Roll On: Keeping the Spirit of Skating Alive in Brooklyn

By Hannah Bottum

Voices (in order of appearance):

Hannah Bottum, reporter and narrator

Michael McWhorter, skater

Nacim Valdes, skater

Phil Bascom, skater

Jay Jacobs, skate teacher, Brooklyn Skates

Donna Jacobsm, skate teacher, Brooklyn Skates

Ashley Crummey, rink owner and operator, Brooklyn Skates

Vincent Smith, skater

Ni Ho, skater

[Ambient noise: distant music, chatter]

HANNAH BOTTUM: It’s Wednesday night in Bedford-Stuyvesant. For folks in the know, that means skate night. Brooklyn Skates is a small space – it’s a Salvation Army gym by day. But a few nights a week, skaters come from across the city because it’s one of the last indoor roller rinks around.

MICHAEL MCWHORTER: Laughter. Well, I’ve been skating for close to 50 years.

NACIM VALDES: I started skating in 2017. Uh, after years, decades of not skating. I skated as a kid in the Bronx.

PHIL BASCOM: This is literally my first day here and my first day in skates.

HANNAH BOTTUM: At the peak of roller disco, there were dozens of rinks across the city. Now, there’s only a handful. A series of rink closures prompted skaters to found Brooklyn Skates. Somehow, this rink has survived – and thrived – despite the odds.

EDWARD “JAY” JACOBS: I’ve been skating every week. Never missed a week.

[Ambient noise fades]

HANNAH BOTTUM: That’s Edward “Jay” Jacobs, the skate teacher here. Born and raised in Queens, Jay has been skating for more than 45 years. He’s the kind of guy who greets everyone at the door, and then spends most of the night checking in to make sure everyone’s having fun. It makes sense that he’s a teacher. And he’s also graceful. He’s tall, athletic, and moves confidently around the rink. It’s clear that skating is something he’s been doing since his childhood.

JAY JACOBS: My mom taught me how to skate in this street. Metal skates metal wheels. You clamp them onto your sneakers. You skate, you thought every rock (chuckles). I don’t know what it was about roller skating, but I enjoyed it so much.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Skating was just a fun hobby for Jay growing up. Then, a new, indoor roller rink opened up.

[Ambient noise: the sound of plastic skate wheels touching down and then rolling]

JAY JACOBS: I used to think skating is just, you do whatever you put the skates on and, you know, whatever you can do. That’s, that’s what, you know, you just skate. There’s no rules or anything like that, until I went to a place called Empire, and then I realized there’s rules, whose hands on top. You gotta stay in step with the person. So knowing music, I figured it out – that they’re skating to the downbeat. Oh, you go left right to the down beat.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Empire, a now-defunct skating rink in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was one of the largest and most well-known rinks. Jay and other skates, who learned to skate outside, now had an enormous rink with lights, music, and wood floors to practice on.

[Music starts: “Groovy Baby,” by Jason Shaw, an upbeat, disco-sounding song]

HANNAH BOTTUM: The 1970’s and 1980’s were a heyday for skating. Many would say Empire was the center of it all. It had a large neon sign declaring “Birthplace of Roller Disco.”

JAY JACOBS: You ever heard of Bill Butler?

HANNAH BOTTUM: Bill Butler was a pioneering skater at the time, and supposedly invented roller disco as people know it today – at Empire.

JAY JACOBS: He really made skating popular.

HANNAH BOTTUM: But Jay remembers being even more impressed by one of Butler’s protege.

JAY JACOBS: Little Mike was under him. He taught little Mike, but little Mike learned so much more. He was excellent at performing. Very polished. You know, he’d wear a top hat and dress nice. He was the only skater that went to all the different states, and learned all of the styles – came back to New York. This guy was amazing. Like, you would walk into the rink, let’s say, maybe 30 years ago. And you’ll just see someone that could skate backwards good. But you know, individual skaters that could do one technique. But Little Mike could do everything. He could slide on his heels. He’d slide across the floor like this. Any way possible. ‘Cuz sliding is from the south. New Yorkers didn’t slide.

[Music fades: “Groovy Baby,” by Jason Shaw, an upbeat, disco-sounding song]

HANNAH BOTTUM: Jay learned from Little Mike, Bill Butler – and archival photos show even superstar Cher was an Empire regular.

[Music starts: “Tropical Contact,” Jason Shaw, a jazzy and smooth song]

HANNAH BOTTUM: But of all the skaters, Jay had his eye on someone else.

JAY JACOBS: When I met her, she was already a skater at Empire, and she was actually better than me.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Meet Donna. Her sisters ran the coat check at Empire, and they let her tag along on Saturdays. She absolutely loved it.

