The eulogy for roller skating has been written many times.
The death of disco in the late 1970s was supposed to kill roller rinks. The popularity of in-line skates in the late 1980s was reportedly sending quad skating to a permanent grave.
And then there was Kurt Cobain. Cal Skate of Rohnert Park owner Jean Saya says the rise of grunge and alt rock bands of his era caused a negative impact on the local skating business.
“We went through some time in the 1990s when the music that everyone wanted to listen to wasn’t very danceable,” says Saya, who has worked in roller rinks steadily since the 1970s. “It wasn’t a beat to move your body to. It was listening music, not dancing music.”
Through it all though, roller skating culture has survived in the Bay Area, and has even thrived. Saya’s rink, now run by her family and filled with danceable modern music again, is one of six from Sonoma County to Santa Cruz — not including pop-up rinks and outdoor public skating spaces.
Street skating is on the rise; roller skaters are an increasingly common sight at skateboard parks. And the Bay Area Derby, a nonprofit flat-track roller derby that highlights athleticism over theatrics, hosts its home championships at the Venue at the Palace of Fine Arts on Aug. 25.
Podcast: On the latest episode of “The Big Event,” Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub, education reporter Jill Tucker and food editor Paolo Lucchesi pay tribute to skating culture and the lost roller skating rinks of the Bay Area: www.sfchronicle.com/podcasts
David Miles Jr., who has watched the scene closely since he lobbied to preserve roller skating at Golden Gate Park in the 1980s, says the pastime is definitely on an upswing in popularity. And he laughs at anyone who thought it could ever become extinct.
“Some things don’t go away,” Miles says, from a bench at his home base Skatin’ Place near Sixth Avenue and Fulton Street in the park. “Hot dogs don’t go away. Bicycles don’t go away. Roller skating is a part of our culture, and I believe it always will be.”
Indeed, San Francisco has been a pioneer in roller skating since horses clogged down the city’s unpaved downtown streets. Skating in S.F. dates back to 1870, when the Union Hall on Howard Street became one of the first places in the country to feature roller skating.
While ice skating was popular for most of the early 1900s in the Bay Area, roller derby thrived in the second half of the century, with Leo Seltzer and his son Jerry creating the San Francisco Bay Bombers, including national stars Joanie Weston and Ann Calvello.
Skating exploded in Golden Gate Park in the 1970s. By 1980 there were a dozen places to rent skates around the park, and nearly 20 rinks in the Bay Area.
But property values, not lack of interest, have made it hard to support rinks. Cal Skate has remained open because Saya and her family are passionate about roller skating, taking over ownership and eventually buying their building.
“If anybody says ‘Roller skating is dying,’ it’s because the rinks close,” Saya says from her Rohnert Park rink, which is colorful and clean on the inside but currently getting a new roof. “This (rink) is a little over 25,000 square feet. The land has become so valuable for the ones that exist.”
Most of the remaining Bay Area rinks are far from the competitive real estate markets of San Francisco and Oakland, including Golden Skate in San Ramon, Paradise Skate Roller Rink in Antioch and the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium.
Others seek more creative solutions. Aloha Roller Rink, an homage to the original 1977 Aloha Roller Palace on Blossom Hill in San Jose that shuttered as San Jose Skate in 2014, continues to roll on with pop-ups on summer weekends, taking over an outdoor street hockey rink in San Jose’s Roosevelt Park. And five years ago, Miles and his wife, Rose, started the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco, in the old Sacred Heart Church on Fillmore Street.
But the future of skating may be on the streets. Lori Petrini, who skates with Bay Area Derby’s Berkeley Resistance and the All Stars team, skates as a form of travel, exercise and entertainment — as confirmed by her LUV2SK8 license plate.
“My friends and I will just put on our skates and skate down the street, or skate around Lake Merritt,” says Petrini, who goes by Eva Menace in the Derby world. “Sometimes we’ll skate from bar to bar. It just makes me feel so good and so free, and it’s a workout.”
Mary Smith, Kid Ace in skating circles, is a member of the Moxi Roller Skates team, a group based out of Long Beach. The Oakland resident’s Instagram account is filled with tricks and, currently, the results of a recent spill. (She’s smiling through a couple of colorful facial scrapes.)
