Humans of the Keweenaw: Interview with Alex Aho
"I owe most of my social life and professional skills to my time at Level 2 Skatepark."
This is the first in a series of planned interviews highlighting humans in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties who are working to improve our community’s quality of life.
Interview conducted on 6/20/17 by Kyle Krym
All photos courtesy of Bryan Lowney
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Hancock in 1988. Grew up here and graduated in 2007. Went to University of Michigan for four years. Studied English—Writing primarily. Then moved to San Francisco to work for a skateboarding website. And then I moved back here for four months which turned into four years.
What brought you back?
A bad year. I was laid off from both of my jobs in the course of a week. Experienced a breakup and homelessness as a result of the breakup. I figured I didn’t need to live in the most expensive city in the country for a minute, which turned into a while.
What have you been up to since then?
I initially hung out for a while. Was still planning on and considering moving back. I ended up getting a job at Quincy Woodwrights, which was started by a friend of mine. I got a job there and it’s been about four years, or three and a half, but now I’m working primarily on the Houghton Skatepark project.
Why a skatepark?
I owe most of my social life and professional skills to my time at Level 2 Skatepark. It’s where I learned to volunteer with a community toward a common project, to run and promote events, to start a band. And it’s where I met most of my friends and developed a social circle that stretched to Chassell, Baraga, and Marquette. I’m really grateful to the older crowd for setting it up.
The thing about skateboarding, BMX, and whatnot, is that it tends to attract people that aren’t into team sports. There’s no coach telling you what to do, there’s no rival team to beat, it’s you versus the trick. So it provides an opportunity for those kids who aren’t into team sports to be a part of a community. And that community spans all ages and all backgrounds. But Houghton hasn’t had a place to do that since Level 2 closed. I think the whole community, well beyond the skateboarding and BMX communities, will appreciate its effect.
The initial idea for the Houghton MI Skatepark project started with Ray Sharp. I saw a presentation he led and was really impressed by all of the research and time he had put into it, especially since a lot of communities end up making very crummy parks because they haven’t been coached properly. In September 2015, the project needed someone to continue Ray’s work. At the time I still wanted the project to happen but didn’t want to lead it. Nothing happened for a few months afterward, however, so I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m going to step up and do it!” I assembled a new group that solidified in the beginning of 2016, and we partnered with the Keweenaw Community Foundation to get the project going. The account opened in February 2016, which is when money started to come in.
What has surprised you throughout the process?
I guess at how much support there was for the skatepark. I, of course, always wanted it as a skateboarder and a lot of other skaters and the parents of skaters wanted it, but the more I kept going, the more support we found. The city wanted to do one as well, which helped. Just about everyone I spoke to thought it was a good idea but nobody had gotten everyone together to do it yet.
There are a lot of capable people in town and everyone knows each other. So as long as all those capable people came together, I knew it could happen. It just needed someone to organize them. As far as surprises go, it was the people I didn’t count on. For example, I didn’t expect someone my age to get hired at KCF at the same time the project started who could get our PR going and the cash flowing.
The art show, the first year we did it, I would have been pleasantly surprised if we raised $5000. We made twice that. We wanted to raise some money to demonstrate the community interest to potential grant boards, but it turned into one of our biggest nights. And the following year’s auction I thought, “Another $10,000 would be cool, that’s a lot of money,” but we made over $20,000. That blew my mind.
Why were you the right person to lead this project?
I’ve been skating for 17 years now, and it’s taken me everywhere I’ve gone. When I went to U of M, sure, going to a good school was nice, but I mostly wanted to get out of the U.P. to go to a city that was good for skateboarding. San Francisco was the same thing. I went there for the industry and the history of the sport and city itself. I’ve lived and breathed skateboarding since I was 11 years old. There weren’t that many people around here who really nerded out on it like I did: following the industries, reading the magazines, checking the websites, etc.
A lot of my ideas for what to do with the skatepark fundraising and publicity came from Level 2 and the Ann Arbor Skatepark—a million dollar project that was completed in 2014. The art show, for instance, came from the Ann Arbor Skatepark. A friend of mine in Detroit also runs a skateboarding nonprofit called Community Push. They’ve done some DIY projects and raised money to build ramps for kids. I learned a lot more about how to organize a nonprofit project in order to make it work monetarily.
I learned a lot more about the skateboard industry, community, and skate parks once I left than I would have if I stayed, and I thought I could bring that experience back to Houghton. I’m a local boy and not someone coming from out of town to build it, which helps. Those capable people are often my friends and connections I’ve made and those close to me who trust me.
Once the skatepark is built, what’s next for you?
I’ve been planning on moving since I got back. Houghton and Hancock and the U.P. in general… I wasn’t built for it. I hate snow and hate the cold and like music and skateboarding, and there’s not a lot to offer here for that stuff. I’ve loved the other cities I’ve lived in, just my circumstances made things difficult. I would have already moved if it wasn’t for this project. I want to finish it and will stay around for construction and opening day, but I would like to leave before winter.
I have an English degree and would like to put it to use more. I’m thinking of Detroit or Los Angeles as an eventual destination.
Any advice for others who identify a critical community resource is missing and would like to take on a project of their own?
You’ll find the community can be supportive. If the community thinks it’s a good project, or you convince them it is cool, you can make it happen.
Like I said, I don’t want to stay here, but there’s a lot of trade off to moving. Say I want to start a band and I move to New York—I can throw a rock and hit a great drummer who is in to the same music I like. But we have to find a space to practice and will have to pay rent for that. We will need a venue who will book a small-time band, as well as a demo. Figuring out where we can record that demo on a budget will be difficult. There are thousands of fantastic bands to play with, but there are a ton of barriers and competition. Here, you probably have a basement where you can practice. You can find a lot of interest in your idea and you won’t be competing—making it an ideal location to work with other people to make something good happen for the community.
For more information on the local skate park project, please visit the Houghton Skatepark Facebook page or the website www.houghtonmiskatepark.org. Donations can continue to be made through the Skatepark Fund at Keweenaw Community Foundation by visiting keweenawcommunityfoundation.org/funds/houghton-skatepark.
Through philanthropic services, strategic investments and community leadership, Keweenaw Community Foundation helps people support the causes they care about, now and for generations to come. For more information on Keweenaw Community Foundation and how to give, visit its website at www.keweenawgives.org.