LowerManhattanite: "Fall Of The Rolling Empire"
Rock, Skate...Roll, Bounce-d
(Photo Credit: Kelly Shimoda for The New York Times)
Thanks to LowerManhattanite for this great post - part 1 of 4 on how cities change
The weekends are "kids time" for me. Work and school exhausts us during the weekdays, and the trek in from Jersey takes too long for Monday through Thursday to be worth a damn cool-out wise.
So, we cherish those weekends. We hit the parks--or museums. Go on dad-centric walkabouts. Throw a ball around. Stroll the Brooklyn Bridge and Promenade--my son's favorite, or...my daughter's favorite--roller skating at the Empire Roller Rink in Crown Heights, Brooklyn when we can get a chance.
Alas, the latter one? We won't ever be doing again, as the Empire--the reknowned birthplace of Roller Disco-- closed its doors for the last time last Sunday night.
We found out about it in a really f*cked up way. Packing up for the drive back to NJ, I had the news on for the traffic report, and while waiting for it, they did a feature on the fabled Empire's closing for good that night. My daughter, my wonderful, teenageed drama queen was to say the least--beside herself upon hearing the report.
(With as much hormone-torqued horror as a thirteen-year-old can muster) "How can they do that, dad?! I love that place!"
"I know. I know."
"I met so many friends there! Alexis, Sarah, Sharif--"
"Honey, I don't know what to tell you..."
"We had my 10th Birthday party there--and my 11th--remember?"
I'd actually forgotten about that--smushing the two parties into one in my crazyquilt mind. "Yeah...we did." The first party three years ago was when she'd first experienced the legendary place--and gotten hooked. We'd been back maybe fifteen time since--five, six times a year, often with a bunch of girls she queen-beed around with. They'd skate, and whoop, and sweat. Scarf a pizza and a lemonade, and skate some more--til' their clothes and hair were loose and floppy from exertion--all to the beat of Chic, LTD and Sister Sledge--with a little Jay-Z and Gwen Stefani thrown in to keep the kiddies hyped. They weren't no Hollaback Girls, but they sure as hell were "Skate-around" ones.
She had a ball there. It was our place, if you will. Father and daughter specifically, as my son wasn't into it quite as much--but again, the news hit hard. The Empire Roller Disco...was gone. So, of course she asked me where she could go instead, and as I was figuring out how to say it, the news brought a sad answer, noting that the Empire was the last indoor roller rink in the city. The last one. The news pointed out how Manhattan's latter-day classic Roxy had shuttered a couple of weeks ago, and the venerable Skate Key Rink--of Wonderama fame-- in the Bronx had closed in January. Just like that--all gone.
She looked at me, my daughter did, with a frown that could drag a sunrise down. We walked down the steps to the car.
"Where are we supposed to go now?", she practically moaned.
The Empire, you see, is (was) located on Empire Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare knifing through the heart Crown Heights. It used to be a parking garage for spectators at Dodger Games at the once-nearby Ebbets Field. After becoming a roller rink, it was the western point of a triangle of serious central Brooklyn fun, with The Dodgers' Ebbets forming the northern point about a thousand feet away, and the funky, classic, old Bedford Bowl bowling alley about the same distance south. The Dodgers left in '57. The Bedford Bowl closed in '03 when it was torn down to make room for CUNY's Medgar Evers annex. The Empire was all that remained--the birthplace of Roller Disco. Cher, Ben Vereen, Bianca Jagger, members of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stephanie Mills and damn near anybody of merit who haunted a club in the city's Halcyon years rolled a ball-bearing or two there. It was the happening inner-city spot, replete with DJ's and legendary local Roller Disco Kings and Queens. Oh, I know there's the little skate circle in Central Park where the old heads still go 'round. But it's exclusive, small, and tourist bait. So the last bastion of real old school fun for the kids was fading into memory.
