This Skateboarder Captures The Real Beauty Of Detroit

Photo of Grace Beard
Assistant Editor27 August 2016

Jordan Garland, a professional skateboarder and creator of #aDetroitFilm, is determined to turn the negative reputation of his hometown on its head. Collaborating with artists and action sports athletes, Garland is creating a film that showcases the real culture, beauty, and creative energy of Detroit and its inhabitants. We talked to Garland about the vision behind his film, as well the impact skateboarding, filmmaking, and traveling has had on the the way he experiences his city and the world.

Courtesy of Jordan Garland

You are a successful skateboarder, filmmaker (although you don’t like to call yourself that), and a spokesperson for Detroit. Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in each of those things?

I like that you caught on that I don’t like to call myself any of that, it’s funny. It used to bother me when people would complain about ‘not being boxed in’ but now I’ve started to see why firsthand. When you call yourself something, people will do whatever they can to keep you in that specific lane, and they can’t fathom that you could possibly do two things well, or many things. It is kind of inhibiting in terms of their perception, and a lot of times it inhibits people from feeling comfortable giving you an opportunity.

The way I would describe myself is that I’m obsessed with creating things and getting ideas out in any form. One day I had the idea to make this film, and fortunately I now have a film with a buzz and accolades without it having been fully released. You have to be a master curator in every field, as well as have a high level of taste and creativity to really do things effectively in this world. I started skateboarding before high school, and making videos and understanding cameras came naturally. Before I came up with the film, I was holding onto footage for a video about Detroit skateboarding, then one day things just started clicking and it developed into much more.

It would be disrespectful to real filmmakers who have perfected their craft for me to call myself a filmmaker. It’s less of me being a complaining artist, and more of me not wanting to cause any misconceptions. I have a great desire to tell a story and the ability to translate my ideas into things that make people feel on a different level. 

Can you tell us about your project #aDetroitFilm and what you’re hoping to achieve?

#aDetroitFilm is a series of short films leading up to the release of a full length visual experience. I hate using such weird terms to describe it, but I really haven’t ever seen a film concept like this before, so I don’t want to say ‘movie.’ The first two short films demonstrate this. They’re more or less messages about things going on in the world, as opposed to videos promoting a film. The plan is for people to walk away from this after seeing it and not be able to look at the world the same. It’s crazy how much I see people posting quotes from my voice overs in the trailers. I’m grateful because it shows people are engaging with the message and not just the crazy visuals. Since I grew up skateboarding, I somehow ended up with many good friends that are action sports athletes and artists in Detroit. We get together and brainstorm, and everyone is going to be incorporated in different ways in the film, to create something everyone will vibe with.

All I know is that as Detroit and the world as a whole are about to hit this crazy turning point, I REALLY want this to be the thing that not only tells the story of Detroit culture at this time, but portrays and turns up the conversation of our entire generation. There are very few films these days that are moving, or force you to have a conversation. There’s nothing catering to my generation’s lack of attention span, not to mention we’re starved for something REAL, which is why I feel I have to get this idea out while I’m still young and have the most relevant and effective take on culture. I don’t think something like this has been done to this level by someone at such a young age, but with its growth on the internet, and the ability to shoot with equipment that costs insane amounts of money due to my good friend and RED operator Josh Kryzwonos, this can and is happening. Being resourceful and living the idea has proved to be key.

Courtesy of Jordan Garland

Detroit has a negative reputation, but you are plainly very passionate about the city. Is that reputation unfair? What makes you care for the city so much?

I’m not going to say the reputation is unfair, because it’s obviously rougher than most places. I will say it’s exaggerated though. Think about what gives it that reputation. though, the media? The media wants to report what’s entertaining and shocking. I’m sitting here seeing all the Detroit news stations do the same thing, too. They all report on murders and crime, while there’s like three people out here trying super hard to cover the good things going on. For the media, it’s all about what keeps people entertained, and shocking and negative news is easy to report, but that’s an outdated way of thinking. It’s time for content to challenge people again. I think what makes me care so much is being born here, so Detroit’s culture and architecture molded my own tastes. But no, the city isn’t some scary place where you’re going to get attacked at every corner. It’s like everywhere else on earth: don’t go where you don’t need to be. We have been in the ‘HOOD skating and filming in Detroit, Philly, New York, Los Angeles, wherever, and we’ve always been good. You’re dealing with other human beings, so show respect, keep to yourself, and don’t look scared.

Tell us about the skateboarding culture in Detroit. Why do you think the city has produced that? How do you think skating changes the way you experience the city — and the world?

