This past Sunday, just after 8p.m., Francois Decomble was pulling a sofa into the middle of a room in a warehouse-like building on Rosa Parks Blvd. A friend fidgeted with a movie projector, making sure the image it projected was level.
Just a block south of Corktown’s main Michigan Ave. drag, Decomble and friends have rented a section of the non-descript, brick building at 2051 Rosa Parks Blvd. and transformed it into—well, into something that is very hard to define.
It began as a skateboard park, but now also serves as an art gallery, concert hall, party space, pop-up store and movie house.
It's the latter that particularly interests Decomble, who came to Detroit four years ago from France for an engineering job with an auto parts supplier. He and friends are not looking to make money from the venue—events are free—they're just hoping to break even on rent from the small donation box in the new space.
Decomble has been turning the skate park into a weekly movie theater on Sunday nights. This past Sunday folks showed up for "The Big Lebowski." Couches and chairs had been pulled into the bowl of the skate park, and skateable ramps and banks were deconstructed and converted into theater seating. A projection screen hung from the ceiling, in front of the stage.
“My goal, and it’s still an idea” Decomble said, “is to have, one night, a popular (movie) to bring people here, and if it’s working and people are talking about it, to do another night of the week where it’s more art film." Right now, he said, he is still building an audience. He is planning an Italian-themed night in a couple weeks, with a Fellini film and a gelato ice cream truck.
Decomble had hoped for a neighborhood movie theater before, in a city that has long had a dearth of theaters. He heard the idea of a Corktown Cinema floated in the Hatch Detroit competition—a well-funded contest that awards start up money to "give others the opportunity to have a role in the redevelopment of Detroit," according to Hatch's website—and was disappointed to see the money in the end go to a "nano-brewery" instead in 2013.
This past Sunday, a handful of 20-somethings began arriving just before 9 p.m., parking their cars on the boulevard or carrying their bicycles inside for safekeeping. Nibbling on a frozen King Size Snickers ice cream bar (they keep a freezer stocked with ice cream and a fridge full of Faygo for events), Decomble offered brief tours of the place.
As 9 o’clock approached, the advertised showtime, the balmy summer night was beginning to darken just enough for optimal viewing, with the loading dock doors open to the dusk outside. People began grabbing seats on the grandma’s-basement style couch and the various benches and recliners in front of the screen.
“Shall we?” Decomble suggested, flipping a light switch off.
A few seats remained as the credits began rolling, but people still trickled in. A kid in flood pants and skate shoes shot through an opening in the gallery space wall and slid down a skate drop into the theater. By the time The Dude went looking for a cash machine, the only open seating was a pillow on the lip of the back bowl. A few people mingled outside, smoking cigarettes and mixing white Russians (The Dude's favorite beverage).
Decomble fell in with the local skate scene quickly when he moved to Detroit.
"Justin was the first person I met," he says of Justin Bohl, his first acquaintance in the skate scene. "I stayed in a hotel for two weeks and moved right in with Justin; he was my first roommate."
Bohl is a former Birmingham high school teacher and a sponsored skateboarder. The vicissitudes of the teaching profession have sent him back to school, studying for a career in physical therapy at Wayne State, but Bohl has served as a sort of welcoming diplomat for visiting artists and filmmakers and an impressive list of world-famous skateboarders to Detroit. He was also featured in the stunning "Nothing Stops Detroit" skate video.
Decomble and Bohl live with Jim Tumey, a young real estate agent in the city, in a third-story apartment up the street from the new space, also on Rosa Parks. The three have come to be colloquially referred to as the Rosa Parks Boys.
They were kicking around ideas for a skate-centric multi-purpose space earlier this year, and had just sketched out something like a floor plan on the back of a napkin—”just a square right here, one table area right here, a mini ramp, some art space,” he said, in his thick French accent—when Jim Tumey received a call from a photographer friend at Skateboard Magazine.
Levi’s, the denim company, had recently helped build skate parks in India and South America as part of a new skateboard-branded leg of the company, the photographer said, and they were looking to invest in their first US project. “So the photographer called Jim,” Decomble said, “and he asked him, ‘hey, do you know of any cool skate projects going on in Detroit?’”
"All we had was this idea and this napkin," Decomble said. “It took us two months” from napkin-scribbled idea to final build-out of the space, he said.
Starting with $7,500 from Levi's, the Rosa Parks Boys made their entire space skateable, with banked walls and an open floor plan. On a skateboard, one could conceivably enter the parking lot, ollie into an open garage door—the remnant of a former loading dock—and skate through their three, graffitied rooms without stopping, launching from and grinding along moveable ramps and rails and spitting themselves back out into the parking lot.
They opened officially on Memorial Weekend, with live music, a pop-up skate shop and a general party. They have since hosted artists and bands, skate shops, pop-up clothiers and restaurants. Hip hop artist and skateboard legend Ron Allen performed on June 20.
Tumey is focused on getting more bands and artists into the space—a fitting use for a building that was originally built as the home of a DIA co-founder in 1870, according to Decomble. The wall of a brick home is still visible inside the more industrial-looking shell of the building, where they plan to display rotating art work. Friday, Jul 4. marks the open of the show "Flourophore: the Art of Stephen Ostrowski," with a wine-and-cheese opening reception from 4-9pm. On Sunday, July 6, beginning at 7:30pm, four bands will perform—a brief break in the Sunday night film ritual.
They are open to any medium, Tumey said.
"We just want a place for people to show their work.” (He encourages artists and musicians to stop by the space or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
All events are free, save for the metal donation box tacked discreetly onto a wall inside.
“We just want to keep this going as long as we can, and maybe break even on the rent,” Decomble said. “We all have day jobs. This is just for fun.”