It may be the only time I'm crying on skates, not smiling. On June 23rd, the last remaining roller rink in the heart of the city, World on Wheels, will host its final "roll," after more than 30 years of service. The news hit the skate scene a few weeks ago and spread from phone to phone like a hopping wildfire. I was at lunch with a friend at work when I got the text that said, WOW is closing soon. I paused in shock before revealing the tragic news to my lunch date. From my reaction he said he thought somebody had died—when he heard the truth of it, he didn't seem very moved.
What he couldn't understand is, the closing World on Wheels is a death. Not so much for myself but for the community of skaters in the midtown neighborhood who have grown up there. Skate dancing is a hobby for me—a really fun hobby that I can't live without—but it's a way of life for the old-school skaters I've come to know. Ronnie Vines, who was a featured roller skater in the 1979 Roller Boogie musical with Linda Blair, has been skating for 40 years, half of which he’s spent at World on Wheels. He walks with a cane now but still nudges on his quads for a good roll. He said about the rink, "This is the love of my life."
The low-key building that houses the roller rink (along with a bowling alley, retro diner and bar) is now owned by the AMF bowling company. Its doors first opened in 1961, but it wasn't until 20 years later that a second set of bowling lanes was transformed into a smooth wood floor, and World on Wheels was born. The complex is located where San Vicente and Venice Boulevards intersect, sandwiched between Lowe's, Orchard Supply Hardware, Starbucks and other big businesses. AMF can't afford the rising rent for the land. The staff and regulars are outraged, doing what they can to save the landmark. They've met with officials at City Hall and are collecting signatures.
When I talked with various people around the rink about the closing, many of them expressed concern for the kids of the neighborhood. World on Wheels is a safe haven from drugs and gangs in the predominantly black, low-income area. The rink is a community-gathering place, they argued, that makes up for the lack of parks.
"When we put our skates on, we are one big family," said Terry Lewis, who is active in the campaign to save the rink. She said skating can be a much-needed stress relief for people of all types and ages, and the rink is a place where troubles are checked at the door. "No matter what tragedy befalls me, I put on my skates and get in that zone," she said. Terry seemed heavy out on her skates that night, lacking the usual bounce to her roll.
Whitney and her mentor, Nelson
I first fell in love with skating when I was ten. My sister and I would skate all around the empty streets in our suburban town in northern California, wearing those wobbly blue skates with the red and white stripes, but it wasn't until five years ago that I started to really get down and jam on wheels. It was around that time that I met Nelson Bracamonte, another old-school skater, on the set of Cold Case. We were extras for an episode about a 1970s murder of a roller disco girl. I asked if he could teach me his hip-hop-like moves, and we soon began weekly lessons for $20 an hour. At that time, we were skating at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale. He drilled me again and again until my "crazy legs" had a deep bounce and were raised up on my toes. Six months later, he said he was having fun and wouldn't take my money any more. We were skate buddies.
Nelson and his girlfriend Charlie Johnson, whom he met skating in the 80s, would tell me about a magical place called World on Wheels, where everybody in the rink danced and the music was the off the hook. I was intimidated to go at first. I'm white and most of the regulars at World on Wheels are black. But before long, I merged into the sea of bobbing skaters and knew I was forever hooked. The whole place bounces to the same rhythm connected by waves of R&B. Below the music is the whirring of wheels sliding on the perfectly gritty floor. Skate dancing is more than just skating plus dancing. A third skate-dancing quality emerges, which feels sort of like flying.
If there is anybody that embodies the joy of skating, it is Nelson. He started skating when he moved to the United States from El Salvador, right around the time World on Wheels opened, and never stopped. Back then he used to wear tight silver pants to the rink, but now he favors a t-shirt and cargo pants along with his gold roller skate necklace and belt buckle. Nelson skates five or six days a week, be it in a rink or at Venice Beach. He moved to midtown L.A. just to be near World on Wheels. Nelson's black leather skates are a part of his being: when they hit the floor, it is as if his wings spread open and he is free. He remembers the day World on Wheels opened. "Skaters were all over the place up and down the streets outside the place," he said.
Most of our troupe will survive to roll another day elsewhere around L.A. We may go back to Monday nights at Moonlight in Glendale, but the regulars have been annoyed about the not-so-funky music. Skate Depot in Cerritos is a hopping spot, but takes trekking across multiple freeways to get there.
A skater friend Pamela Carey said she's going to kick one of her kids out of their room to turn it into a skate dance floor (a lot of the moves we do don't require much space). At first I thought she was kidding, but then she asked for my number to set something up. My good friend Amy Mainzer and I will continue to skate in our homes too, on the kitchen linoleum and wood floors. After meeting Nelson, I converted Amy into a skate fanatic. We even skate danced in two talent shows sponsored by our work, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, dressed appropriately in Star Trek uniforms, and later as twin robotic spacecraft that orbited our moon.
The real tragedy in the closing of World on Wheels is the loss of a place for people to gather and be active in the middle of L.A. Likely replacements are chain restaurants like McDonald's or another mega stack of condos. "We've got enough shops already," said Lori Williams, a long-time skater at the roller rink. "We don't need anything fancy. We just want to skate."