Last summer, it seemed like Detroit was a shoe-in to host the 2014 Summer X Games, the world's premier annual action sports competition. There was the epic YouTube video
with over 290,000 views featuring skateboards, motorcycles, and rally cars tearing through the city. There was the official X Games Facebook poll
asking fans where they'd like to see the next event, which Detroit won by nearly 8,000 votes. There were the massive street parties, the skating demos, graffiti contests, and the stamps of approval from Dan Gilbert, Olympia Entertainment, and Ford Racing.
It all seemed too good to be true...and it was. ESPN announced last July that Austin, Texas would host the Summer X Games from 2014-2016.
But the organizers behind X Games Detroit were undeterred. They issued a statement saying that although ESPN had walked away from a huge opportunity to grow the X Games brand, it didn't matter.
"We're going to create our own X Games," the statement said. "We're not sure what this looks or sounds like yet but we'll have details made public in the coming weeks."
Now, nearly a year later, the city's action sports scene continues to build with a lot more DIY and a lot less ESPN.
A growing skate scene
If you're into skateboarding, you know that Detroit is something special. It's open, it's concrete, and full of forgotten structures that, to a skater's eye, make for tantalizing ramps and rails. In short, it's a street skater's paradise; it was that way before the X Games bid, and it remains that way after. It just took a while for people outside of the city to notice.
"Detroit's becoming a destination where traveling teams and pros want to come," says Detroit native and lifelong skateboarder Derrick Dykas. "As of five years ago, shops couldn't pay the pros enough money to come visit to do a demo or do a signing in the shop. It was too out of the way, there wasn't enough stuff around. But now they're just coming unannounced and hitting up the shops."
Dykas was an instrumental part in creating the buzz behind the X Games bid last year alongside chief organizers Kevin Krease and Garret Koehler. Though Dykas acknowledges that the failed bid was a bitter pill to swallow, it didn't take long for those involved to get over it, especially the diehards.
"A lot of the core skateboarding community, they don't care about the X Games," Dykas says. "If you ask me, I think a lot of those contests are stale. They would have been a breath of fresh air that the city needed, but what we have going on now is equally exciting because we get to do it our way. "
The "we" and the "our" refers to ASSEMBLE Detroit
-- the event planning outfit that spawned from the bid led by Krease and Koehler. Shortly after the X Games went to Austin, Dykas, Krease, Koehler and the team of voices behind ASSEMBLE's "create-our-own-X-games" idea began taking on new projects. Last November, the team began talks with the city to build a permanent DIY skatepark to amp up the city's growing skate scene. The new park is set to be built on a soon-to-be repaved lot near the Coleman A. Young Community Center on Chene Street. ASSEMBLE hopes to break ground on the lot August 1st
According to Dykas, the permanent park has received strong support from Detroit Parks and Recreation
, as well as action sports giant Red Bull
and other organizations around town, ranging from American Jewelry and Loan
, who donated tools for the park's construction, to Detroit City FC
, who's expressed a desire to volunteer at the park. Personally, Dykas says he has at least a hundred phone calls to make once the build is on.
"Word's been spreading around and people can't wait to help," Dykas says. "Camaraderie is gone in a lot of places, but Detroit is still really close-knit."
For ASSEMBLE, the one park isn't enough. On July 14, the organization revealed that it will be supporting the construction of yet another skatepark (albeit a temporary one) for the Zumiez Best Foot Forward
national skateboarding championships. The contest will take place August 9 inside the old Michigan Theater Building, which was converted into a parking structure decades ago. The ramps and rails will be in and out of the building within a mere 48 hours for the contest, but Dykas says some of the more permanent features will be donated to the permanent DIY park.
With a national championship and a brand new park on the way, Dykas says there's never been a better time to be a Detroit skater.
"I think this will be the most exciting year that skateboarding has seen in Detroit," Dykas says. "I'm just really hoping the park brings out a lot of kids because skateboarding's always been there for me, and it's a great alternative for kids in the neighborhood who don't have much else to do."
No doubt, the new park and Best Foot Forward wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for the support of the community and the potential to attract new crowds -- a phenomenon that fellow DIY parks have encountered downtown.
It starts with one jump
In the winter of 2013, Detroit photographer and BMXer Joe Gall came across an abandoned play lot in Brush Park during a photo shoot. After stumbling on the overgrown field and some rusty playground equipment, another prominent feature caught his eye.
"There was a pile of dirt, and I thought when the snow melts, that would be cool to shape into something to ride," Gall says.
Come spring, Gall and three fellow BMXers started to shape and sculpt, which attracted some attention from the neighbors.
"Basically, all we wanted to do was build one jump," says Justin Thompson, who helped Gall piece together Brush Park's BMX park last spring. "After that first jump, this woman approached us and asked us what we were doing and if we had permits. Of course, we lied and said we did, and she said, 'No you don't because I'm head of the Brush Park CDC.'"
The woman was Mona Ross-Gardner, a board member of the Brush Park Citizen's District Council, and despite some initial tension, Thompson says the BMXers wound up "getting on her good side." After discussing their plans for the park and making clear their intentions, Thompson says it was an easy decision to change their game plan.
"We decided it would be best if we focused on cleaning the area up rather than building our bike jumps. We put our efforts towards cleaning out all the trash and dead trees and brush that were in there. We ended up filling up over a hundred bags of garbage just from cleaning out one side of the park."
The clean up got the attention of fellow riders in the area who came out to ride, clean, and build; but to the delight of Thompson and the original build crew, plenty of non-BMX riders got in on the action, too.
"A lot of people that lived around the area started to come out, hang out, plant flowers, and do whatever they could," Thompson says. "But my favorite thing I have to say about Brush is how much it sparked people to come out and try riding BMX. Now there's a handful of kids that live in Southwest [Detroit] that come to the park to hang out and ride their bikes. Kids between the ages of 10 and 15 that just want to be around that kind of community and that kind of friendship, because it's all a mutual friendship for everybody that rides bikes."
Since completing at least a dozen jumps and other rideable obstacles last year, Thompson says that Brush has become the central meet up point for anyone in the city who rides BMX. Plans to expand the park are on the horizon, with a possibility to include mountain bike trails and other technical terrain depending on the amount of machinery and helping hands they can get to the park this summer. No matter what the future of the park is, Thompson says he's amazed at what they've accomplished already.
"We were able to take over an abandoned lot and build a BMX park with the city skyline in the background, a block from the freeway. That kind of thing doesn't happen in Chicago or L.A."
And just in case the folks from the X Games didn't already know, it doesn't happen in Austin, either.
Jeff Waraniak is a freelance writer based in Detroit. You can follow him on Twitter @jeffinitely_ and find more of his work at www.jeffwaraniak.com.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.