Bidding Farewell to The Wig
Detroit is going through expansive change. Decades of crime, poverty and other woes that have plagued the city and it’s reputation are slowly coming undone as the city gentrifies at a speed most residents thought they would never see.
Caught up in the mix is Detroit’s beloved DIY park, The Wig. Situated at an abandoned community centre, recently the city and big time land developers announced a massive new development for the ‘vacant’ land and simultaneously signed off on The Wig’s inevitable demise. We got in touch with the head of Community Push, Derrick Dykas, to try and figure out how long we have left to skate our favourite DIY spot.
Interview with Derrick Dykas by Will Jivcoff
Photography by Evan Hutchings
First and foremost, where is The Wig located, how long have you guys been the caretakers of the land and how did it come to be?
The Wig is located in Detroit at the abandoned Wigle Recreation Center. We adopted the park from the city in August of 2014 and have been going with it since. At the time, everyone was skating and building stuff over at The Brewster Projects. We knew that the city had the ‘Projects on the chopping block for demolition, and they also had a list of almost 100 parks throughout the city that they couldn't afford to maintain and were up for adoption. We wanted to adopt one of those parks so we could continue to build and grow without having to worry about our work getting demolished.
From there we contacted the Parks and Recreation department and obtained the list of available parks and checked them out to see what one would be the best fit for us. I had already lived down the street from The Wig for a couple of years at this point and wanted that one form the start. We went back and forth for the better part of a year, and then they finally gave in and trusted us to do something great with it.
This isn’t a polished suburb of Detroit though. What's the neighbourhood like?
The Wig is located in an area of Detroit historically known as the Cass Corridor or "Midtown." It was originally built in the 60's as a recreation center for the Jefferies Projects and has been abandoned since 2007. It's kind of dicey. When we took over, there were multiple people living in the gym, was a crack/heroin den and is a stone’s throw from two homeless shelters. It wasn't our intention to displace the folks that were there before us, we brought light to the area and they left on their own. We looked out for them by bringing them food, beer and cans, and they looked out for our stuff. We knew we needed them on our side to make it work and make it safe for people to go skate by themselves because that certainly wasn't the case when we started at The Wig.
It's been almost three years and a lot has changed in the neighborhood. It's the fastest growing area in the city, they're building a stadium a mile away, rent has skyrocketed, there is more than just bars open and everyone is buying up what's left.
And while we’re on that note – let’s talk about the community. What has The Wig done for Detroit and/or Michigan skateboarding?
It's hard to say exactly what The Wig has done for Detroit or Michigan skateboarding. From my vantage point, it's brought people together. It didn't matter what shop you were loyal to or area you were from, when you're at The Wig, you're family. Michigan has always had an incredible skateboard scene, and I think The Wig helped tighten it up a bit. It provided a well rounded, no hassle spot to have fun. I know that's what skateparks are for, but The Wig never really felt like a skatepark to me. The locals have a sense of pride for The Wig that you don't get from a traditional local skatepark, everybody had a hand in making this great in one way or another.
Given the area, The Wig pulls in an eclectic mix of people. What impact has the park had on the surrounding area?
The Wig has certainly had a positive impact on the neighborhood beyond skateboarding. It's a safe spot for kids now, and that wasn't the case before. Since we've been there, we collected and redistributed dozens of boards for kids. Sometimes you never see them again, sometimes you'll see them for a few weeks and then never again, but there have been more than a few that have stuck. Most recently Amir, Rashad and company. We gave them four completes last month and they've been back every day since. They live across the street and are a very smart, polite group of kids. They're fearless, eager to learn and you can tell they can't get enough of skateboarding right now. They're progressing at such a fast pace, I hope they stick with it; they're going to be good.
By no means is The Wig small, which is part of the reason why it’s so fun to skate there. With that had to have come some expensive bills for concrete and materials though, how did you guys manage to fund this place?
We were fortunate enough to have Red Bull in our corner to get started. They had helped us get materials for stuff at the Brewster Projects, and they saw the impact that the initial bit of cash had, so they helped us do it on a larger scale. It was a very ideal situation, a check with no scope of work and nobody breathing down our backs. Like the city, they trusted us to do something great, and I hope we didn't let them down.
Since then it's been a bit of a struggle. With the land being in limbo the last few years, I never felt comfortable asking anyone for money to continue to build at a spot that may not last. Individuals, companies, and organizations wanted to help us, but it kind of handcuffed us in terms of fundraising because we don't want to ask anyone for big money until we could put it into a spot that was going to last. I wish we would have done a better job of fundraising along the way because I've dumped a lot of my own money into The Wig, Community Push, events we've done and everything else. I've saved my receipts, but who knows if I'll get a chance to pay myself back. I'd rather it just go into the next project.
The layout of the park is well thought out too, who decides what gets built?
We didn't have much of a plan going into it. Luckily, the city didn't require us to submit building plans or pull any permits so we just figured it out as we went. If you were there helping, you had a voice in what we built. A pair of lips will say anything, but I'm only open to suggestions if you're going to help, not just show up when it's done. There’s still so much I want to build there but I don’t know how much time we have left. It's great now, but it could have been so much more if time and circumstances would have allowed.
And the unfortunate matter is with all your pure and organic community work, land developers have set their sights on the area where The Wig is, going so far as to call the land vacant. Is The Wig’s death imminent or is there a fighting chance to save it?
I really wish there was more we could do, but I don't believe it was ever an option. The city only let us adopt the land with prospective development as a stipulation in the contract. I had the opportunity to purchase the land, but that was never in the cards on our end. There is a community meeting on May 23rd to discuss the development and maybe from there we can figure out how much time we have left to skate The Wig.
It's a $77,000,000 development and I don't think there is anything we can do to stop it, and they certainly aren't going to build around us. Honestly, I'd rather focus my time and energy on bringing something new to the table. The Wig is my favorite place in the world, but I'm really looking forward to the challenge of building something new. We've all learned so much throughout this entire process, if given the chance to do it again, I'm 100% confident we could do it better and more efficiently, but it'll never be The Wig, the place that turned into something money couldn't buy.
What’s next for you and Community Push?
If I were a betting man, I'd say more phone calls, meetings, and emails would be next. That's all it's been lately. We knew demolition would come some day and now it's becoming a grim reality. Since we found out it was a possibility two years ago, we've been working towards getting the opportunity to do it again. It's taken a couple of different shapes in that time, but I really like where Community Push and skateboarding in Detroit is heading in the future. The city now sees the value in skateboarding, and is very receptive to it. I don't know if The Wig may or may not have helped them open their eyes to it, but they're investing in the future and are bringing in Grindline to build a skatepark at Riverside Park later this year.
They asked us to assist them and work with the community to pick the builder and help them with a design. It was a huge honor to be appointed with that kind of responsibility, and I think mostly everyone is pleased with the final product. On top of the Riverside Park, Community Push will be working with Levi's Skateboarding and a few others to open an indoor space called The Hutch later this year. It's going to be used as our headquarters, and operated a little different than your traditional indoor park. I want to be a little more user oriented and focus a lot on youth programs and give people a place to skate year round. That's been the mission the whole time, make something that's going to last longer than me because the work on the back end that comes with all this is slowly killing me.
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