As roller skating picks up speed, finding dependable spaces no easy trick for Santa Cruz skaters

Roller skaters gather at Scotts Valley Skate Park.
The Santa Cruz Rollers’ meetup at the Scotts Valley Skatepark saw a colorful collection of quads.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The pandemic-driven surge in popularity has highlighted the lack of skating infrastructure in Santa Cruz County, something local groups — and a key ally in Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner — are working to change in a lasting way. A petition drive is gaining steam.

As the sun dropped low on the horizon, the Scotts Valley Skatepark bustled with activity. Amid the skateboarders, BMX bikers and the occasional high schooler on a scooter, Mitch Troung sat lacing up her roller skates.

Troung’s bright-green and lilac skates looked almost new. A combination of supply chain disruptions and an increased interest in outdoor sports since the beginning of the pandemic had made it difficult to buy skates until recently.

“You either got COVID, or you got the skating bug,” said Troung, who was there for the Santa Cruz Rollers’ Monday meetup. Clearly, the pandemic-fueled desire to be on eight wheels has rolled through Santa Cruz — since the group formed more than a year ago, it has hosted more than 150 events at a patchwork of sites across the county.

“I just wanted skate friends,” said Destiny Mattson, who founded the group, “and it blew up.”

Richard Humphrey, a longtime roller dance teacher and one of San Francisco’s Golden Rollers trio — a group that performed in the city in the 1970s and ‘80s and pioneered the roller dance phenomenon — told Lookout he believes social media allowed roller skating to reach a wider audience in recent years. “The skate scene now has spread like wildfire worldwide,” Humphrey said. “But the pandemic over the last two years, it opened the doors in a different way. That’s what really popularized it in a different way, but it was always popular.”

With the county lacking any dedicated public space for roller skating, the Santa Cruz Rollers have ventured far and wide to find places to skate together. In the past year, the group has met at skate parks, parking lots and tennis courts, and done group rides through neighborhoods. Some destinations, like the Westside section of the rail trail, have continued to be meeting spots; others, like a set of tennis courts in Capitola, have prompted a chilly reception.

Mitch Troung skates at Scotts Valley Skatepark
Mitch Troung at the Santa Cruz Rollers’ meetup at the Scotts Valley Skate Park.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What the Rollers want, for themselves and for roller skaters of all stripes, is a flat, smooth outdoor space, free and open to the public at all hours, safe from traffic and dedicated to skating. Mattson started a petition drive to build an outdoor skating plaza in Santa Cruz to meet this need.

The Santa Cruz Roller Palladium might be flat, but it’s indoors, has set hours and charges admission. A skating space the nonprofit 418 Project is building in the renovated Riverfront Theater, on Front Street in Santa Cruz, is also flat and safe from traffic, but it would be shared with other 418 Project events, would be open only certain times, might charge admission and is indoors.

Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner, herself an avid skater, sees the need for a dedicated outdoor venue, and said that while it is not a priority for the city council at large, it is a priority for her. She believes the solution lies in a multiuse approach to public space, and her office is researching a shared-court system that could make the most of existing infrastructure.

But an outdoor, public rink remains the skaters’ first choice, and that’s the goal of a petition drive Mattson started last fall.

Finding and keeping suitable locations has been a challenge.

Residents and law enforcement haven’t been the only ones stopping the Santa Cruz Rollers in their tracks. Where residents can play tennis for free any day of the week at courts across the county, for example, without public space dedicated to roller skating and rollerblading, the Rollers have had to be innovative and adapt to varying levels of acceptance from users of outdoor spaces, including skateboarders.

In September, the Capitola police forbade the Santa Cruz Rollers from using the courts at Jade Street Park after almost a year of meeting there for their Wednesday evening “queer-centered skate” event. Capitola Police Chief Andy Dally said the department responded after receiving complaints from local residents and did not issue any citations to the skaters.

That Wednesday evening meetup relocated to the Roller Palladium after the skaters got the boot at Jade Street. The rink is far from ideal, however. According to Jordan Berger, a regular at Santa Cruz Rollers meetups and a former Palladium employee, the roof leaks in the rain, and the resulting wet spots often lack appropriate signage.

A neon sign outside the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium of a roller skate with wings
A neon sign is illuminated outside the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium on a Wednesday evening.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“They even had a couple of fundraisers to fix the roof, but it hasn’t happened,” Berger said. Last year at the Santa Cruz Rollers’ winter formal event at the Palladium, she said, there were wet spots on the rink and a Rollers participant slipped and broke an ankle. A representative from the Palladium declined to comment on the condition of the building.

All these setbacks led to Mattson’s petition drive, which as of Tuesday had 411 signatures.

“So much of the roller skating scene is about roller dance, which is done on a flat, smooth surface, where we can all come together as a group and dance,” Mattson said.

