Roller skating’s revival signals a fresh fight for public space

Roller skating’s revival signals a fresh fight for public space

Spin city — In the past year, roller skating has exploded. But with its new wave of popularity comes a fresh set of challenges for custodians of the scene – particularly those flying the flag for underrepresented groups.

A version of this story appears in Huck 74: The Action Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

A supermarket car park in Tottenham, north London, isn’t an obvious place to look for wild, creative displays of grace and joy. But at midnight on a cold September evening, that’s what I find. The shop, which sprawls over multiple storeys, is long since closed, and here on the covered ground floor, the space is empty but for a few scattered cars. Fluorescent lights cast their flat glare, and everywhere I look, there are roller skaters: gliding, spinning, and shooting around the space with the fast backwards ‘chopping’ style that’s a hallmark of London’s scene.

This isn’t the kind of crowd that goes to the odd roller disco as a novelty outing. There are some tentative beginners learning the ropes, but for the most part the skaters here are dedicated to pushing what’s possible on eight wheels, whether it’s getting lost in speed and motion or dancing with intricate footwork. Their moves keep pace with the shifting sounds of soca, hip hop, R&B, funk, grime and bashment, coming from a mini-fridge-sized Bluetooth speaker and bouncing off the bare concrete walls. I’m a confident roller skater on the streets and in skate parks, but here, all I want to do is sit on the floor and watch.

Amir Bacchus-Marquis, the 24-year-old skater who runs the night, is thoughtful about the role he plays here. He messages directions to attendees, brings down crates of water bottles to keep people hydrated, and makes sure he’s the last to leave – sometimes at dawn – to pick up any rubbish that’s been left behind. “It’s about making people happy,” he tells me. “A place where people can feel safe and express themselves.”

Earlier that day, we’d met up for the first time in nearby Seven Sisters, Amir instantly recognisable in his black ‘Skate Tingz’ hoodie – the name of his Instagram account and of the Friday night meet- up. We were there to discuss this year’s worldwide craze for the type of old-school quad roller skating (wheels in a square, not in a line) that we’re both obsessed with.

Amir and I come from different roller-skating traditions. He’s part of a vibrant, decades-old scene which involves overlapping dance styles known as ‘jam’ or ‘rhythm’ skating. I started out as a roller derby player before switching to skate parks (aka ‘aggressive’ or ‘ramp’ skating). What we have in common is that we both fell in love with the discipline a while ago – around 13 years ago for me, 17 for him – and neither of us have seen it go mainstream in quite this way.

The coronavirus pandemic led to an uptick in many kinds of individual outdoor sports, but what made the roller skating boom extra explosive was social media. At some point this spring, TikTok and Instagram became flooded with clips of conventionally attractive women skating backwards down sunlit streets, or dancing on wheels in their bedrooms. Fashion stores like Urban Outfitters started stocking pastel-coloured and holographic beginners’ skates. Double Threat, a quad shop in Kings Cross, has become “five times” as busy as it was before Covid hit, according to co-owner Kristen Lee. “Our suppliers began to run out of stock around May,” she says. “This has never happened before.”

In my patch of northeast London alone, I saw gatherings for beginner skaters belonging to marginalised groups (Fat Brats Roll and Queer Skate London) quickly gain momentum. Another meet-up called Quads Takeover London was co-founded by Baz (he prefers to withhold his full name) to diversify the ramp skating scene. “Being male, being Black,” he says, “I felt pretty alone.”

Meanwhile, ramp skaters like me were trying new styles. I’d run into some mesmerising dance skaters in late June at an impromptu street jam that was happening outside a skate park just as I was climbing over the fence after dark. It was through this crowd that I heard about Skate Tingz, and on a night too cold and wet to skate outside – despite the fact that I cannot dance on skates for shit – I decided to go and check it out. That was when I saw dozens of London’s best jam skaters in full flow, and although I didn’t stay long after midnight, I came back the following week caffeinated up and ready to skate all night.

But it didn’t happen. Fresh coronavirus restrictions had been introduced just a couple of days beforehand, limiting gatherings to no more than six people. The supermarket’s management had been trying to stop Amir from skating in their space for months, and had tried to get the police involved before, but now they had a fresh excuse. The first thing I saw when I arrived at the car park was a police car, and Amir, head down, listening as he was threatened with a £10,000 fine and jail time.

To understand what this community means to Amir, we need to rewind to the early 2000s. He’s eight years old, clinging to the walls, trying to stay upright on rental skates at an after school club in a Tottenham leisure centre. Not long before, his younger sister, who was born severely disabled – “she couldn’t eat, walk, move” – had just passed away. “We’ve always been a great unit,” he says of his family, “but there were a lot of bad vibes at the time. Things got real serious, and I didn’t really understand why.”

