‘SEE YOU ON THE WOOD’
The Last Adult Night at One of New York’s Last Roller Rinks
‘Now we have to figure out what we have to do to continue our passion, because we want our children to skate. They keep closing.’
The final Saturday night was sad the way a New Orleans funeral is sad. A stranger at the edge of the hardwood, beside the roller skaters pitched forward waiting to slip into traffic, could gaze into the center at the people sashaying under the lights and mirrors and not realize any of them were mourning.
“It’s almost like a death of a family member,” said Tanya Dean, 56, who had driven a half-hour from Queens for the final adult night at Hot Skates roller rink in Lynbrook on Long Island. “It’s death of a love, it’s death of a hobby, it’s death of a building. We scheduled our lives around Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Hot Skates for many years.”
She made smooth, buoyant strides around the floor in a black bodysuit festooned with silver sequins: somber, but celebratory.
With costs severely outgrowing its income, this family-owned business that once catered to neighborhood hockey teams but evolved into a mainstay of New York and New Jersey’s skating crowd closed at the end of March. It will become a CubeSmart storage facility.
“Having to find another career at 46 was not what I wanted, but we could not survive another summer,” said Jeff Bernstein, Hot Skates’ manager for the last 25 years and the son of its founders Stephen and Rochelle, who opened the rink in 1980. “It’s the rising cost of living here and the cost of doing business on Long Island.”
At the end, Bernstein’s monthly utility bills had reached as high as $22,000 in the summer, an indoor rink’s traditional slow season. He was paying $140,000 per year in property taxes—after he’d filed a grievance in the 1990s to reduce his annual assessment from $175,000.
“New York City keeps taxing the rinks out of business,” said Jim McMahon, executive director of Roller Skating Association International, a trade organization made up of mostly U.S.-based rink owners and skating equipment manufacturers.
The national trend of closing rinks has nearly halved his membership, from 1250 in the 1990s to 750 today.
“You see these big box stores come in and get all the tax breaks in the world. Roller rinks help keep kids off the streets and foster communities and they seldom get any kind of government help.”
(Video: Hundreds of skaters commuted to Lynbrook, Long Island from New York City and farther away to attend the last adult night at Hot Skates roller rink before it went out of business at the end of March. All videos and photos by James Thomas)
Hot Skates helped fill a void after the closings of three storied spaces that are especially dear to this community: the Skate Key, with two Bronx locations, the last of which closed in 2006; the Roxy in Manhattan, which closed in 2007; and Empire Roller Skating Center in Brooklyn which shut down a month later.
Local skaters coped by taking advantage of seasonal, open-air sessions during the warm months at places like Central Park, Brooklyn's Pier 2 and Prospect Park and Harlem's Riverbank Park or convening in a gymnasium in Bed-Stuy and other places that weren’t designed as rinks. Some had the wherewithal to commute farther away, to New York's remaining indoor rinks—Roller Jam at the southern edge of Staten Island and Hot Skates in the village of Lynbrook—or rinks in Newark or Seaford. They felt like their pursuit was endangered.
“People want to act like skating doesn’t exist, like we don’t exist,” said Angela Pinder, 53, a Hot Skates stalwart who spent most of this final Saturday night in her shoes, hugging friends and watching the action, too numb to roll. Pinder was pivotal in bringing the current crowd of regulars to Hot Skates by connecting its management to D.J.s from the shuttered rinks.
“Hot Skates came about at a crucial time when we lost these rinks and kind of left the skaters scrambling to go from rink to rink to skate wherever we could,” said D.J. Arson, 47, who served this evening’s music alongside DJ-D. “They took on an adult session, and ended up taking on quite a few adult sessions, which kind of brought the skating community back. For New York City, it brought it back home for us.”
In the vocabulary of roller skaters in big metropolitan areas, “adult night” often means a session full of experienced skaters moving to R&B, hip-hop and house music and a racially diverse crowd. Tonight, most of the skaters were black. Adult night more closely resembles a dance club than a rec center, wholesome but not innocent. As opposed to the pre-recorded mix or playlist you may hear during a matinee session, the music on adult night usually comes from a live D.J.
