Vine Neighborhood

Riding the concrete wave: How a skate plaza changed an unused space into a Vine gathering spot

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

Vine, with its large student and young adult population, is the kind of neighborhood that tends to attract skateboarders, lots of them.

Skateboarders in Vine are so common, in fact, street safety concerns have been raised at various neighborhood meetings. 

But two years ago, when some skateboarding enthusiasts, an engaged neighborhood association, receptive Parks and Recreation department, and supportive Building Blocks coordinator, put their noggins together about potential improvements at a seldom-used neighborhood park, a long-desired dream for a local skate plaza became concrete.

“We wanted something so that everybody can use the park and enjoy it,” says Peter Morris, a Vine resident, longtime skater and skateboard teacher. “We didn’t want scary, abstract features or anything massive. We didn’t want it covered with graffiti. We wanted it to be a safe place where parents can go and take one kid to play on the swings while maybe their other kid is taking lessons or practicing a trick.”

Morris, along with professional skateboarder and videographer Dave Engerer, who were involved in the planning and design process of Vine’s new skate plaza, say that is exactly what transpired. Through several meetings with the Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Department, and a presentation by several skateboarders and residents to the City Commission, plans for a skate plaza at Davis Street were approved, along with funding from a generous Foundation for Excellence grant.

Experienced and inexperienced skateboarders like the vibe of the Davis Street Skate Plaza.Transformed from what many agree was a rundown and unused space, the Davis Street Park now includes picnic tables and a pavilion, new playground equipment, and, star of it all, the skate plaza. 

So popular has the park become that it was home to National Night Out this year, as well as a host of several outdoor concerts and events throughout the summer. On a daily basis, it’s typical to see 20 or more skaters, and several families and neighbors, using the park.

“Seeing the whole park get used is crazy,” says Wilson. “In all the years I’ve lived in the area, it’s (the park's) been just a rusty swing set. Sometimes I would see someone sketchy in at night driving home. But I would never see a family playing there. Now kids are skating all the time.”

The Davis Street Park improvements not only helped realize the long-held dream of local skateboarders, but through the park’s planning and inception, helped form new relationships and increased vitality in the neighborhood.

“It’s a neat story about collaboration on a number of different levels,” says Steve Walsh, Vine Neighborhood Association Director. “Parks and Rec’s willingness to come to the table with a group that has been sort of marginalized, typecast, or scapegoated, and seen as not an asset to the community is incredible in itself.

“It (the skate plaza) has been really well-received by the neighbors around the park,” Walsh says, “and created a subculture of renters of people who want to skate the park. We’re just really at the tip of the iceberg in terms of how community-oriented this park can be.”

Sidewalk Surfing

You don’t have to be a skateboarder to enjoy the grace and artistry of the tricks and moves. Even from a block away, you can hear the soft whirring and the click of the wheels on concrete. And it’s not uncommon to hear cheers from spectators or other skaters when someone nails a trick.

Skateboarders themselves will be the first to tell you that in the past, they have been stereotyped as troublemakers, even though most feel it is a label that is undeserved and is a perception that is changing.

“I like how things are going with skateboarding,” says Morris, who grew up in Portage. “When I was a kid, if you skateboarded, it was treated as vandalism, like you were a bad kid. But I never wanted to do anything but skate so I never did anything that I shouldn’t have.”

Skateboarding has its origins in surfing, and was originally called “sidewalk surfing” when it first arose in the early 1950s. In fact, skateboarders share a culture with surfers, who also have a passion for outside individualistic sports and a vibe that some have compared to the frontier spirit of the Wild West. The skateboard community tends to be close and supportive, rather than competitive.

“I’ve never met a skateboarder that was not nice,” says Tommy Walsh, 10, who with his mother, Sarah Drumm, was an active participant in the drive for the skate plaza. Tommy attended many planning meetings, even speaking at times in favor of the park. “At the park, (the older skaters) always let me go first and stuff. And they want to show me how to do tricks.”

Tommy is currently working on his ollie, which is a starter trick to build on for other more complex tricks, with his skate coach, Morris. “But I’m also learning how to drop in,” he says. He likes what he sees now at the park. “People are gathering there more often,” says Tommy. “It’s a really fun place.”

Keeping the park small and safe was an intentional part of the planning process, says Engerer, who assisted in the design and created a PowerPoint of skate plazas around the United States for a Parks and Rec planning meeting.

With their large ramps and bowls, skateboard parks like the one at Upjohn Park in Kalamazoo can be great for experienced skaters, but for beginning skaters, they can seem intimidating. And even many longtime skateboarders often prefer the plazas, which replicate city elements in terms of steps and cubs, for learning to perfect a trick.

“Learning how to go down a ramp, learning how to ollie, is easier in a plaza,” says Morris, who frequently holds skating lessons at Davis. “All the rails and boxes are small so it’s just easier for kids to learn something. They are at a beginner’s height.”

