The scraping of boards and sneakers against pavement, thuds of skateboard wheels and hoots of laughter echo from the afternoon into the night. Beneath the lamplights, clusters of young people in Ann Arbor skateboard and watch each other in empty parking lots, back alleys and the Diag.
Valerie Le, LSA and Art & Design senior, has always been enraptured by the freedom and rush of riding a skateboard solo, but it was the communal bonds formed by skateboarding culture that drew her to pursue a senior project on the subject.
In her senior studio class with Professor Nick Tobier, Le embarked on an independent project about the history of Ann Arbor’s skateboarding culture. The result was the book “Skating Tree Town” — part photographic diary, part interview script and part historical overview of Ann Arbor’s skating culture.
Le wanted to create a more professional version of a zine — a self-made, small-circulation magazine — for her book. Six months later, Le’s “Skating Tree Town” arrived in print.
Le’s skateboarding days began when she was eight years old, with a small, Toys “R” Us plastic skateboard. She would ride it down the hill of her driveway in her hometown of Darien, Conn. Throughout her time at the University of Michigan, when events were still taking place in person, she used her longboard to get to classes. Within the past year, the COVID-19 lockdown gave Le more time to practice skateboarding tricks.
She got a “real setup,” an actual skateboard with the proper parts for doing tricks, versus more beginner skateboards from Ypsilanti’s Olympia Skate Shop, and began practicing the tricks she never had time to learn before. Le mastered the ollie, a trick where the skater and her skateboard jump into the air.
“Even though I’m not very good, I still like to skate, meet people and get better at something every time,” Le said in a virtual interview with The Daily.
Trying to capture Ann Arbor’s skate culture specifically, Le immersed herself by skating around downtown, through campus, in parking lots and parking garages and at skate parks. She found Ann Arbor’s skate culture “welcoming and inclusive.”
“Sometimes I’m intimidated by other people at the skate park but they’re honestly super encouraging, and they’ll usually give you tips if you ask them,” she said.
Ann Arbor’s local skateboarders were helpful as Le began photographing skate culture for her book.
“It was kind of funny because I just saw people on the street, and I had my camera; so, I just went up to them and asked for pictures,” Le said. “But for most of the interviews, I posted on my Facebook groups and Reddit, and I had a lot of interest from people around Ann Arbor and Ypsi.”
With skaters meeting at local skateboarding havens, Le was surprised to find that many of the skaters she interviewed knew of each other.
“It’s constantly ebbing and flowing just because people are coming and leaving,” Le said. “But it’s very creative and collaborative.”
According to Le’s research, Ann Arbor’s skating community dates back to the 1960s. As skating became tied to the punk music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, Ann Arbor saw an explosion of skateboarding’s popularity. From the 2000s to today, the city’s skateboarding scene has grown increasingly diverse in both gender and background.
Le found that Ann Arbor’s current skateboarding culture is more of a “cool” and broadly accepted activity rather than an activity for the outcasts who live on the fringes. Additionally, she found that all of her interview subjects encouraged her to continue skating and not to listen to what others say.
“We’re all here to have fun, and it doesn’t really matter how many tricks you do. They genuinely appreciate it as, like, an art,” she said.
One of the focal points of a skater leaping through the air, besides the trick they’re about to land, is what the skater is wearing. Clothing style plays a major role in skate culture. Le jokes that “looking the part” of a skateboarder with baggy pants, beanies and oversized t-shirts is a stereotype that actually holds true in real life. Le said she adopted the big pants and beanies herself.
Though Le has found skate culture increasingly accepting, there is still progress that needs to be made.
“Skateboarding has a huge history of being white and male-dominated, and that’s still partially true. It’s definitely getting better though,” Le said. “Olympia Skate Shop also holds some women and queer skate meetups and sessions,” Le said, speaking of the Ypsilanti store. “And I think in general, people are more accepting.”
Le is donating all the proceeds of her book sales to Ann Arbor’s All Girls Skate, a summer program run by Ann Arbor Skatepark that teaches girls aged five to 18 how to skateboard.
“(All Girls Skate) means a lot to me, especially as a girl skateboarding. It can be really intimidating when you’re a young girl just trying to learn,” she said.
Le found there to be added pressure for girls who skate, and assumptions that they’re just skating for attention. This is only reinforced by the sport being male-dominated. However, bonding over the struggles of being a female skateboarder has brought Le friendships too, like with Kara Browder — who designed the stickers for Le’s book — and Crystle Partington, a board member for Ann Arbor Skatepark.
Le hopes her book will allow readers to appreciate Ann Arbor’s history of skateboarding and introduce them to the diverse voices of the next generation’s skateboarding culture. She also hopes that the book will inspire people to start skateboarding.
“It’s a really fun activity to make friends and feel like you are making progress towards something every day,” Lee said. “It’s just liberating.”
Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.