Anastasia Lovera, Brooklyn Bridge Park
This summer, roller-skating rinks have claimed NYC spaces. When the ice melted at Rockefeller Plaza’s ice rink it became Flipper’s, a retro hot spot for quads (four-wheel skates) and blades; the TWA Hotel at JFK rolled its ’60s vibes out onto the tarmac with Roll-A-Rama; and the dance party DiscOasis took over Central Park’s Wollman Rink—now it's the place to see and be seen.
But for some local skaters, getting around on wheels is more than a seasonal craze.
Roller-skating has long been a part of NYC culture. Now-shuttered rinks like Skate Key and Skatin Palace in the Bronx had their heydays in the ’80s, and some of the New Yorkers who showed off tricks back then can be found skating in Central Park today.
For many, skating is an act of freedom and resistance. It has been part of Black and Brown communities for decades, shown in documentaries like United Skates, which explores the sport’s ties to hip-hop culture and the civil rights movement, and Roller Dreams, which recounts how police harassed Black skaters at Venice Beach in the 1980s, eventually ripping out the pavement to prevent them from gathering.
A few summers ago at the height of the pandemic, New Yorkers sought escape from isolation and turned to roller-skating, the City’s parks and public spaces serving as makeshift skate spots. Even as more official rinks open up, skaters continue to go to outdoor parks to practice skating and hold community events—free from entry fees or timed visits and soundtracked by their own playlists.
We spoke with four women who are helping shape today’s skating culture in NYC.
Born in Harlem and raised in Queens, Z (@mightymorphinz) lives in Jackson Heights. She began skating in 2020 and now rarely takes off her skates. We met Z at one of her favorite skate spots, a newly paved section under the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo, as she was finishing up a virtual class for her art history degree.
What inspired you to start skating?
An old friend of mine started skating in 2019 and they were skating by themselves. At that time, I didn’t really see anybody on skates. Now, because of social media, everyone’s more aware of the skate world.
I went to a rink in Brooklyn for a New Year’s Eve party. After that day I was like, I need a pair of skates. So I got my first pair of skates in 2020, literally right before lockdown. As soon as lockdown happened I thought, This is a great opportunity to learn.
Did you meet a lot of people in the skate community then?
Before the pandemic, I moved to Los Angeles for a little while. I would skate where I lived, but there were certain days I would go to Venice Beach. In the late ’70s and ’80s, skating was very popular in that area. There’s a great documentary, Roller Dreams, about skate culture at that time. It really shines a light on Black culture and how heavily it inspired skating overall. Skating was invented by a white man, but it didn’t have that quality as to where people were dancing on skates.
Recently it seems that roller-skating is just as big in New York City as it is in LA. Does it seem that way to you?
After I came back to New York and had these new skating skills, I started searching for skate communities. There is a great one in Central Park where skaters who started in the ’80s still skate.
They would tell me about Skate Key, which was a really popular skate place up in the Bronx. I wish it was still open, because right now in New York there are a lot of outdoor skate spots but not many indoor rinks.
What do you think of the ticketed rinks that exist today?
I like that there’s a community of people who gather together from near and far; those are cool meeting spots.
The difference being out in an open space is that I can have my own music, I can invite my friends and meet new people as well. It’s a great opportunity. I usually bring a speaker with me and I’ll just be blasting music for people. It’s never a bad vibe. Everyone gets so happy and excited when they see skates.
Butter Roll (@butterollnyc) is what Amy Collado calls a “skate brand and social enterprise.” It began as an Instagram account on which Collado posted vintage photos and music inspired by Ewen Spencer’s documentary Jam and Cheese, which follows roller skaters across London.
With help from the community, Collado opened The Shop, in Ridgewood, Queens, which sells skates, gear, clothing, merch and, courtesy of her partner’s High Water Music enterprise, cassettes and vinyl. Collado also hosts community skate events.
What was the goal for Butter Roll, and how did it become what it is today?
I always knew I wanted to do something with roller-skating. It's super close to my heart. Even though I didn't get to skate growing up, it was really embedded in our culture. My mom was a skater; it's where she blossomed into a butterfly.
I hosted my first ever skate event at Prospect Park for my 30th birthday. In 2017, I started The People’s Playlist online, where I invited folks to put together playlists of their favorite tunes they remembered from the skating rink or what they would play if they DJ’d a roller-skating event.
In 2019, I put a petition together to convince LeFrak in Brooklyn to let us host a monthly event. We had done our first two events there, but they’d never formally put us on the program. Another skater, a white woman, was gatekeeping and controlling who had access to doing those types of events; she didn’t want competition. Our petition worked and we got a summer residency in 2019. In 2020, I was like, I’m tired of asking these places for permission; I’m going to open my roller rink. That was always the goal.
I found a place in the Bronx in the last week of February 2020, and then the pandemic happened. I thought, Alright, I might not have a rink, but don’t people need skates? Why not start with a place where people can come in person, try on the skates and be introduced to skating? I really wanted to build a place that was centered more around the lifestyle of roller-skating than the actual sport.
It seems important to you to create space, especially for the BIPOC community. How does skating support that?
I think that skating doesn’t hold space for the community, I think the community creates space with roller-skating. People are what make culture, so what I like about skating—including skateboarding and blading—there’s rawness to it. We've got to make do with what we have. We’ve got to meet up in this tiny part of the park, but we’re going to make it work. If someone says, “Hey, this is not your turf, you’re not supposed to be here, this is not what this is meant for,” we’re prepared to deal with that.
With places like DiscOasis at Wollman Rink, it seems like there’s been this resurgence in skating, but skating has always been here. New Yorkers find the space because the spaces already exist.
