Vacant to vibrant: NoHam sculpture skate park ramps up

There’s a curvaceous new concrete landscape at Klinger Street and the Davison, in the neighborhood just north of Hamtramck variously referred to as NoHam or Bangalatown (the latter after an influx of Bangledeshi immigrants that began in the 1970s). Depending on the time of day, there are likely figures in this new landscape, too, many in motion and some periodically airborne. In the short month and a half since it was built, Ride It Sculpture Park has already become something that so many neighborhoods in Detroit badly need: a focal point, a shared destination, a place for people -- especially young people -- to meet (or more to the point, in this case, a place for them to skate.)

The park, a new project organized by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert's nonprofit Power House Productions, isn’t exactly officially open yet, but that doesn’t mean the skaters and BMX riders haven’t found it. There were 20 or so kids there when I visited one recent evening, ranging from about 10 to 20 years old.

"There’s rarely a time when no one's here," Reichert tells me after I express surprise to see it so bustling. When I ask Jordan, a 16-year-old skateboarder from Hamtramck, how he's heard about Ride It, he answers matter-of-factly, "It's kinda hard not to."

Currently the site, occupying four once-vacant commercial lots purchased from the city, consists of several traditional skate park elements (bowl, quarter pipe, hip, and corner bank), a grill (that’s not skater lingo - you cook on it), some trees, and a lot of dirt. Construction, performed by skate park builders and professional skaters from the West Coast, began in late June. (Check out Curbed Detroit’s construction photo gallery here.) This is Phase 1 of the project, which still requires a little "buttoning up," as Reichert puts it: some post-construction clean-up and the installation of more fencing and signage.

Phases II and III are forthcoming over the next couple years as more funding is secured. They will involve the installation of sustainable landscaping elements to green the space and manage rainwater, the construction of sculptures that skaters can actually skate on, and the transformation of the neighboring alley into a street course. The course will eventually lead into Skate House, a formerly vacant home in which skaters will be able to rent helmets, repair their boards, and ... skate. "It's all about flow," Reichert says, describing a circuit that will lead from inside the house to the street course to the park. (For a preliminary sense of what it looks like to skate inside the house, watch this video from Power House Productions.)

If you’ve missed what the Power House crew has been up to for the past four years, you can get an idea here. In short, Reichert and Cope, along with a number of their friends and neighbors, have been working to stabilize their neighborhood through the purchase and rehabilitation of vacant homes, turning them into models of sustainable energy, community construction projects, and singular art and living experiences. Theirs is a remarkable, multidisciplinary endeavor, existing at the intersection of art, architecture, sustainable design, placemaking, community building, social activism, and sports.

Ride It is something new: the application of Powerhouse principles and practices to a landscape. It was motivated in part by the couple’s fondness for skateboarding, as well as their desire to add some sculptured variety and community-strengthening activity to their neighborhood.

The project exists thanks to an extraordinary show of support from members of the local, national, and international skating communities. Local skate shop Chiipss, for example, which recently relocated from Plymouth to Hamtramck, raised $25,000 through Good Wood, an auction of skateboard decks embellished by more than 80 artists (gallery here). In late June, thousands of skaters descended on Detroit for Emerica’s Wild in the Streets, an annual mass skating event that takes place in a different city in the US or abroad each year. The afterparty, at Modern Skate Park in Royal Oak, was also a fundraiser for Ride It. Meanwhile, Boards for Bros, a nonprofit based in Tampa, organized the distribution of around 60 free skateboards to kids in the neighborhood. And they’re using them!

Ride It attracts a diverse crowd (though largely, but not exclusively, a male one). There are the neighborhood kids, mostly Bangladeshi- and African-American, many of whom are making their first, tentative forays into skating thanks to their new boards. Then there are the more experienced skaters and BMX bikers from the surrounding city and suburbs, hungry to try out this new place that’s both designated for them and, importantly, free.

The kids from Bangalatown are proud of their park, and eager to see it continue to grow. They help clean it up and keep an eye on it, and one of the youngest made sure I knew he’d been skating there since the very first day it was skateable. The ones who ride or drive over from elsewhere are amazed it exists at all, saying there’s nothing else like it in the area. And everyone there just seems glad to have something to do. (A 19-year-old named Vonté tells me he comes three or four times a week, staying for eight or nine hours a stretch.)

There’s an easy peace among all these kids from such distinct backgrounds and traditions. Different crews inevitably commingle, share tips and stories, and comment on each other’s performance. ("That’s easy," one skater says loudly, observing another’s trick. A moment later, a little more respectfully: "That’s not.") Maybe there’s something about skateboarding, with its risk-taking and its succession of small failures and exhilarating triumphs, that breaks down ethnic, age, and psychogeographic boundaries. It’s easy to see, from the window of an airplane, that the borders that separate people are arbitrarily drawn; maybe it’s possible to catch a glimpse of that by launching skyward off a quarter pipe, too. 

Matthew Piper authors Green City Diaries each month in Model D.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at