"Where are we supposed to go now?" Her words hung with a heavier weight now as my thoughts moved from my daughter's discontent to what it meant for others. My nom de plume notwithstanding (I lived in Lower Manhattan for a good, long while, and spend most of my time there working) , I presently live in Brooklyn, and drove past the Empire several times a week, generally at night--and there was always a line streaming out of the place. Either people waiting to get in on the session change, or a slew of folks pouring out at night's end--cars and SUV's beeping as the amped-up crowd spilled into the street, finding their sore-legged ways home. The place was a mecca, an agora--just about the last place in the borough of 2.3 million where kids could go and enjoy themselves. There's still Coney, way to the south, but for year-round inexpensive fun? indoor? Physical? A place that ain't a God-awful calorie-slash-Benjamin trap like the execrable Chuck E. Cheese?
The Empire was it.
"What's the big f*cking deal? It was a roller rink!", you'd be justified in thinking.
Well...it was more than that.
There was a time in this city--and many others--where young people could have a good time fairly inexpensively. They could shake their *sses at city-supervised Block Parties, where Local D.J.'s--some who would later become famous on record-- would spin, off the power of a jacked-into street light. You had JazzMobile--when it actually was still a mobile cultural delivery system--roaming every borough, bringing the music of Ray Barretto, Randy Weston, Jean-Luc Ponty--and one memorable summer, the great Illinois Jacquet and his Band to the hood, for free.. There were Community Centers built into the ground floors of housing projects, where kids could perform plays, and musicals--attend art classes and the ilk. All manner of stimulating distraction for the city's kids. But...one by one, these things died on the vine, starting in the mid-seventies during the "Ford To NY--Drop Dead" years. Slowly but surely, we lost it all...and then as these culturally abandoned kids began to haunt the devils workshop that idle minds and bodies always usher them to, we--and by we, I mean adults--people I can now identify with these many years hence--hypocritically started ripping these kids. "We" took all the fun sh*t we took for granted away from 'em, and now have the gall to go off on 'em for being aimless, lazy, out of shape and do-nothings.
You see...I was one of those kids who experienced that fun stuff twenty-five-thrity years ago--and saw it all fall away like dried leaves on a dying plant--so I know what was, then, and what ain't, now. Got older. Worked at places like the Jamaica Arts Center in Southeastern Queens. Taught kids radio production in free classes at a NY public radio station. And always--we always found ourselves turning away scores of kids we didn't have room for. Mothers, fathers, pleading--trying to slip you a twenty--a fifty--"Please...just get my baby in--he/she needs it...you don't understand...the streets..."
But I did understand the streets. All too well. But we couldn't take the money. Couldn't take the child. Finite resources. Something had to give. And sadly, that something was generally too many kids' chance to enjoy themselves in a safe environment. Now, I have kids. And when they're in town, there are so few places to take 'em. One great place fewer, now.
When my brothers and sisters talk about the stuff we used to do in the city, all of our kids look at us like we're describing f*cking Oz. Some sort of fantasy-land they can't imagine really existed. Because for them--it might as well be. :(
Flash forward a few hours later that Sunday evening. I'd dropped the kids off and come back home, taking some "me" time to get some exercise, walking a few miles. Walking east on Eastern Parkway I was startled by a pack of about nine boys, tear-*ssing out the door of a large apartment building. They were whooping and laughing, dragging a portable basketball hoop and backboard out the door, and up the sidewalk. It was about six or so that evening and the boys had evidently been inside much of that beautiful day. As they rushed by, I noticed something--of the nine of 'em, about half, maybe more than half--were overweight. Not your typical lanky B-ballers, but sloppy, out-of-shape teenagers. It struck me, because I remember in my youth there was generally one heavy kid to a bunch. Now, the heavy kids were the bunch. What were they doing inside all damned day?
Playing video games. Eating. Watching TV. Eating. And playing video games, pretty much.
I imagine the local parks was full-up. On a day like that one, and with the kids having no place else to go in the neighborhood it was probably next to impossible to get a spot to play a game at the ill-maintained playground. So the boys all stayed inside. And ate. And manically worked their thumb joints into bone-on-bone arthritis playing virtual sports.
Veritable Kings of Madden '07...and most of 'em built just like the sloppy broadcaster.
"On a day like that one, and with the kids having no place else to go in the neighborhood. " And my mind went back to the closing Empire. Sad.