(Video: Michael Alexander, 24, dodges the flow of skaters while dancing in place — a technique called cutting traffic.)
Sessions like these were well-attended. But they weren’t profitable enough to support the rink for the whole week.
“It’s a ton of expense,” said Bernstein. “The disproportion between the revenue that’s taken in versus what’s going out has gone up at least 75 percent in 20 years.”
"Now we have to figure out what we have to do to continue our passion, because we want our children to skate,” said Michelle Moseley-Davis, 48, who drove from the Bronx with her husband Terry Davis to ride the floor at Hot Skates one last time. “There’s no idea if you’ll find a new place. They keep closing.”
Abdullah Rahman Hameed, having traveled two hours from New Jersey, spent nearly as much time in the lounge area reflecting with friends as he did on the maple. “It’s a bonding place, unlike any other place. It’s a place where everybody’s important.”
“To us that floor isn’t just a piece of wood,” said Pinder. “It’s a lot more. It holds our anger, it holds our happiness, it holds our memories, our birthdays, our marriages. That floor became our release.”
She went on: “What we say is ‘See you on the wood.’ We leave all our stresses on the wood. And we skate over those stresses and smooth them out until we feel balanced.”
(Video: During the slow set, Noel Haynes works with precision before yielding the circle.)
Hot Skates tapped into the experience of the beloved old stomping grounds partly by employing their old D.J.s: Julio from the Roxy; Big Bob, who was Empire’s resident for decades; and Arson, who curated Saturday nights at the Skate Key. Skaters trusted them to spin music into catharsis.
"Your inhibitions and your troubles melt away once you hit that floor with your eight wheels,” said James Stevenson, 56, who drove two hours from Hartford, Conn. for the occasion. “You’re in a euphoric state. You feed off the energy of the music and the energy of the people.”
In the vigorous, bouncy style of New York and New Jersey skating, that energy often concentrates in the middle of the floor, where a few skaters form a circle and take turns improvising in its center while the current of bodies flows around it. Saturday night, in the eye of this whirlpool and driven by Arson’s hip-hop mode, Terry Davis showed no inhibitions in a run that included slippery footwork, a split and the Harlem Shake.
(Video: On skates, Terry Davis uses movements he cultivated in capoeira and street dance.“I was sad the whole night,” he said. “But that song moved me, then the people moved me. The energy moved me up.”)
“It’s almost like the music talks to me. It makes me do things,” said Davis, 43. “Arson was giving me that Skate Key energy.”
A cluster of skaters formed around Edna Davoll, 82, dancing freestyle and then in a routine, beneath five shimmering disco balls. Among skaters, Edna is considered royalty, having frequented and lamented New York’s most popular rinks over the last 50 years. A video of her 81st birthday party at Hot Skates drew 2.6 million views on Facebook; she skated onto the set of Rachael Ray’s morning show for an interview in an episode that aired nationally in April. They call her Miss Edna out of respect, but the formality of the term belies her young spirit.
“It’s almost unbelievable how these rinks close right under your feet,” said Davoll.
“You celebrate because you had some good times. You leave with some good memories. But then again, you leave with a sad heart. Each time a venue closes, you lose some of your good friends.”
That night Bernstein strode the place in a light gray suit and turquoise tie, shaking hands, speaking in guests’ ears and encouraging skaters to dance with abandon. At the height of the evening, he grabbed the microphone, thanked the 765 skaters in attendance and extended the session until 3 a.m.
“We will keep skating alive one way or another,” he told the crowd, then worked his way off the floor through a gauntlet of hugs.
(Video: Jeff Bernstein drops the mic, literally.)
The music resumed and the whirlpool spun faster.
Halfway through the session, Arson stopped the music and called for a group picture. The house lights went up, cellphones came out and a crowd the size of a graduating class found positions on the floor. It felt more like an anniversary than an ending.
(Video: Following a group picture, the skaters honor Bernstein and Pinder for launching adult night.)
Just shy of 3 a.m. and sooner than anyone wanted, Arson announced the last song of the night and put on “We Are One” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. It’s groovy but sober and uplifting, a mid-tempo plea for people to realize their sameness and treat each other kindly. A slower song at the end of the session usually cues skaters to start packing up, but tonight there was still a critical mass of bodies in motion. When the song ended, people literally dragged their feet getting off the floor.
