Skateboarding is steeped in chaos. The general public thinks we’re a bunch of lawless derelicts, and there are a lot of us that wouldn’t argue against that. Not helping our image any further, skate media loves to shine its spotlight on arguments with concerned citizens and skaters barging past security to get in one more try. It isn’t all anarchy though. In fact, organization and adherence to the rules can actually can lead to some amazing skate opportunities.
Consider the Brainard Street Social Club. Tucked into a nondescript building in Detroit, the club is built around a massive wooden bowl and a shared desire to have a sustainable place to skate. Drawing on a network of friends who skated together on various private ramps in the city, four friends founded a nonprofit to lease a space for a ramp that would provide a 24/7, year-round space to skate.
Dan Scarsella, one of the founders and president of the club, said forming the nonprofit was the easy part. “We just went online and did it ourselves,” he said. “It was $75 to incorporate with the state of Michigan.” The club shares the same tax-exempt status — 501(C)(7) — as some yacht clubs and fraternities. This allows the club to collect dues from its members for the space and ramp upkeep while not having to pay taxes, as the club does not make a profit from the money it collects.
Finding a space was a larger obstacle. Scarsella noted that while it’s not hard to find a vacant building in Detroit, finding one that is zoned correctly was a bit more work. “We didn’t want to get a place, start building, and have someone say that we couldn’t be there,” he said, adding that they also needed a space that could accommodate the transitions from a salvaged ramp that would serve as the framework of the bowl. The search effort took about a year, but the club eventually found a space that was centrally located (so that they could appeal to people from across greater Detroit region) far enough away from residential zoning and small enough to not need extra parking spaces. It was time to start to build a ramp.
A website explaining the project was built and led to a dozen people joining the club on blind faith, most of them being skaters who frequently sessioned private ramps in the area. The club was able to catch a break on expenses by building the ramp themselves, but it came at the cost of speed. Scarsella added, “There were months where I just put money in myself with my wife saying 'What are you doing?' and then another board member building for free with his wife just saying 'I'm glad we’re not spending money- this is great that you’re just building this for free.'”
The Cellar, a private Philadelphia bowl and mini ramp, was able to partially fund its buildout by opening while still under construction and selling keyholders on the promise of what was to come. Like Brainard Street, The Cellar was built completely by volunteers. The space's main builder, Jesse Clayton of Evergreen Skateparks, helps run the space alongside Brett Williams. Clayton said that they built the wooden half of the bowl in six months. “We framed up the concrete side and we didn’t have money for the concrete, so we just sat there with forms up for about a year,” he said. “There was a solid year of no coping on the concrete side, because it was another thousand dollars for pool coping.” The mini, in a different room, is a recent addition that is made from remnants of ramps from the Long Island City DIY spot and new lumber raised via Gofundme.
The Cellar is a much more informal operation than Brainard Street. Williams initially leased the space with modest plans for a mini ramp, but the space kept growing, both in terms of buildout and in its number of keyholders. Clayton said that they have always been able to pay rent on time, and as a result the landlord is stoked on what they're doing. He also allowed them to continue with a personal lease instead asking that they incorporate or jump through other legal hoops: “Ultimately, I think we never went that route because our landlord didn’t require us to carry an insurance policy,” Clayton said. “At this point, with the amount of money we’ve got invested, he just knows we’re tenants for life.””
Both Brainard Street Social Club and The Cellar operate with minimal rules based around a central tenet: keyholders are expected to respect the space and are asked to only bring a few guests at a time. At Brainard Street, everyone needs to be over 21 and guests pay $10 a session, whereas The Cellar is more in favor of self-policing. “It’s really just light rules,” Clayton said, adding that respect is more of a rule than anything.
That being said, don't expect to be able to show up to either space, knock on the door, and get in on a session. Both spaces do open their doors from time to time though. The Cellar has thrown several parties, including some unsuccessful attempts at fundraising for the buildout. “We’ve only really had one party where we actually raised a chunk of money,” Clayton said. “I don’t know how people make money off of having a keg party and charging for cups.” Brainard Street has played host to after parties for Go Skateboarding Day and the Red Bull Hart Lines contest, but Scarsella noted that the club “was never intended to be open to the public.” Part of what keyholders are buying into at either spot is having access to sessions that aren’t mobbed or filled with the kooks that oftentimes show up at public skateparks.
Establishing shelter from mother nature to skate isn’t easy. Whereas a popup park can be done a bit more simply with keyholders pooling money upfront, a more permanent one requires things like bookkeeping work and membership drives. Or being a bill collector. Clayton lamented having friends get involved in The Cellar, only to fall behind on monthly payments and eventually fall off of the map altogether. “If you can’t pay, just come and turn your key in. People are too embarrassed when they stop paying, especially if you are friends with them. And then they don’t answer your call and it’s like come on, grow up. I’m not the fucking electric company shutting your power off- I'm your buddy and if you can’t afford it just give me the key back.” Scarsella said the hardest part was convincing people to buy in before the bowl was done, but echoed Clayton’s frustrations over policing keyholders and managing the space. “It’s kind of like another job,” he said, “ but it’s a fun job because you can skate in between.”
If you are interested in becoming a keyholder for either space, send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Ian Browning
Cover photo by @b.s.s.c