The goal, and the challenges

The petition cites a number of relevant examples of outdoor rinks, including the Skatin’ Place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, an approximately 40-by-100-foot paved rink that sees a lot of use from roller disco enthusiasts. Mattson said she has her eye on a couple of underutilized lots on the Westside, including a parking lot on a parcel owned by UC Santa Cruz, an area Mattson said many already use to skate. She said she hasn’t yet engaged UCSC administrators about this lot. The project could be quite costly — San Francisco’s Skatin’ Place revamp cost $70,000 in the late 1980s, which translates to more than $170,000 today — but Mattson hopes to find a donor to fund the project once the group has a suitable location, and will plot next steps when the petition reaches 500 signatures.

I’m more roller boogie. This could be an alternative space with a roller disco and a DJ and the kind of skate culture that I seek out.

— Santa Cruz mayor and skating enthusiast Sonja Brunner, on the 418 Project’s space

The proposal to build an outdoor space for roller skating seems unlikely to become a reality anytime soon in a city with limited space and sky-high real estate and development costs, to say nothing of the many pressing issues competing for city council attention. Brunner is looking to existing infrastructure to check at least some of the boxes on the Rollers’ wishlist.

“We have basketball courts, tennis courts and outdoor areas that are cemented and would be great for outdoor roller skating,” Brunner told Lookout. “We should have places for people to enjoy it and not have to feel like they’re going to get kicked off the courts. So how can we make that happen? It’s not necessarily building something new, but looking at what we already have in place.”

Though it’s indoors, would be open only at designated times and might come with admission costs, the Rollers’ collaboration with the 418 Project could present another shared-space option. The nonprofit community center and dance studio has almost completed renovation of the main auditorium in its new location at the former Riverfront Theater. The venue will serve as a performance space, dance floor and roller rink, though organizers do not yet know how soon they’ll be open for roller events or how much they will charge to skate.

“We’re committed to being as quirky and affordable as ever, just more inclusive now, and more diverse, and roller dance is really the way to do that,” said 418 project executive director Laura Bishop. “There are other things but I mean, people are so excited [about roller dance].”

Humphrey, of San Francisco’s Golden Rollers, has also seen the trend toward roller dance in the past couple of years. “Before the pandemic, I probably had 10 or 12 people who would come to my classes,” he said. “Now, I’m averaging between 60 and 100 people every week, and they’re coming to dance.”

The 418’s new space has Brunner’s attention, too, with the mayor seeing an upgrade on the Palladium, which doesn’t currently allow DJs. “I’m more roller boogie,” Brunner said. “This could be an alternative space with a roller disco and a DJ and the kind of skate culture that I seek out.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner (center) skates at the 418 Project's space inside the former Riverfront Theater.
Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner (center) joins skaters at the 418 Project’s revamped space inside the former Riverfront Theater.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The individuals who came together to build the 418 Project’s space represent a variety of different groups, like the Santa Cruz Rollers and Santa Cruz Roller Derby.

“There’s room for all of us to do different things,” said Cass Powell — perhaps better known as Braids of Glory, a Santa Cruz Roller Derby moniker — who regularly hosts Santa Cruz Rollers meetups. “Every day of the week that we do Santa Cruz Rollers events are for a different niche of roller skating.”

Holding out hope

On a recent Wednesday night, the Rollers’ regular meetup at the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium was sparsely attended, but Jordan Berger and her sister, Clover, showed up among the more than 50 people circling the retro rink on quad skates and rollerblades. “We’ve been skating at the Palladium since 2014 when we moved here from Atlanta,” said Jordan.

Under the red, purple and green lights, some were making their first-ever rounds on eight wheels, clinging to the handrails like a lifeline. Little kids wore helmets and knee pads, high schoolers tumbled into each other laughing, pros skated backward, and a speedy rollerblader cut through the throng like a knife.

The two sisters love the Palladium despite the overdue maintenance. But still, they said they’re hoping for a permanent outdoor space for roller skating. “It would make it easier to hold community events,” said Clover.

Sisters Jordan (left) and Clover Berger at the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium
Sisters Jordan (left) and Clover Berger at the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium on a Wednesday evening.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the end, there might not be one single resolution to the Santa Cruz Rollers’ continued search for a permanent home, but rather a variety of solutions premised on multipurpose, shared-space models. For the time being, the Rollers continue to navigate public spaces where they can skate together, and look forward to a month of Pride skate events in June.

Humphrey, who lives in the East Bay, thinks a shared court system is a logical solution and would be a win-win for cities and skaters. And according to him, this isn’t just a passing fad: “If it stays like it is, it will be a healthy scene for a long time.”

The Santa Cruz Rollers continue to meet and skate together weekly; find information about their meetups on their Instagram page @santacruzrollers. The 418 Project plans to begin hosting roller dance events soon; check its website for the latest at the418project.org. The Santa Cruz Roller Palladium has open skating five days a week; find more at santacruzrollerpalladium.com.

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