In the lounge, they posed for selfies and gave long, sweaty embraces. They exchanged phone numbers. They organized outings for what could be considered either a late dinner or an early breakfast.
Pinder sat in front of the lockers and stared at the empty floor through pooling eyes. With the lights off and the disco balls at rest, it resembled a still lake.
“Look at that maple floor. Look at how beautiful it looks. Regal.”
“They’ll rip it up and throw it away.”
The following Tuesday was sad the way a wake is sad. On his daughter’s birthday, Bernstein was dismantling the business his dad had built, taking apart lighting arrays and organizing them into lots to be auctioned off. He wore a dark gray hoodie and camouflage joggers. While lowering a disco ball from the ceiling, he sliced his hand on a shard of mirror.
“Watching other rinks fold—now watching my own rink fold—I think that the model of skating as it was can never be sustained,” he said. “And that’s why there’s no coincidence that a storage facility is buying this place. A storage facility bought Empire. A storage facility bought the Roxy.”
To be successful, Bernstein said, a rink can’t exist on its own but must be part of a multi-use entertainment complex like Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, which includes a gym, a bowling alley, event space, basketball courts, batting cages and an ice rink, but not one for roller skating.
This model has shown promise in other markets, said McMahon, including a rink he used to own in Danville, Ill. that continues to operate after 65 years.
"Roller skating draws X, then you add batting cages, laser tag, and now you have a bigger X. That’s how we survived.
"Of course in New York," McMahon continued, "that upfront cost will be exponentially more. You'd need millions to even consider it."
At the remaining rinks over the next few days, skaters reflected on their old hangout and discussed ways their spaces might be kept open.
Hameed was hopeful the following Sunday, skating at adult night at Newark’s Branch Brook Park, his home rink.
“I see our skate community growing,” said Hameed. “We might get our politicians interested and do something like what’s being done here at this park.” The rink at Branch Brook is funded by Essex County in New Jersey and managed by the United Skates of America franchise.
According to McMahon, another way states can help rinks is by reconsidering their liability, the idea of who's at fault when accidents happen. "There’s this perception from the outside that rinks are these dangerous places. Michigan is one of the first states in the nation that helps roller rinks," he said, referring to that state's so-called risk retention regulations that help it keep liability insurance costs down. "It puts more of the risk, rightfully, on the patron," he said.
"If you’re on a ski vacation, and you drop off the lift and run downhill into a tree, are you gonna sue the resort? No. You assume a certain responsibility."
At the United Skates rink in Seaford that Monday—another 15-minute drive past Hot Skates, coming from the city—Arson made banter to acknowledge the larger-than-usual crowd. "I'm seeing a lot of new faces for a Monday," he announced. "We know what that's about. R.I.P Hot Skates."
During Arson's slow set, Moseley-Davis took a rare exit from the floor and spoke passionately about economic collaboration.
“We support a lot of D.J.s. We love them to death. Wherever they go, we go,” she said. “If they all get together and get a loan—I’m talking about all the D.J.s—they could each have their own night, and we could have our own rink. We’d continue to support it because as a family, we want to keep it open. Could you imagine?”
(Video: The adult night skaters, seldom camera-shy, turn end-of-the-session goodbyes to each other into a farewell to the venue.)
Pinder still hasn’t skated on a Saturday night since Hot Skates closed. She’d considered visiting Roller Jam in Staten Island, one of the few indoor rinks in the region that hosts a Saturday adult night. “I’ll be honest. I don’t want to skate anymore. I feel like I’ve lost something.”
Nor has she conjured any feasible ideas for keeping rinks in business.
“At this point I don’t know,” she said.
“If I had the answer, it would be done.”
James Thomas is a skater from the west side of Detroit who taught a weekly kids' class at Northland Roller Rink. He'd like to increase the sense of newsworthiness around our cultural practices involving music and movement, and he's happy to live in New York where those practices are on display every day. He's currently a software developer on the Interactive News team at The New York Times. @nerdishtendency on Twitter and Instagram.