Meet the volunteers saving Flint's only skatepark

FLINT, Michigan — The old park is packed; the rails and ramps shine with a fresh coat of paint, and even fresher scratches from all the grinding. A classic J Dilla instrumental sets the groove that lays a laid-back reverb off the half pipe. Grill smoke wafts over bar rails with trucks and polyurethane wheels scraping loudly. The skaters move with a rhythm; 50-50s, dark slides, and tail grinds, but take away the ramps and rails and it’d be easy to mistake the place for a family barbeque. 

Jennings Harper, the owner of Brush Alley Skateshop, moves through the crowd with ease and intent. Harper, a Flint native from the southside, remembers when Flint opened its first and only skatepark at Swartz Creek Golf Course in 2008, getting the ramps from the Grand Blanc park. “The scene was so big in the ’90s and it kinda saw this resurgence lately — so we want to provide a place for kids to come out and hang.”

Harper and others in the skateboarding community are taking it upon themselves to rehab the park. Along with co-organizers Nick Welch and Dan Wilson, they hosted the barbeque benefit at the park and have a Gofundme page to raise additional dollars. And, they went to work. 

“We just decided to do it,” Harper says. “The ramps weren't made to last forever because they were made with wood. So we pieced them back together, you know, Frankenstein them, and got this up and rolling again.”

Wilson, a Flint native and skater, had relocated to the UP but was in an accident last year and ended up moving back home. “When I got back and first saw it, I was just devastated,” Wilson says. “There was just no one skating here, everything was kind of broken and I decided to go skate at Clio’s park. But we’re from this city, we want to skate here; that’s when we just sort of decided to start a Gofundme page and get this fixed ourselves.” 

So far they’ve raised more than $1,600 toward the $8,100 goal, according to their GoFundMe page.  

“You look around, these kids, a lot of them, are from really banged up backgrounds, and you know there’s always going to be some rough kids that skate. But parks create community and it helps keep these kids off the street and out of trouble,” Wilson says. “It sounds corny, but it really does save their lives, once they realize there is something they can do that gives them confidence; they do a trick, they do something hard, it turns a lightbulb on to other possibilities. I know because it did the same for me.” 

From the shop alley to the ramps, kids and adults alike jump on boards and roll around. Putting new wheels on his board, local skater Mackie Thomas has been hitting parks around the area for 13 years, and echoes Wilson’s idea of family.
An infectious grin, Thomas seems in a perpetual laid-back mood. “The scene here really is blood, sweat, and tears. You got to build everything to be able to skate here,” he says with a laugh not losing focus on his board. “It’s the lifestyle. It really is dude. You know how many times you have to fail to do one skateboard trick? A hundred times, maybe even a hundred thousand times, but that moment, once you learn that trick, you have yourself a life lesson there with the scars to prove it.” 

Thomas talks about the learning curve like a philosophy. “Oh, you know how to fail a million times over to do one thing, to do one trick, it might be something as easy as a  kickflip, but once you learn that, the doors open and you realize you can’t be stopped. Other sports seem like they fade out at a certain point, but for skating there’s no endgame. You just keep learning. There’s no rules or limitations. Anybody can skate however they want.” 

For Harper, the shop and the skatepark are all a part of a plan to bring up a new generation of skaters in Flint. He says that “is the hope” when he opened his shop in May 2017. Located on Third Street in downtown Flint, it is one of a slew of new storefronts in the last year and it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Harper — selling boards, shoes, clothes, and basically everything a boarder would want or need. 

“The culture is back strong. And downtown still has really cool spots, and it’s where the kids want to be. We have a look and style here that's all our own,” Harper says.

Thomas adds, “That’s the thing we say around here: Black, white, gay, straight, screw it, let’s skate.” Another easy laugh bursts out. “But seriously, my dude, that's the beautiful thing going on here. We’re here for everybody, because you know everyone has your back.”

 “Come on, man, take a look around. These are my Flint people. We’re all at home here because this is family.” 

Brush Alley Skateshop is located at 111 E. Third Street, just off South Saginaw in downtown Flint. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, check out the Brush Alley Skateshop Facebook page. 

The Flint Skatepark is located at 1902 Hammerberg Road at the Swartz Creek Golf Course. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. For more information, check out the GoFundMe page

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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