he shows up at the park after being away for a while, a couple of the regulars go out of their way to “high five” him and stop by to ask where/how he has been. This sense of “you matter” and a feeling of “belonging” are crucial to adolescents.
A Schoolteacher’s Vision Galvanizes a Community
Located at the Northwest corner of Veteran’s Park across from Aldi and Plum Market, the Ann Arbor Skatepark offers 30,000 square feet of world class technical skate park terrain suitable for all levels of skateboarders, scooters, and even roller-skaters.
Credit goes to Trevor Staples, an Ann Arbor Public School teacher, for planting a seed back in 2005 and ultimately seeing to it that the park would become a reality for the Ann Arbor community. Over the next 8 years, his persistence and grassroots approach attracted enough community supporters and sponsors to ultimately raise the $1.2 million required to construct the park, which was completed in the summer of 2014.
Today, a nonprofit called Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark acts as a liaison between the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County Parks Commission and the Michigan DNR Trust Fund Grant to maintain the facility and organize events. After four years in operation (and eight years in the making) the A2 Skatepark is realizing its vision of a thriving community resource and tourist destination that attracts skaters from Ann Arbor and all around Michigan and surrounding states.
Skateboard Culture Has Come a Long Way
Skateboarding has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in the 1960s in California. Some people may still think of skaters as part of a counterculture, derelict kids building ramps in the alleys, jumping backyard fences. Today, skateboarding has gone mainstream, a truly global sport, which will debut as an official event in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Ann Arbor’s Skatepark is truly a place for everyone. As quoted in MLive on opening day June 21, 2014, Staples said, "We wanted to make sure anybody could skate, whenever they wanted, for free.” About a year ago, an all girls skate program was initiated to encourage girls and their moms to try the sport. Currently in its second season, All Girls Skate attracts approximately 20-40 girls every 2nd and 4th Sunday at
9 a.m. from spring until fall. Volunteers offer free instruction and equipment is free to borrow (until it runs out.)
Ann Arbor’s Skatepark is a place where peers teach peers—and once a skater masters a new trick, he can pay it forward by helping another learn it too. The skaters challenge each other everyday but the real competition is with the individual skater pushing his or her edge. As a general attitude, skaters love to see other skaters succeed at new challenges regardless of the level they are at. It is definitely that kind of place where encouragement prevails.
A special note to parents who visit the park: you are asked to leave it to the kids to figure things out for themselves. The skatepark website advises against sideline coaching or interference as this kind of well meaning involvement takes away from the unstructured creativity of the sport.
When a kid nails a new trick they have been practicing for days or weeks, everyone can celebrate. It takes patience to learn and a willingness to persist and push through fear to make progress. This teaches kids the meaning of a “commitment” and to make choices for themselves. My son challenges himself by asking, “What incremental step can I take today to get closer to mastering this kick flip trick?” He might spend two or four days working on something that might look trivial but is significant to him. Then he pays it forward and can teach a younger kid how to do it.
Fitness and concentration are keys to performing skateboard tricks. Amazingly there are few serious injuries despite the perceived high risks of being airborne over concrete, jumping over metal rails and ramps. Many skaters wear some form of padding (knees and wrists) and helmets. There are signs posted around the park recommending this practice especially if you are new. Occasionally collisions happen when the park is busy and kids are not paying attention. At peak times this is more likely to happen, so if you are new, you might try coming earlier in the day before it gets too crowded.
Come See for Yourself
The Ann Arbor Skatepark is on the map. Last fall, it was standing room only when UMS kicked off their 2016-17 season with a live Skateboarding and Jazz event at the Ann Arbor Skatepark celebrating the art of improvisation in music and in skating. Every spring, the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark hosts the Dave Tuck Memorial event, a cancer benefit that attracts huge crowds of skaters and non-skaters alike. Josh Meisler, the current President of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skate Park, spoke of plans to use the park as a venue to showcase local bands.
The everyday action is reason to consider an outing at the skatepark with a friend or with your family. Just come and have a picnic one day—there are plenty of eateries nearby and shade is plentiful on a hot day. Weekends are a good time to catch some of the local pros in the area but there is always someone there during the daylight hours—you won’t be disappointed.
While it's common to see youth cruising the park landscape on scooters and skateboards, it is also fun to watch the older set cruising the bowls (deep pools). Sit close enough to listen to the kids exchange encouraging words, challenging each other to become better skaters and citizens at the same time. Witness for yourself the respect and cooperation that happens here in this unsupervised environment. Notice the absence of graffiti, the relative cleanliness, and the occasional police car in the parking lot. Come wintertime, you may see someone clearing snow after a big winter storm. The cement is specially formulated to dry quickly making skateboarding a year round activity.
Arguably Ann Arbor’s most famous pro skater is Andy MacDonald, commonly known as “Andy Mac.” Now an X Games legend, Andy spent several years skating in Ann Arbor as a kid, and still comes back to town for special events at the Ann Arbor Skatepark. On a more regular basis spectators are apt to catch glimpses of awesome skaters like Mark Davenport, who hails from nearby Ohio, or street skaters who can do complex kick flips in the air and jump or “olly” over flights of stairs with ease.
While the park is free, the hardware and safety equipment require a modest investment. To this end, Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark operates a scholarship fund to make skateboarding safe and affordable to anyone who wants to skate. This fund also includes an inventory of donated equipment (skateboards, parts, helmets and bus passes). Information on how to apply is available on the a2skatepark.org website.
This park sees a lot of use and local area businesses are benefitting. Launch Board Shop recently moved from South U to Packard and Platt and has everything you need to get started—skate friendly shoes, clothing, decks, hardware, and safety equipment as well as stickers to make your helmet look cool! According to Patrick Eagle, a Launch employee, all the staff are experienced skateboarders who will gladly offer guidance and assemble a complete skateboard deck purchased at the store for no extra charge.
As for learning basic tricks, the best lessons are the informal ones you get by coming to the park, watching people doing a trick you want to learn and asking people at the park to critique you. Practice and patience are key.
Building on Success - Next Steps for the Park
The park has many offerings but some skaters wish it had a half pipe. Others wish it had lights so you can skate past sundown. According to Meisler, the Friends of the Skatepark is now raising money for lights which will make the park accessible to even more people.
Once funding is secured and lights are in place, Meisler’s next dream is to build a small “pro / service shop” on the perimeter of the park where skaters can purchase tools, gear, repair parts, as well as snacks and water. Proceeds from this shop would go towards funding the annual park maintenance and repair fund.
For Meisler, the Ann Arbor Skatepark offers the perfect complement to his career as a social worker in the juvenile justice system where he works during the day. To know that he is supporting a place where teens interact in a supportive way, and are staying active and out of trouble, motivates him to volunteer his time. And he is especially proud that his six- and eight-year-old girls are out skating on Sundays as part of the All Girls Skate program.
What can we all learn from the skatepark? Start with a vision for what is possible, add years of persistence and community engagement, and put in place a set of self-governing social norms around pushing your edge, supporting your friends, and being active, and you have a recipe for success.
For more information on how you can get involved with the park, contact Josh Meisler via the website a2skatepark.org. Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.