DONNA JACOBS: It was – oh my God. It was wild and crazy. I mean like everybody and their mother was there. It was all walks of life.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Including Jay.

DONNA JACOBS: I would come on a Saturday, so he didn’t know my name. So he would call me Saturday. So it was definitely on the Saturday.

DONNA JACOBS: But I didn’t have someone to constantly skate with. And I knew that he came a lot. So I was saying to myself, okay, good. I don’t have to worry about him, just

disappearing on me.

JAY JACOBS: We just kept skating, skating, skating.

DONNA JACOBS: Laughter. I said, you’re going to be my skating partner.

DONNA JACOBS: I can skate with him. And, you know, we can have fun, not even thinking of a relationship. No, it wasn’t even about that. It wasn’t even nowhere near about that. It was about having fun, learning with one another, seeing what we can learn, our potential and take it from there.

[Music fades: “Tropical Contact,” Jason Shaw, a jazzy and smooth song]

HANNAH BOTTUM: They even started to dress alike.

JAY JACOBS: We always match. Always. So we known for that.

DONNA JACOBS: We would, uh, talk, cause we would talk for hours and hours and hours until the daybreak, you know?

DONNA JACOBS: In that conversation, we would say, okay, what’d you think about whatever color?

JAY JACOBS: Like today she has on brown and pink and I just have brown on.

DONNA JACOBS: I think he looks nice in pink.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Every Saturday, Jay and Donna would meet up at Empire. They would skate for hours. Matching outfits, coordinated routines. And from this skating partnership, they developed a real relationship, too. They fell in love, they got married, and they continued to explore their shared love of skating.

JAY JACOBS: We would go on skate trips. Cause at the time there was no in…I don’t even know if there was internet. But I know we would sit down and put-get a map and we would pick a skating rink way upstate, or it could be three, four hours away and we would go stay in a hotel Friday, skate Saturday, Sunday, and come home Sunday night.

DONNA JACOBS: Jay was so inquisitive about the skating. I was like, you’re taking it so serious. It’s not that serious, but not knowing that he really was that serious! But I took it as recreation, you know, just fun. Then next thing you know, he was asking around, doing research. And for years, we were doing research.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Jay and Donna traveled and did research on skating across the country. It started as a way of developing their own skills. Now, it informs their teaching – they teach together at Brooklyn Skates. What they found is that skating styles do depend on geography.

JAY JACOBS: New York is more like, like, like – snaps twice – trying to groove to the, to that downbeat and going left, right to that. When you go to other places they’re doing like the opposite of what we do. And they really bug me out. Cause I’m saying to myself, like, like, you’ve gotta be kidding me? Like how is that possible? Like everything we’re not doing, they’re doing. Like I would never take my leg and just stick it way in the back and bend down. Like, like why would I do that?

HANNAH BOTTUM: That’s a dip. It’s where the skater lunges backwards and leans into it.

JAY JACOBS: But in other states, that’s where it came from. If you see that in New York, that didn’t come from New York.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Now, Jay says the lines are less clear. There are regional styles, for sure, but skate culture has changed a lot since the early days at Empire.

JAY JACOBS: So I think that the skating has grown, you know, it grew as far as like the, the skating, the techniques. There’s more people doing more. I think because we stuck with it.

DONNA JACOBS: We’re still learning. We still it’s like, you never finished learning. You always learning and you just try to add onto what you know, and just keep it moving.

HANNAH BOTTUM: And it hasn’t been easy. The 90’s were rough on rinks, but nothing compares to the early 2000’s, when Empire and other iconic rinks closed across New York. Rink owner Mr. Crummey says the economics just don’t work.

ASHLEY CRUMMEY: They closed because the cost, the insurance, renting them the buildings, and stuff like that. And the maintenance of the buildings. It’s not cheap.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Empire is now home to a storage facility.

ASHLEY CRUMMEY: After Empire skating rink closed, we didn’t have anywhere to go, except go to Jersey. So a bunch of our, you know, record skaters, they said, ‘well, what are we going to do?’

HANNAH BOTTUM: Mr. Crummey has worked at the Brooklyn Salvation Army for most of his life. When the rinks closed, he had an idea for his fellow skaters.

ASHLEY CRUMMEY: So I said, we have a gym. Why don’t we turn that into a skating room? So I asked the Pastor, and he said, if you will agree to run it, we could do it. So we started with a bunch of about 15 of us older folks just started in the gym, started skating.

[Ambient noise: distorted music, voices chatting]

HANNAH BOTTUM: So Brooklyn Skates was born. It’s a small rink, but its unique arrangement has allowed it to survive when others closed. The skaters who come here are a dedicated and tight-knit group. Some travel up to an hour – from Manhattan, from the Bronx – to come to the rink. They come all this way because skating is more than a sport. It’s friends, it’s family, and it’s a way of life.

