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How Skate Boarding Legend Tony Hawk Embraces the Detroit Grind

Published October 1, 2019 by

Between building new skate parks and taking family staycations, Tony Hawk and his crew have made Detroit their semi-adopted home.   

By Jeff Waraniak

Photography by Joe Gall

On a Saturday in Ferndale this past July, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk had to nail a trick that’s become increasingly difficult with age: prove his identity.

A fellow skater — half-recognizing the action sports icon at Geary Park — simply refused to believe the lanky middle-aged dude in front of him was who he claimed to be.

Tony Hawk

In what has become one of Hawk’s favorite Twitter pastimes, he documented the interaction in a tweet:

Kid at skatepark: “Are you Tony Hawk?”

Me: I am

Him: “no you’re not”

Me: ok I’m not

Him: “but are you, FOR REAL?”

Me: I am, for real

Him: I thought you’d look younger

Me: ME TOO

These days, Hawk may look slightly less like a ’90s X Games star and more like the “rad dad” he labels himself on Twitter, but the differences are minimal.

At 51 years old, he still dresses mostly in hoodies, skate shoes and jeans. He can still turn a skate park into his personal playground. He even still collaborates with beloved ’90s food brand Bagel Bites.

Tony Hawk

But between the hundreds of new skate parks he’s helped fund through the Tony Hawk Foundation and projects ranging from video games to a Broadway musical, Tony Hawk is possibly more recognizable than ever — especially in his semi-adopted home of Detroit.

Since the 1980s, Tony Hawk has consistently been one of the most popular professional skateboarders in the world (if not the most). The California native has skated in cities all over the world, including Detroit. But in the early 2010s, when he started dating his now wife — Cathy Goodman, a movie producer originally from the Bloomfield area — he started exploring sides of the city he didn’t know existed.

Tony Hawk Detroit

Tony Hawk

Tony Hawk

“When we would come back to visit family, we’d stay in various parts, and I realized how vibrant the city was, and how it was being built from the ground up and had this DIY aesthetic,” Hawk says. “I just really loved the vibe. It felt like, to me, what Brooklyn was trying to be, but in a truly underground, cool way.”

In 2016, Hawk and Goodman bought a house in Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood that boasts three apartments (Hawk and his family occasionally stay in one of the units when visiting). In 2018, he expanded his Detroit presence further, launching D/CAL, a hybrid brand consultancy and creative agency in the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit.

In addition to his personal pursuits, Hawk has helped complete a variety of public projects around the city. Over the past six years, through the Tony Hawk Foundation and its partnership with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, he’s helped fund and establish a handful of skate parks throughout Southeast Michigan, including Riverside Park in Southwest Detroit, which opened this past June.

“Tony’s built an orientation at his foundation that’s really focused on kids and community,” says Jim Boyle, vice president of programs and communications at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. “We’ve learned a lot from them about community engagement and how they engage kids. They put the keys to the car in kids’ hands to drive these projects, whether that’s in Detroit or elsewhere.”

Tony Hawk Detroit skate park

Historically, Detroit hasn’t been the most skate-friendly city for skaters young or old. In fact, 10 years ago, Hawk says, there were very few public facilities to skate around town, but that didn’t stop locals from constructing their own parks and ramps on abandoned lots and dead-end streets. In a way, Hawk says, the lack of parks actually helped shape Detroit’s unique skate culture.

“There are a lot of cities that have casual skaters,” Hawk says. “But the skaters in Detroit are pretty hardcore, and they’re very passionate.”

If anyone knows what a passion for skating looks like, it’s Hawk. Despite retiring from professional skateboarding in 1999, he’s continued to skate in demos and other events for decades.

“My only secret is that I never quit,” he says.

When he’s not skating (or teaching his youngest kids how to drop in), Hawk continues to popularize the sport in ways even he never anticipated. Earlier this year, Hawk announced he was working on a Broadway musical with composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. The production, which will incorporate live skating and is expected to debut during the 2020-21 Broadway season, is based on the Nick Hornby novel “Slam” — a coming-of-age story about a teenager who finds solace in the world of skateboarding.

Tony Hawk Detroit skate park

“Everything these days is just a crazy surprise,” Hawk says. “I love the things I get to do, but I don’t have any expectations or any huge goals. I’m really enjoying the ride. I’m just seeing what comes along and what feels like it’d be fun to be involved with.”

Maybe that’s part of the reason Hawk has connected with the Motor City. Besides his family’s ties to Detroit, he’s embraced the opportunities to build and rebuild as the city undergoes its own transformation.

“It’s a really exciting time for Detroit,” Hawk says. “It’s transitional in terms of becoming a destination again, and all the growth it’s experiencing right now is incredible.”

Of course, whether anyone recognizes his involvement with the city’s growing skate culture isn’t a big deal.

After all, it’s probably too old to be him, anyway.

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