Places like Wollman Rink are necessary parts of our experience. Granted, they might not be accessible to a lot of folks because of the prices. We don’t know if it’s going to come back next summer; this might literally just be a flash in the time. But we can tell our kids about this crazy experience with these big, huge mirror balls in the middle of Central Park; that’s really special for us to have.
You mentioned that roller-skating isn't necessarily an escape from what's going on in the world, it's sort of fueling your activism; politics still exist on the rink.
Absolutely. A lot of skaters tend to be women and gender nonconforming folks. And we still live in a world where men think they rule everything, including our bodies. Imagine being told politics are not part of this environment, yet we have guys touching us [in the rink]. We are people of color; existing is political, and doing anything outside of what white supremacy tells us is anti-white supremacy, so it becomes political.
At one of the first skate parties that I threw, I didn’t understand why the venue wanted to know exactly the type of people who were coming, and what type of music they were going to play. But there was a fear associated with certain styles of music. Too much hip-hop means too many Black people, which means we need extra security. I had to pay for extra security out of my pocket because we decided to play too much of this certain type of music.
Just existing is political, and I think Butter Roll has always named it. Even if we didn’t know the term “BIPOC,” it’s always been about being Black and Brown and from an inner city. It’s not surprising that with something like roller-skating we—women, gender nonconforming folks, folks who are just marginalized and aren’t accepted in other spaces—are going to be attracted to Butter Roll, because no one’s controlling it but us.
You might spot her somewhere in the City in her eye-catching attire, executing gravity-defying tricks. We met Newberg at one her favorite skate spots, Domino Park, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to learn about her life on wheels.
You worked for a company overseas in the corporate world. What came next?
I ran away to the circus. I started doing flying trapeze and that’s when I shattered my leg, during practice. I didn’t walk for a year and a half. I decided to swap the cast for roller skates in my act and made it a part of my character. Skating saved my life in so many ways and continues to.
How has the NYC skating community influenced you?
We used to gather on Wednesday nights at a place called BKLYN Skates. That’s really how I learned how to skate. From everyone who took time to skate with me in Central Park and at countless events, there was constant support.
For me, roller-skating has always been a celebration of music, creativity, community, self-expression. It’s something you do alone but also in the company of other people. During lockdown, it saved my mind.
Do you feel like public spaces have become more popular for skaters since official rinks had to close during the pandemic?
I think people went back to their neighborhood parks rather than gathering in a building. It was really nice to get back to being outdoors where you live, in a sense, and reconnecting with being outside. I was skating a lot in Brooklyn during quarantine.
Do you think skating in NYC is having a resurgence, or has it always been here?
Skating has been rooted in the Black community for so long. So much of its heritage continues to come from Black culture and Black community.
I think social media has been a huge part of it becoming even more popular today. Unfortunately, TikTok and Instagram shape our world. Every aspect of it. The way people look, the way people dress. I think roller-skating allows people a form of self-expression and creativity that’s unique to them.
What kind of gear would you recommend to first-time skaters?
These [points to skates] are the first pair of skates that were ever given to me. When I started skating, I asked someone who was a really good skater, “What skates do I need to learn on?” And they said, “It’s not the skates, it’s the skater. It’s not the equipment that you use. If you want to learn to skate, you’ll learn to skate using any skate you can afford.”
Skating is accessible. There is no monthly membership, right? Once you buy the equipment, you own it. So you can skate anywhere once you’ve made that investment. You’re going to fall and look at your skates a lot. You’re not going to want to put them on sometimes. You’re going to be so hurt and sore. You’re going to say, “What am I doing?” But if you like your skates and feel connected to them, you’ll want to put them back on and get back up.
Bree Person (@bree_person) grew up in the South Bronx and now lives in Brooklyn. A community organizer who works for a veterans’ hospital, Person comes to Under the ‘K’ Bridge Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on her days off to skateboard; that’s where we caught up with her.
Tell us about your experience finding a skate community within New York City.
Social media helps us to be more mobile when it comes to meeting in male-dominated skate parks. If you know about women skate collectives that are online you can reach out to them, or they’ll put on their Instagram story which park they are going to be at for the day.
Sometimes these collectives will post flyers for femmes and nonbinary skaters, and list the times and meeting place. That’s how you meet people, and once you get acclimated you just travel in packs.
Who is your pack?
Sk8 Babes is a great collective. Individuals I’ve met through Sk8 Babes will hit each other up to say, “We’re going to be at the ‘K’ Bridge Park.” And then you invite friends and they invite friends, and it just turns out to be a whole bunch of girls at the skatepark. There’s also Bronx Girls Skate. There are so many collectives.
Is this the main park you skate at?
Yes. I used to go to public parks a lot, and basketball courts. I came here for the ramp. A lot of the ramps that you see used to be at Martinez Park. They shut down the park for skaters and they had to move all of the ramps here. I’m not really good with flat ground tricks, but I can do ramps. So now this is my regular park.
But you’re still involved with your community from the South Bronx?
I do set design and installations. I went back to my neighborhood a couple of years ago and tried to go to as many public parks as I could. I was only able to hit nine of them, but I put up an installation and I had hula hoops and drums and jump ropes, and I had these two big slabs of plexiglass. I put vinyl records on it, I had a big speaker and invited everyone in the neighborhood to come play. I feel like the Bronx is lacking community centers, and sometimes you have to pay to use them.
The South Bronx is underfunded and underrepresented. You can’t ask people who live in the projects, who have low-wage jobs, to pay to have fun. When you go to some of the parks, there are no rims on the basketball courts or they only cater to young children. So what happens to everybody else? I wanted to create an environment where different people can interact. Instead of coming to the park for your kid, now you’re coming to the park for yourself, to listen to music, to have fun.