“My first and foremost selling point for roller skating is: It is some of the best exercise you can get without knowing that you’re exercising,” says Smith, who is also a personal trainer. “It’s really easy to get going and then never want to stop.”
The easy assumption is that rising real estate prices in the Bay Area are killing roller skating. The legendary Redwood Roller Rink in Redwood City, open since 1952, closed last year. Cal Skate of Milpitas, a seemingly successful business run by a local family, closed in 2011 because the building was too expensive to repair.
But grassroots skating seems to be thriving. Skate Like a Girl S.F. has partnered with Bay Area Derby for Friday night all-ages lessons and skating in the Derby practice facility. Miles leads a weekly Friday night Midnight Rollers skate around city streets, and will set up a pop-up rink as part of a Fort Mason art installation for most of October.
And some roller skaters don’t rely on rinks at all. Smith’s Instagram shows bold skating moves, getting pulled by her dog near the beach, or about to plunge down the curved side of an empty swimming-pool-sized bowl.
“It’s just a matter of cruising round the city. You see something that inspired you, and you take a few risks,” Smith says. “You see a stair set and you want to jump it. … You see a curb and you want to slide it. If it happens, awesome. If not, you find another spot.”
And then there are the intangibles, which skaters say are the key to the sport’s continued survival. Petrini talks about skating in public, and being inspired by happy faces and supportive words from passersby.
“If you’ve never skated, you’re probably still scared, but once you come out and enjoy this, it’s like touching an electric wire,” Miles says. “You’re charged. You want to do more. And as more people get exposed, more people want to do it.”
Saya says she knows someone coming in her rink has returned after a long time away when they deeply inhale the roller rink smell, and their mood seems to change for the better.
“Skating has gone through many changes of popularity, but what really hasn’t changed is what skating does to you,” Saya says. “I can’t explain it. All I know is that when I put my skates on and other people do, they smile.”
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
Bay Area Derby: The Derby will end its 14th season at 5 p.m. Aug. 25, with a home doubleheader at the Venue at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (the building that used to host the Exploratorium). The Oakland Outlaws, Berkeley Resistance and San Francisco ShEvil Dead all will play. Admission is $20, and kids 7 and under are free. The Derby also has outreach programs for youth and other public events. More information and tickets at www.bayareaderby.com
Midnight Rollers: The Midnight Rollers meet at 8:45 p.m. Friday nights (weather permitting) in Ferry Plaza for a tour around San Francisco, moving through Pier 39, Chinatown, Fort Mason and Union Square. Midnight Rollers is for advanced skaters who have the skill to make quick stops. More information at www.cora.org
Skatin’ Place at Golden Gate Park: The Skatin’ Place was established by city leaders at the urging of local skaters as a dedicated spot for roller skaters to congregate, dance and practice tricks in Golden Gate Park. The well-paved spot open to the public every day, but the biggest party is on Sunday afternoons. More information at www.cora.org
Funside Fridays: Bay Area Derby and Skate Like a Girl host skating lessons and fun for girls and women (cisgender or trans) and gender-nonconforming people, using the three ramps in the B.A.D. practice facility. Cost is $15 with a lesson and $10 without. Skates are available to rent. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10. 2635 Peralta St., Oakland. More information at www.skatelikeagirl.com
Hunters Point Shoreline Park: NOW Hunters Point hosts community-building events in Hunters Point Shoreline Park, including a semi-regular Saturday Skate Groove sessions with free skate rentals, music and games. The next one is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11. More information at www.nowhunterspoint.org
Cal Skate Rohnert Park: 6100 Commerce Blvd., Rohnert Park. www.calskate.com
Church of 8 Wheels: 554 Fillmore St., S.F. www.churchof8wheels.com
Paradise Skate Roller Rink: 1201 W. 10th St., Antioch. www.paradiseskate.com
The Golden Skate: 2701 Hopper Drive, San Ramon. www.thegoldenskate.com
Santa Cruz Roller Palladium: 1606 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. www.santacruzrollerpalladium.com
Aloha Roller Rink: Roosevelt Park, 901 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose. https://aloharollerrink.com