By Samuel Tucker
After years of feeling unwelcome while cruising city streets, Grand Rapids skateboarders have found a home in a parking lot turned custom skatepark built just for them.
With the grand opening taking place in October 2020, the 555 Monroe Skate and Bike park has already proved to be a hotspot for local skateboarders, BMX riders, rollerbladers and scooter riders. With features ranging from low ledges to half pipes, the park provides something for everyone. Before the 555 Monroe park was built, Grand Rapids skateboarders had to fend for themselves when finding places to skate and practice their craft, in some cases such as the Clemente DIY skatepark, they even had to build it themselves. And this often led to clashes with the community as skaters were often doing jumps and tricks in areas city officials did not want them skating.
Now, that’s changed. As the popularity of skateboarding continues to grow, the respect and acceptance for the sport grow with it. Up until 2015, the City Commission held a ban on skateboarding in downtown areas. Since lifting that ban, the city has taken some large steps in paying respect to Grand Rapidian skaters, the 555 Monroe Park being one of them.
“Speaking about the new park specifically, I will say that for the last 20 years, basically since I started skateboarding, I’ve always been surprised that a city the size of Grand Rapids, with the funding that GR has, didn’t have a proper skatepark,” said Seth Besteman, 30, Byron Center.
Besteman has had some skin in the skateboard game for a while, getting sponsored by Premier, a local skate shop in 2007, Seth has had a front-row seat in watching the local community and the popularity in skating continually rise. He remembers being really scared filming his first skate video for Premier titled “Post Script” since it was illegal to skate downtown at the time. When he first started, terms like rebels, potheads, and lowlifes were commonly attached to skateboarders. But he has seen a shift in not only the legal but public perception of skating.
“A lot of those stereotypes have largely fallen by the wayside as people have started to understand that we’re just out there having fun, doing our thing,” he said, adding that it’s “no different than any other team sport like football or basketball. It’s just an athletic outlet that we’ve gravitated towards.”
The 555 Monroe Park serves as an outlet skateboarders previously didn’t have, and has exemplified the large community and its support for projects like these. And for Grand Rapidian skaters, this is the proving ground for future projects of this size and larger.
“This location could last anywhere from three to 10 years depending on the development of the space which is contingent on the river restoration project.” wrote Kimberly Van Driel Director of Public Space Management at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., in an email to The Collegiate, when asked about the permanency of the park. Noting that this park “is a testing ground for a future more permanent infrastructure.”
As far as funding and the obstacles that kept this project at bay, Van Driel explained that “overall, there were not many obstacles.”
The $200,000 in funding for the skate park was approved by the Downtown Development Authority, with the final cost of the 14,000 square foot park coming in at $197,800.
Even though the city’s new park won’t be here forever, for many local skaters it serves as a huge step forward in providing a vibrant culture and sports
the attention it’s due after many years of prohibition and minimal public funding.
This is a big moment for Grand Rapids skateboarding, since this is the first of its kind, and is a foot in the door for future projects like 555 Monroe.
“I know a lot of people are really excited about the doors that Monroe park, in particular, is opening for us, so it’s very exciting,” Besteman said.
Although the blankets of snow might be covering the park right now, the frost is the only thing keeping skaters off its ramps and rails, and even then, some will come equipped with a shovel in hand. This is a part of Grand Rapids culture that is here to stay. In the times of working from home and online learning, the Monroe Skatepark serves as one of the best excuses to get out of the house that most have had in a while.