For Many Black Southern Californians, Roller Skating Is A Refuge Worth Fighting For

(Photo by Christopher Vanderwal/Courtesy of HBO)

For some, roller skating may bring to mind preteen birthday parties or the sun-soaked boardwalk of Venice, but for many black Americans, skating has long provided a refuge and a means of expression.

That's the focus of a new documentary from HBO, which shines a light on African American roller skating culture and the last stands of those trying to keep it alive. United Skates, co-directed by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, showcases the connections between black communities and roller skating, including here in Los Angeles.

Skating in L.A. goes back to the '50s and '60s with a complicated history of segregated nights coded as "adults night" or "hip-hop nights" in later years. One of the skaters profiled in the film, Phelicia Wright, has deep ties with the local culture — her mother was a DJ in roller rinks in Hollywood and she grew up skating all over SoCal.

In the film, Wright guides viewers through L.A., recounting the touchstones for the area — including Skate Depot of Cerritos and World on Wheels Wheels of Midtown.

Wright also chronicles the significance of rinks as a key incubator for emerging black music.

SKATING'S ROLE IN EARLY HIP HOP

In the early days of hip hop, rinks provided a space for artists that found it hard to showcase their talent. The ties between skating rinks and hip hop were strong especially when the music scene was first blossoming.

Before the rest of the world knew who they were, the pioneers of rap, including Dr. Dre, Queen Latifa, and N.W.A., got their starts performing in rinks, Skateland, a well-known rink in Northridge, was the venue for a memorable N.W.A performance later depicted in the biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Wright remembers artists cutting their teeth in the venues.

"On Friday nights, World on Wheels would allow skating and dancing on the rink floor and local hip hop station KDAY would give a stage for acts like Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J... so many artists," she told KPCC's Take Two.

Wright added that the environment was so pivotal for black youth and music at the time, rivals L.A. gangs — the Westside Bloods and the South L.A. and coastal Crips — called truces for skate venues.

STYLE WITH SUBSTANCE

But aside from wearable fashion, skaters across the country apply a regional style to how they skate. New York, Chicago, and Atlanta all have signature moves on the floor, like people chains, sliding and death-defying drops while skating. These jaw-dropping moves are a city's brand and a way to articulate each particular communities contribute to the soul of black skating.

But in L.A., the presence of style and customization takes center stage. Local skaters made a particular mark with creating a sense of style and pageantry on the rink. In true L.A. fashion, street style is king. So African Americans took this concept and applied it to their skate game as well.

Wright recalls seeing "Timberland boots, Chucks... I wear a Stacy Adams men's boot, like the one you wear to church."

"It's anything you can put wheels on, but it's necessary to work your street school game into it as well," she said.

THE IMPACT OF SHUTTERED ROLLER RINKS

But more recently, rinks across the U.S. are closing at a fever pitch — especially ones that served black communities. Jerry Curran, the former owner of Skate Depot featured in the film, said more is at risk.

"In the urban areas, the land values have gotten so high that people sell the rink or don't renew the lease," he said. "The cities and municipalities want a Home Depot that is going to create hundreds and thousands of dollars in sales tax. They are not here to serve the public any longer. It's all about money now."

Wright remembers the closing of Skate Depot and it impacts on her family.

"It was a bad night," she said. "Young people around me asking me... 'what are we going to do?' It broke my heart. There is no reason to close the rinks... we didn't need another Saks on Fifth in that community."

"Why can't we just keep the rink to have a place to have fun?"

The film hopes to go beyond serving as a historical visual record of these communities and instill hope to keep the tradition alive. Wright hopes to open her own skate rink under a nonprofit model to maintain a community space for black youths, including her own children, possibly in Midtown or in the Valley.

"Skaters should own the rinks," she said. "They understand the culture and what is needed for these rinks to stay alive. They are invested more than anyone."

United Skates is available now on HBO's streaming services.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.