New York’s great roller skating boom
In fifth grade, my neighbor and good friend JJ had a poem published in the literary magazine at our elementary school for boys. The poem, titled “Wheels,” describes the people who move around the city by bus, bicycle, skateboard and roller skates: “Big wheels, small wheels. . . “Boys being boys or bullies, we gave JJ a lot of bullshit. “Wheels, Wheels, Wheels,” uttered in a mocking, meowing voice, became a regular taunt, until the day after school, on East Eighty-Sixth Street, near the Papaya King, JJ hot dog counter. dryly. He threw one of the guys around, giving him a hard time, then threw him in a mountain of garbage bags on the sidewalk. It put an end to the teasing, but the chorus lingered in our cockroach brains, and it still comes to my mind every now and then when I’m on the move, via wheeled transport or whatever.
The fifth year was 1980, the year of the great roller skating boom in the city. When I say roller skates, I mean old quads, each with two side-by-side pairs of polyurethane wheels and a rubber stopper. We all had them. Some children had sneaker skates, the birth of a track shoe and a monster truck; others wore figure skating boots. Sometimes we skated to school, wandering through traffic, without helmets or pads. Parents threw kids’ birthday parties at Roxy Roller nightclub, in the badlands near West Chelsea Piers, or closer to home, in Yorkville, at a basement hangout called Wednesday’s, on Four – Twenty-Sixth Street East. We turned counterclockwise and pulled movements – crack the whip, shoot the duck – towards “Off the Wall” and “Funkytown”.
The whole city seemed to be on skates. I do not know why. Perhaps it was the polyurethane wheels, an innovation borrowed from skateboarding, that allowed for a smooth and pleasantly quiet ride in a manic, crowded city. Or maybe it was the highlight of the seventies – over-ripening or over-ripening of grooviness. The disco on wheels, like the disco itself, and many other things, started out as a gay and black thing, and then spread to the masses. The fashion epicenter was a famous roller nightclub in Brooklyn called Empire Rollerdrome, but it was far from Yorkville. My friends and I – stiff squares and wise donkeys, reversible athletic t-shirts and short gym shorts (that was 1980, Your Honor) – had to settle for Central Park, where we usually met at the Skate Circle, a congregation of skaters of all ages, colors and orientations, walking towards someone’s giganto boom box on a stretch of good pavement near the Bandshell. We looked for steeper sections and set up some slalom courses, using our old Playskool blocks, and timed our runs, on a Casio watch one of us got for Christmas. Back home we watched Roller Derby on cable and “The Warriors” on Betamax. We laughed at the Punks, the generally dressed gang that attacks the Warriors in the metro station bathroom in Union Square. The leader of the Punks is on roller skates.
My parents were involved in all of this, or part of it. During the transit strike in April, my dad skated from the Upper East Side to his Wall Street office – a seven mile trip. In a flared, double-breasted gray suit, he rolled into the elevator at 20 Exchange Place, then straight to his desk. He was later informed that this performance had delayed his promotion for a year. My mom also skated to work; she had founded a dance school on the West Side called Steps Studio. Ballet, modern, jazz. They organized a few evenings there disguised as roller-disco. On Sundays, we sometimes headed, as a family of four, across town to the West Side, for lunch in an airy and almost Parisian bistro near Lincoln Center called the Saloon, where the waiters, mostly actors and dancers. in the moonlight, were working. tables on skates. There was a Space Invaders table near the bar.
A few times our family has skated the five miles to SoHo, still in its prime as an industrial cast-iron loft neighborhood colonized by artists. The arrival, on quads, of intruders in upscale neighborhoods in a way foreshadowed the gentrification to come. We were tourists in our own city. We were mobile down. My main impression of SoHo at the time was that the streets were mostly cobblestone, and therefore impossible to skate. We stayed on the sidewalks. Their surfaces were scratched granite, or metal frames inlaid with hundreds of clear glass buttons the size of a silver dollar. These, we learned, allowed natural light to enter building basements, on what were once factory floors without electric lights. Skating forced you to pay attention to what was under your feet. The wheels had eyes.
