October 21, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Artists' skateboard park enlivens Detroit neighborhood

Ride It Sculpture Park
Ride It Sculpture Park: A creation of Power House Productions, it's a sculpture that's a skate park, attracting skaters from all over the U.S. since it opened in June and giving a boost to its NoHam neighborhood.

Detroit — The city has been a magnet for artists these last few years, and it's hard to argue they've not had an effect on the visual landscape. From giant murals popping up on walls around town to vacant houses turned into super-sized sculptures, their art has challenged us to see the city differently. Less blighted emptiness, more canvas for every kind of art project imaginable.

But can art make a practical difference in a deteriorating city that needs so many physical improvements?

Enter Power House Productions, brainchild of architect Gina Reichert and her husband, artist Mitch Cope. They moved into their Noham (north of Hamtramck) neighborhood about seven years ago asking themselves: "Can art and artists rehabilitate a neighborhood suffering from home abandonment? And what can artists contribute to a sense of cohesion and community?"

In response, they've sponsored many worthwhile projects and convinced other artists to buy homes in this area bordered by Davison and Moran. But maybe the most visible example of community building is their Ride It Sculpture Park.

It's a giant sculpture of colored concrete that is meant to be skated by board or bike. It even includes a built-in barbecue pit.

This undulating concrete bowl has become known on the local skateboarding scene as the best free skate park around. A group of West Coast skaters built it with about $50,000 raised by Power House Productions — mostly from skaters and artists — and now it's attracting skaters from all over southeastern Michigan and beyond. Recently a couple of German tourists were there "carving" the bowl.

That's nice, but not the main reason Cope and Reichert launched their campaign to raise the funds and attract the team that built it. What they really wanted was to create an interesting cross between art and sport that would become a gathering spot for the neighborhood's kids.

Well, they've nailed it.

Ride It is full of kids on weekends and after school. Some of them are skating or riding BMX bikes. Some are just hanging out or using the slopes as slides. But all of them are sharing the space with the older, more experienced skaters who drive in from as near as Hamtramck and as far as Novi.

That it attracts skaters from all over meets their second goal: spurring cultural interaction.

Yvette Harris grew up in the neighborhood and brings her kids to the sculpture park, even though she's moved to northeast Detroit.

"My kids love coming here because they meet someone every time they come," she says. "It actually unites different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds. So they're able to get exposed to that here, where they might not be exposed to it in school or in our neighborhood."

And the experienced skaters love that this park is free — and legal. Typically, they make cement ramps under a freeway or in a remote area and skate it until authorities find out and take it down. But Power House owns the lots Ride It rests on and pulled all the city permits required to build.

They also arranged for distribution of about 50 skateboards to local kids, and a trip to Klinger Street turns up tykes as young as 3 taking tentative trips on their boards. Older kids instruct the more courageous how to "drop in" — the term for starting out at the top of one of the bowed walls and letting gravity glide them down.

When I asked kids what they did with their free time before Ride It was built in June, they named computer and video games and very few outdoor activities.

Now that phase one of the park is complete, Power House Productions is raising money for phase two, which will expand the park's footprint, adding green space and trees and incorporating alleys and a house. Yes, you read that right. The skate trail will go right through an empty house adjacent to the park.

Cope hopes to get someone to live there and provide supervision, which at present is left to the few parents who bring their kids to the park. They'll also add lighting and fence the area.

In the meantime, the couple will enjoy the watching their creation flourish.

"Art has a way of attracting people together," Cope says. "And then you throw the element of sport into it, and it's sort of a double whammy."

The Ride It Sculpture Park is a giant sculpture of colored concrete that is meant to be skated by board or bike. It even includes a / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
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