The city also invested extra money to use polished concrete, which is a friendlier surface for new skaters. “If you fall or you slide, you won’t take a chunk out of your skin,” says Morris.

It takes a village

For Eddie DeGraw, Sustained Program Coordinator with Building Blocks, the “wide spectrum” of input received for the park planning, from residents through the Davis Street Building Blocks and the VNA, to the Parks and Recreation Department, the city, and the skateboarders themselves, was a meaningful part of the process.

“One thing we do at Building Blocks is try to teach community organizing skills to residents,” says DeGRaw, who helped coach the skateboarders on how to present at meetings. “We were advised to go to a city council meeting. We had skateboarders from the age of 10 to their early 20s. Everyone prepared. It was a long line and you could tell the skateboarders were wearing their best shirts.”

At the meeting, Mayor Bobby Hopewell and city commissioners expressed appreciation for the skateboarders’ enthusiasm and participation in the process.

Sean Fletcher, Director of Kalamazoo’s Parks and Recreation Department, says the development of the skate plaza was an exciting learning experience. “I’m not a skater. Our deputy director is not a skater. But we found out through the park planning process that there was a real need for this.

“We didn’t really know that people were skateboarding in the street. Cars and skateboarders don’t really mix. Little kids were skating on sections of sidewalks that weren’t really the smoothest.”

Fletcher also hadn’t realized how tight-knit the skateboard community is. 

“The nicest part of the whole process was the input we got,” says Fletcher. “There were people who were very supportive, very helpful, very engaged in creating the space. They were all in.”

Skateboarders of all skill levels enjoy the simplicity of the Davis Street Skate Plaza.He credits skaters like Engerer for bringing so many other people to the table and Engerer credits Fletcher and the city for being so receptive to the skateboarders’ desires. Both are appreciative of the support from Walsh at the VNA and DeGraw at Building Blocks.

“After we got the plaza built, the skateboarders have some ownership in it,” says Fletcher. “They take a lot of pride in making sure people are not doing the wrong things there and are following the rules and stuff like that. We’re grateful to them. Our thanks to them is getting it built.”

A year now since the skate plaza was complete, Engerer is thrilled with the outcome. “It has been nothing but good,” he says. “The best way to describe it is the skate plaza has truly given this park a rebirth. The skaters are respectful of the neighbors, respectful of the kids that play and skate. We promise to clean up and not skate after hours. People have a different perspective on skateboarders now because of how well this has gone.”
Leaning in 

Now that more people regularly visit in Davis Street Park, the park is safer and cleaner. The neighbors are getting to know each other better as they have a welcoming place to gather. And the skateboarders themselves have taken a sense of pride and ownership in the plaza, keeping it clean while also being “eyes for the neighborhood,” as Walsh puts it.

“The skateboarders are like the Paul Reveres of the neighborhood,” says Walsh. “Sometimes they call me to say they noticed someone breaking into a car or causing some sort of trouble.”

Walsh, who in his 12-year tenure as the VNA Executive Director has always felt strongly that students were an asset to the neighborhood, says the skate plaza is a daily reminder that leaning in works, often better than expected. 

“Whatever happens, your initial overture to anyone that may be bothering you has to have a tenet of humanity,” says Walsh. “If you treat people like delinquents, they may act like delinquents.” 

Walsh would rather ask: “How can we incorporate them into the neighborhood so this is a neighborhood for everyone?”

By all accounts, the improvements to Davis Street Park, especially the skate plaza have been a resounding success.

“It solved a lot of issues, like safety, improvement of the community and the parks,” says DeGraw. “This was all planned out by the skate community and backed up by residents through Building Blocks and Vine, a really cool coalition of people.

“Now we have a beautiful skate park where everyone had their voices heard.”

And exciting things happen there. This summer, Engerer premiered his film of local skateboarders called “Brethren” at the park when he also proposed to his fiance, Emma Wall, a fellow skateboarder whom he met at a skateboard mission trip to Texas.

Skateboarding is a recreation that is accessible to many.The park is also a recreational space that is available to all. “A skateboard generally doesn’t cost that much so for somebody to have opportunities for recreation,” says DeGraw. “You can skate to the plaza and then skate while you’re there.”

Engerer and Morris say they have already felt a positive shift in how the neighborhood perceives skateboarders, and it’s a trend they’d like to see continue. “Every skateboarder from this town knows how much work went into getting that plaza,” says Engerer. “And they know it’s a privilege to have that plaza. They respect that and respect the city and the neighbors.” 

“Through the process of working to create the park, connections were made that strengthened the neighborhood network,” says DeGraw. “We’ve built relationships and can trust one another.”

But also noteworthy, DeGraw says, is that “it actually happened within a reasonable amount of time. It was manifested quickly and it really inspired people to see how easy it was to get involved in improving the neighborhood and the city as a whole.”

With all the excitement generated about the Davis Street Skate Plaza, Engerer says he expects to see more plazas popping up around the community. “It’s the wave of the future.”

The concrete wave, that is.

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.