Back in town, in the afternoon, the neighborhood kids – JJ, Ax, Z, Mikey – played roller hockey, with trash cans for the goal posts and a roll of electrical tape for a puck. Our land was in Carl Schurz Park, along the East River, near Gracie Mansion. During the Wall Street boom of the Reagan era, the surrounding neighborhood would change, with an incursion of a new white-collar tribe dubbed “the yuppies”. But at that time, it was dominated by a group of thugs called the Eighty-fourth Street Gang. They were our version of the Punks, but not so gentle on their skates. They were hanging out in a soft-service Carvel store and smoking weed covered in angel dust. At least that’s what we said. We often played against them in the Carl Schurz hockey pit. These games tended to get hectic – we would get ahead and they would start hacking us with their sticks – and ending with them chasing us out of the park. The warriors we were not. I learned to quickly descend the granite stairs of the park on my skates, taking every flight through the air.
Finally, in 1983, the eighties arrived. We stopped rollerblading. It seemed like everyone had done it. AIDS, crack, Crown Heights, Giuliani – the city has degenerated and regenerated. As a privileged white kid from Manhattan, often absent from school, I was isolated from most of it, but every era, whatever era, breathed the air we breathed. I experienced the transformation of the city by osmosis. You could tell I skated.
I was in college when Rollerblades arrived. I bought a pair from Paragon, the sports store near Union Square, and skated home in the rain. Not being used to having a heel brake, I tried a hockey stop and I wiped the eighty-fifth and the first in a crosswalk, near the Carvel store where the four – Twenty-fourth Street Gang heckled passers-by. I felt lucky that none of them were hanging around anymore.
For a while in the 90s everyone suddenly had inline skates, but now skaters wore helmets and knee pads and spandex. Blades therefore have a bad reputation. I had inline hockey skates and considered myself vested since the days of quad biking. I avoided the knee pads, the helmet, the spandex, the heel stopper. Sometimes I hitched to buses and panel trucks for a slingshot tow. You had to be careful. For a while, I lived on Grand Street, SoHo, and got to know the downtown sidewalk – the pothole ravines around Wall Street, the slicks of beer and vomit from the Sunday morning in the East Village, the pockets that turned into tar pits when it was hot. I also got a feel for the slopes of the island and, therefore, where and how the water flowed to the harbor. You could almost trace the ancient streams and swamps of Mannahatta. The wheels, now four in a row, still had eyes.
From Grand, I discovered a constellation of roller-hockey venues and joined a traveling pickup match that took over vacant lots on weekend mornings. Tompkins Square Park, Rivington Dome, Peter’s Field, StuyTown – they all had their own dimensions and quirks. We chilled in the middle of someone else’s night’s garbage: empty pints, chicken bones, broken glass. The players, those who stayed around, stayed there for twenty-five years. It took a pandemic to end these weekly games.
Some New Yorkers deplore the closure of a bookstore or bar. I mourn the loss of unhindered asphalt. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the misaligned prosperity of the past two decades has been the construction of misguided new construction and the sinking of abandoned lots. In some old cobblestone parks, meanwhile, the artificial turf bloomed like pond algae, a suffocating and insatiable burn.
I recently laced up for a ride in the old quarter. It had been a while since I had been on my skates, due to injury, entropy and a feeling, with age creeping in, that the streets were more deadly than I had ever really realized. Skateboards, hoverboards, e-bikes, Citi bikes, cargo bikes, Heelys, Onewheels, electric scooters, pedicabs, not to mention taxis, buses, garbage trucks, ambulances and delivery trucks. Wheels, wheels, wheels. It turns out that JJ was right. Taking slowly, head on a swivel, I cut down on Eighty-fourth Street, the downhill slope more familiar than the names on the storefronts, and carried a bit of gear into the entrance to the Carl Schurz Park, after the playing field and into the hockey pit. It was empty but smooth, a few icy puddles to avoid but otherwise perfect for a game. You could smell the old taste of the East River sewage. I did a few glory laps, counterclockwise as always, then started to work my way up, the old cockroach brain summoning a desire for a Papaya dog, or two.
The essay is taken from the Wildsam Field Guide to Manhattan.