Many of the skaters I speak with are in their sixties, including Vincent Smith. He really looks the part of seventies roller disco, wearing a red vest and matching flared pants.

[Ambient noise: music/beat comes through more clearly]

VINCENT SMITH: I have a move that it’s called a drop and it means that I drop on my hands. Okay. Well, okay. Hold it. Hold up second.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Right in front of me, Vince drops onto the ground, face first, into a push-up position.

[Ambient noise: slight clattering noise as Vince demonstrates the drop]


HANNAH BOTTUM: He pops right back up to continue our conversation.

VINCENT SMITH: So, you know, we have incredible people who do incredible, incredible – it’s New York.

[Ambient noise fades]

HANNAH BOTTUM: Brooklyn Skates faced another threat in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Jay and other skaters moved outside for a time, harkening back to their earliest days of skating. Donna and Jay were concerned about what it would mean for the rink.

DONNA JACOBS: I didn’t think that it was going to be a turnover like this. Cause at one time, I thought it was fizzling out, because all the skating was pretty much closed down. There’s not really too many skate rinks open. And I just thought it was kind of like, you know, kind of getting quiet, but then the pandemic came and then after the pandemic, it’s like a whole full house.

[Ambient noise fades in: distorted music, voices chatting]

JAY JACOBS: After the pandemic, we have to turn people away. Like Fridays is packed Wednesdays. My, 50, 60 people show up. I’m like, oh my God, what’s going on? We open up Friday. Everybody’s coming out Saturday. It’s amazing. Like, it’s amazing how the pandemic brought roller skating back.

HANNAH BOTTUM: As it turns out, the pandemic wasn’t a death knell for skating. Instead, it brought a bevy of new skaters to Brooklyn Skates.

JAY JACOBS: Prior to the pandemic here, it was skaters. This is one of those things where if you came here from the eight to midnight session, if you couldn’t skate, you might be intimidated because, because the skaters are skating fast and, and you don’t know what’s going on, you, you feel intimidated. Now, it seems like it’s more beginners.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Viral videos on Tik Tok and Instagram showing people skating casually and effortlessly down the street caused skates to sell out at the start of the pandemic.

NI HO (NH): I’m easily influenced and chronically online.

HANNAH BOTTUM: That’s Ni Ho. Like me and so many others during COVID, she watched a video online, and then found Brooklyn Skates.

NH: I really admire the Tik Tok girlies that can go down the street and look really pretty on roller skates. So I wanted to do that and feel graceful.

JAY JACOBS: I met a girl named Brittany, one of my students. So she was like, you gotta start a TikTok account.

HANNAH BOTTUM: Jay has started a TikTok account for Brooklyn Skates. He uses Instagram and Facebook, too. Jay doesn’t love social media. He says he prefers to live in the “real world.” But he still appreciates the role it has in getting people involved in skating and getting them to the rink. Now, he and Donna are teaching this new generation of skaters like Brittany.

JAY JACOBS: When she started, she could barely stand up. I had to hold her up. So I got a technique where, you know, me and my wife will be on both sides, if they need double support, and then we’ll hold you up. And then as you get better, we could feel the pressure where you’re getting more and more comfortable. So we can pretty much tell when it’s time for you to be on your own. And now she’s on her – pretty much on her own skating, and she can turn now. She can skate backwards.

HANNAH BOTTUM: While Jay and Donna love skating, this ability to teach is really what brings them joy.

JAY JACOBS: It means more to me to teach, to do the right thing. like I had a student today that didn’t have the money, so I just tell ’em it’s on me.

HANNAH BOTTUM: And they appreciate it even more after a year of skating in the streets because of the pandemic.

DONNA JACOBS: Something just been locked up inside of me, that’s been waiting to be unleashed for the longest (laughter) and it’s like, now I have the time to just explode and just be out there. Just share my knowledge and skating and sharing it with the students and being able to have them accomplish their goals and being able to reach their potential and see the difference.

This is, this is life to me. I breathe it, I sleep it, I eat it. You know, this is, this is me.

[Ambient noise fades]

[Music starts: “Tropical Contact,” Jason Shaw, a jazzy and smooth song]

HANNAH BOTTUM: Rink closures, a global pandemic – through it all, dedicated skaters like Jay and Donna are welcoming newcomers with open arms, sharing their love of skating and making sure it endures.

Music courtesy of Jason Shaw, via AudioNautix. Available at audionautix – A-U-D-I-O-N-A-U-T-I-X-DOT-C-O-M.

[Music fades: “Tropical Contact,” Jason Shaw, a jazzy and smooth song]