His mum had enrolled him in various activities – boxing, karate and muay thai – to keep him busy, but it was only when he put on skates, he says, that he felt truly connected to everything he was doing, regardless of what might have been going on in his life at the time. “All the things I was trying to figure out, none of it mattered. It’s akin to being high. It completely took over. It saved me from a different life.”

It wasn’t until four years later that Amir got his own skates. He would skate everywhere he could, despite the fact that he didn’t have anyone to skate with, and was bullied for it until he left school at 16. He was 18 when he finally heard about the Stratford shopping centre where skaters would congregate after hours, and then Fix8, the long-running jam skate night based out of a club near Wembley Stadium. “It was extremely emotional,” he says, recalling his first trip there. “I found this group of dedicated hardcore skaters and it blew my mind. I thought I was the only one doing it.”

By the time the pandemic hit this year, skating had become “everything” to him. He quit his job at the council in April so he could devote himself to skate coaching. Skating remains his therapy, as well as his livelihood. “When things get a bit overwhelming, I’ll put on my skates and go to the shops ten minutes away, and then I’ll be out for eight hours. Time stops. You’re floating. It’s a very spiritual thing.”

He had already been using the supermarket car park, which is near his home, to practice – his sessions sometimes stretching from midnight until 8am. During lockdown, with rinks and roller discos closed, he started spreading the word that he’d be there for a regular session on Friday nights.

“For the first month, it was just me. Once I got a speaker, it started to turn into a little vibe.” Soon, the meet-up started attracting revered jam skaters from all over the city. “Last weekend, I was crying on Saturday morning,” Amir says. “I was so overwhelmed by the olders that I look up to coming down to my thing.”

So it’s not surprising, as Amir is told by the police that we have to get out of the car park – and stay out – that he’s visibly trying to control his emotions. He tells the 20 or 30 skaters who have already arrived to move to a nearby backstreet, gathers everyone in a huddle, and says the night’s over, in its current incarnation, for good. It’s only when he starts wrapping up the speech, telling the skaters, how much he cares about them, that he has to stop to fight back tears.

The discussion that follows picks apart the inconsistencies of Covid regulations. The idea that the UK government would prioritise private businesses and the circulation of money ahead of community wellbeing and mental health isn’t a new or radical one. The lack of safe, free public space for people to gather in London has also been an issue for a long time.

But there’s a sense that the coronavirus rules are making the situation worse, and being used as another excuse to patrol the same groups – less affluent, non-white – who usually bear the brunt of overpolicing. “I can eat in a restaurant but I can’t go out and skate in an open environment?” Amir says. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” And now winter is setting in. Some roller rinks and indoor skate parks have reopened at reduced capacity, but who knows for how long. The influx of new skaters – ‘coronarollers,’ as some of the veterans call them – has put additional pressure on the venues that do exist. But skating has always been about carving out a space for joy, no matter what constraints are in place.

Jam skating blossomed in the U.S. even as Black skaters were pushed out of white-owned rinks, policed for the bagginess of their trousers and the size of their wheels, and shoved into the least popular time slots. The kind of aggressive roller skating I do was pioneered alongside skateboarding by people who reimagined empty pools and bland streetscapes as creative playgrounds.

“You have to be innovative,” Amir says. “If I keep myself in good spirits, I’ll figure it out. It’s like the most confident ‘winging it’ you can ever be, because you know you’re doing something you’re passionate about.”

He’s currently considering a crowdfunding campaign, figuring out if it’s possible to buy a space or piece of land. If there’s one thing that could help with this, it’s roller skating’s most recent wave of popularity: previously, he says, the community was too small to have much sway. “Now we’ve got legs.”

In the meantime, yes, it’s cold and the drizzle seems endless, but there’s still the odd beautiful evening, and scraps of overlooked flat ground to test out. A few days after Skate Tingz was shut down, a bunch of regulars reconvene on the roof of a different car park, a little further north. A peachy sunset is heightened by photogenic drifts of cloud, and as the sky darkens, a giant almost-full moon appears.

CCTV cameras are everywhere, and at first Amir’s jittery about turning his car stereo on for a soundtrack, but in the end he goes for it, music filling the empty space, tower block windows glittering in the cityscape around us. By the end of the night, everyone’s breathless, eyes shining.

For a moment, the idea of getting through this winter seems a little less daunting, and I think of something Amir said when we swapped stories of skating through the first lockdown, getting thrown out of spots and coming back ten minutes later. “People want to regulate us all the time, but you can’t regulate us. You can tell us to get out, but you can’t stop the flow.”

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