Flash forward to this weekend--Friday, the 27th. I'm driving past the Empire to a cool-out spot I like to decompress from the week at. Coming up on it, the Empire looked the same. I saw a couple of guys standing at the door. Sh*t! Maybe...it's a reprieve!--and then, I notice the dumpster--full of long-ago painted rails and ancient lockers. Piled high with old light fixtures and Goddamnit, the large, busted disco ball. The f*cking disco ball, man! I slowed, and looked in past the swung open doors and saw the workmen in coveralls and masks, ripping the entrails of the place out, putting it in carts and pushing them out to--the dumpster.
I averted my eyes and quickly turned the car right, onto Washington Ave, regretting having cast that glance. And as I rolled down Washington, I saw a clump of boys standing near the open-air cutaway for the D Train. They looked around for a second--and then went back to business, shooting "Cee-lo". Dice, up against the trestle's wall.
I know the Empire had its problems. Five-O was there all the time. But what do you expect when you take EVERY other place away from young people--and effectively herd them ALL to one relatively smallish venue? Sh*t happens. But for all that sh*t, there was a lot of fun there, too. Kids primping and styling for a night of heart-pumping excitement among their peers. The stuff you saw in movies like "Roll Bounce" and "ATL" --that raucous, energetic fun in the skate clubs was real. The girls looking fly as they glided past--the boys looking tough and sleek as they whipped by. Music thumping, smiles, squeals and waves--the "clack-clack-clack--uh-OH!" of a neophyte's skates coming from under him as he went down on his *ss to the laughter of friends. And then up again--back with the throng around the circuit--because dammit, you can't stop! You can't just stop!. A row of girls pumping fists as McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" filled the warm-from-exerting-bodies air. A wall of kids from a birthday party in the back rushing the floor after a mini-pizza and hot dog break. And in twenty five minutes of non-stop skating, that dog and pizza slice has melted off 'em. Tight Apple Bottoms jeans and already loose white tees now looser still from all that skating.
Vaughn Mason's "Rock, Skate, Roll...Bounce" comes on and then the rink floor is full as everybody's singing along to the Roller Disco anthem. An older dude--fifty maybe--effortlessly drifts by, backwards, in his knee-length "Rerun" overalls and high-ringed tube socks. Custom burgundy skates. And a loud "fweeeet!" on his chrome disco whistle on the "4" beat. His eyes look closed, but he swoops through the crowd--backwards and effortlessly, as he bounces to the beat. Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love" mixes in and there's a collective "whoooooooooo!" from the swirling mass. The disco ball catches the a moving light, and peppers the walls with pink and green optic confetti and sh*t...it's beautiful.
And now...it's in the dumpster. With the lockers. And the rails. And a sh*tload of memories and fun that'll never be had by kids in this town.
Cities change. Neighborhoods too. We all know that. But it doesn't happen accidentally. People...societies make conscious choices that are too often penny-wise and pound foolish. Pragmatic, short-term grabs at profit and such. See, It's easy...too easy to f*ck up a city for its residents. Read Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" , and then just as powerful, Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" to see the numerous, stupid ways how. One way cited in both books, is to effectively turn a city against its citizens. Willfully, brusquely making it unfriendly to its residents, while tailoring it for transients--visitors and tourists. Look at all the new hotels all over the place--Brooklyn largely, with the new stadium coming in thanks to government-greased largesse. All while driving a historic, and community-necessary venue--a seemingly simple roller rink out of business. How? By banning its lucrative "Teen Night" because it was 'just too much trouble to police', thus rendering the place vulnerable to a mortally-wounding insurance rate skyrocket.
Progress. Big city style.
You want better for your kids than you had. But in the big city, you don't get much help. Every extra something, every available buck goes towards drying up any decent outlet kids can have...and what do you get? Idle kids with no place to go. What can possibly go wrong with that?
My children came over on Saturday. The weather got crappy. Too bad Roll Bounce or ATL wasn't on TV. Or something like that.
Tales of a Changing New York: Pt. 1 of 4
- posted by LowerManhattanite
Labels: disco, New York city, skating, urban planning