I really hate the term ‘DIY culture’ even though I’m about to use it. You gotta think, there is NO HELP in Detroit for anything, so everything is do it yourself here. That being said, skateboarding culture as a whole is a completely ‘do it yourself’ culture as well, so they go hand in hand. Naturally, it had to produce that. There’s a lot of dope people in Detroit as well who are building skate parks; whether they’re skateboarders, BMX riders, or rollerbladers, the scene is pretty tight-knit. There’s a lot of incredible shop owners and skatepark owners who really hold it down for the scene and have for a long time. As for how skating changes how you view a city, it changes it on the most immense scale. Wherever there’s a handrail or a set of stairs, or a good ledge set up, skateboarders will find it. We’ve been in random back alleys, at schools, churches, everywhere in the city, trying to find the coolest things to skate. Some days you just cruise around all day and find things in parts of the city you didn’t even know existed. You know how many long conversations you have with homeless people and random pedestrians when you’re in the city that much? I’ve spent countless hours with my back on the cold cement ground in Detroit looking up at the sky, exhausted, after jumping down stairs try after try, to get a trick. It makes you feel close to the city in a different way, for sure.

I feel like skateboarding changed my world in that way as well. It’s a humbling experience because it’s insanely hard, and at times it’s the biggest test of your willpower, your passion, and your bravery. I really feel like it makes you fearless. You learn to break things down faster because you spend so much time learning the subtleties of your craft and finding shortcuts while you learn. With skating there’s so many times you are trying a trick and are afraid to fully commit to it, because you know what that fall can do to you, and you have to will yourself into doing it. It’s a lesson in self control.

Courtesy of Joe Gall

What, in your opinion, is the best thing about Detroit? What recommendations would you give to people visiting your home?

ADVENTURE. Eat at the Mexican food spots in southwest and Slows BBQ. They are the best. Really, you have to, have to, have to go explore some of those old factories and abandoned buildings. It’s insane to see and experience. It feels like you’re living a movie. It’s crazy because some people think it looks cool, some think it looks horrible, but if you really think about it, that’s like our Roman Coliseum you know? An entire country was mobilized due to these places. That’s not blight, those are more similar to ancient ruins. GREAT things were done in those walls when it existed. It’s also eye opening because it shows you the temporary nature of things. Who’d have thought these places could have ever seen their demise, let alone so soon. Aside from that, do what you would do anywhere else. Take what you like from our culture and use it to build on what you learned from yours.

Courtesy of Felicia Fullwood

You have traveled the world working as a skateboarder and a filmmaker. How has traveling affected your perspective on your home? Where is the most amazing place that you have been?

Traveling is an insane amount of growth no matter who you are. Just taking in new sights and existing outside of the familiarity of home. Being okay with the fact you have no idea where you are in the grand scheme of things. Everyone should come back from a trip better, or smarter, or more cultured than when they left. Otherwise you probably spent too much time in restaurants or bars, instead of really seeing what a place is actually about. I definitely think traveling has made me appreciate my home, but it’s people who make culture, and people are the same everywhere when it comes down to it, so it’s just about culture to me as a whole.

It kind of goes hand in hand with you asking the most amazing place I’ve ever been. It’s hard to say. Both questions are hard to answer. The feeling I get climbing ten flights of stairs, standing on top of factory ruins overlooking the city, is just as incredible as the feeling I get climbing a mountain in Arizona and standing at the top looking over the earth. Everything is about views. I’m just trying to take in a bunch of dope views and culture from everywhere and figure it out from there.

Courtesy of Jonny Smith

What’s next for you?

I have so many ideas. We’re dropping the new short film and third trailer for #aDetroitFilm this winter. It’s been insane to see it all progress and grow so fast, and to be getting the opportunities we have with different media outlets. In the immediate future, I have the dopest idea for a RED collective video with RED digital cinema, and I’m trying to further the conversations we’ve been having. My goal is to always work with the people who build the tools we use. I also have something I want to collaborate on with Adobe. I appreciate how much Adobe has done for me and the light they’ve shined on me as a creative and on the film super early on, before anyone else did, so I want to shine some back and give back to what they’re doing. So in that appreciation I just want to mention them, and hopefully get the opportunity to meet with Dan Cowles and Karen Do and get this idea out to the world.

I come from somewhere where there’s no help, and there’s no connection to any people who can help, so I’ve had to build this all from the gutter. Josh has kept it all looking as incredible as it does on the filming end, so I want to thank him and whoever else reads this. THANK YOU. I appreciate every opportunity, this interview especially. So thank you guys.

Somehow I’ve managed to get crazy ideas out with RED cameras, drones, and production crews, and somehow different media outlets in separate industries believe in us. The fact I get to do this and with all of my friends feels like a movie in itself. So huge thanks to everyone who has been in a trailer, or shared the video, or supported the movement, or showed any love in any way. We’re just starting.

On a more travel-related note, I realized the other day that I NEED to see the pyramids and also go see great white sharks in South Africa. There are these dudes from Russia that hang off buildings on YouTube, and they actually climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is supposed to be a death wish or whatever, but they did it, and the photo was unbelievable. They said they did it for the dream. I’m trying to live more endless moments like that you know?

Courtesy of Jordan Garland

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