MICHELLE & CHRIS GERARD // Detroit Rollerbladers Interview by Andrea Kaminski, DCCP Director of Online Media
AK: What inspired you to start photographing the rollerblading community in Detroit?
MG: We both rollerblade, and we’ve both always had an interest in photography. I wanted to do a personal project on something that was meaningful to me and the rollerblading community was a natural choice. It started out as my project and I worked for 2 years on the photos ending with a book and gallery show. After that, we both just continued to photograph the community and it became an ongoing documentation.
AK: Could you talk me through the process you went through while documenting the Detroit rollerblading community? Did you have any goals in mind while creating this series?
MG: I knew that I wanted to photograph rollerblading in a way that escaped the cliche of extreme sports. I wanted to focus on the sense of camaraderie between rollerbladers, innovation, and individuality of rollerblading and its lifestyle. I didn’t want it to be the typical extreme sports photography so I gave myself three rules that forced a different perspective: No flash, no directing, no wide angle/fisheye lenses. Real, in-the-moment rollerblading.
AK: How did the Detroit rollerblading community come together? How many individuals would you say regularly partake in the community’s activities?
CG: I can’t really say how the community initially came together as it was before my time, but I had a friend who was already into it, and we went to the skate park together and then from there you just start meeting people naturally. The community is large enough that, while I’ve met most of them, it’s difficult to count them all.
AK: Through viewing this series it would appear that the Detroit rollerblading community does much more than simply skate together. I see the construction of “skateable” materials and landscapes around the city, traveling, hanging out, etc. What it is like to be a part of this community? What would a typical day together include?
CG: The community is really amazing. If you blade, you’ll be accepted. The scene is made up from people of all different ages and backgrounds. People who would probably never have met or even really cared to meet just get along because of this shared passion. It’s also very supportive. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most talented guy in town, or if you can barely roll around. Everyone cheers everybody on. If you’ve been “out of the scene” for a while, you’ll be welcomed back like you never left. The typical day really depends on your own day to day crew, but back when I was a kid it was a lot of gas station stops to load up on pop and snacks and then just blade around all day to every spot we could get to. Now that the majority of bladers are in their late 20s early 30s, the days tend to start with coffee and stretching :), but other than that not much has changed.
AK: It seems like a lot of work is put into the places that you skate. What goes into preparing a location before you are able to skate? What types of features do you look for in an area that would deem it ideal for skating?
CG: Prep really depends on the spot itself. Some places are just ready to skate right away. Some require things like rub bricking a ledge to make it smoother and easier to grind. Others will be places that seemingly don’t have much to skate, and that’s where some creativity comes in. A quarterpipe on that wall, a back ramp over there, maybe gather up some cinder blocks a build a box. Before you know it the place has transformed into a full on skate park. Generally we’re just trying to find spots where we won’t get kicked out! It’s always a plus though if the place feels like somewhere you would just wanna hang out at anyway. There used to be this DIY spot off the river, right near the Belle Isle bridge. That place would just turn into a party half the time. People would bring drinks, food, and even BBQ. Sessions could go on for hours. It always felt particularly special to me around sunset. The whole place was covered in this amazing golden hue, and it just felt sort of magical.
AK: What response has there been from the city or property owners about the “improvements” your group has made in certain areas? Has there ever been any trouble with building your own skatepark, legally or otherwise?
CG: We would always joke that the mentality in Detroit is that you can get away with anything, and we embraced that. Spots were carefully chosen, of course, but we were never questioned or got in any trouble. However, almost all have been demolished...but mostly by chance, when the area is suddenly being redeveloped. Now we have legal DIY options, such as the The Wig, a new park in Midtown headed by an organization called Community Push.
AK: Do you have relationships with other rollerblading communities in other cities or other countries?
MG: It’s such a tight knit community that we have friends in every city. During the project, we took a 13 day rollerblading road trip and had a welcoming place to stay in all 7 cities we visited, even from people we’d never met prior. They showed us around, took us to their favorite rollerblading spots, and just spent all of their time being amazing hosts for the time we were there.
AK: How do you think the community is perceived by other like-minded sports groups such as skateboarding or BMX? Is there much overlap among these sports and their communities?
CG: In the past there was definitely animosity between the sports. Especially toward rollerblading. It was the new sport and it hadn’t quite found it’s voice yet. So it would borrow from other sports and that kind of just made it an easy target. That has definitely changed over the years though. There’s much more respect between the sports now. Yes, there’s still people who don’t like each other because of how they choose to put wheels under themselves, but it’s like that in every kind of community. Mostly, we realize that we get a lot more done if we work together.
AK: What makes Detroit unique within the world of rollerblading? What does the city have to offer that perhaps other cities cannot?
CG: There’s a general sense of opportunity here. The feeling that you can create something that wouldn’t be possible in other cities. There are parallels between Detroit and Rollerbladers that became more and more apparent as I worked on this project. Both Detroiters and Rollerbladers are DIY’ers, innovative, tight knit communities that help and support each other. They’re the underdogs that are fighting to stay alive.
AK: Are there any public events one could attend to watch the sport, take part, or experience the rollerblading community?
CG: A few buddies of mine have been organizing a street competition for a few years now called the Delta City Open. That’s always a great time. Tons of bladers skating spots all over the city. Yes it’s technically a competition, but never really feels that way. It’s more about everyone getting together and having a good time, and they’re always good about throwing in a spot that you just can’t believe we’re skating at. My favorite was the time we were allowed to skate at the Historic Fort Wayne. Definitely one of those “only in Detroit moments”. A few weeks after DCO they organize another competition and trade show called the Motor Town Classic at Modern Skate Park in Royal Oak. While DCO is generally more of a local’s event, MTC is full of people from all over the country, and out of the country as well. Top bladers from all around come to show off their skills and win a cash prize. While this is definitely more of competition than DCO, it still has that feeling of just skating with your friends.
AK: What do you hope non-rollerbladers will get out of this project?
CG: I think we just want to expose viewers to a different lifestyle. To show the art in extreme sports, and force viewers to look at rollerblading differently.
The photographs were displayed at the Tangent Gallery in Detroit in February 2012 which coincided with the weekend of one of the largest rollerblading competitions in the United States at Modern Skatepark in Royal Oak. After the www.michelleandchrisgerard.com