Most New Yorkers don't know about the Key. I wouldn't either if not for a pal's wife--an intrepid (is there any other kind?) Australian who decided roller-skating was the perfect activity for her husband's 29th birthday party. She looked the Key up in the phone book, paying no mind to its South Bronx address.

We arrived at 138th Street and Canal Place to find the area almost completely devoid of businesses, apartments, or foot traffic; a big sign near the Key's door warned about the use of video surveillance and metal detectors. Then I remembered what I'd heard about the place. A few weeks prior, I'd done a story on a couple of graffiti artists, one of whom had grown up in this neighborhood. The pair marveled at the fact that someone had opened a roller rink in the South Bronx, and discussed whether or not it was safe to go. They ultimately decided it probably wasn't.

Like an idiot, I relayed this account to my birthday party crew while we were standing outside the Key in the cold rain. "Well," I reasoned, still an idiot, "it's better if they have metal detectors and video surveillance than if they needed them and didn't!"

Intrepidness carried the day, thankfully, and before long we realized how stupid I'd been. The first thing you see, upon entering the Key and paying your $6 admission (it goes as high as $9 on Saturday nights, but admission always includes skate rental) is the beginners' rink. On my friend's birthday, this was populated by fuzzy pink- and blue-costumed characters, rollerboogying. It soon became clear that at the Key we'd stick out less for being the only white people in the house than for being the only patrons over 12 without kids in tow.

The Key just celebrated its third anniversary. In a phone interview, proud owner Ronald Letizia informed me their first day of business was March 27, 1996. The place looks and feels like the rinks we skated at as kids, during the late '70s roller disco craze. But the Key isn't some nostalgia-mongering theme-park--it's the real deal. The DJs play current hiphop and R&B, and no one skates ironically, like the way college kids "bowl" these days. Skating at the Key is like finding a beloved entertainment ritual of our youths has been continued, all along, by a few faithful; it's always been there to pick up and enjoy once again.

Letizia assures me that the feeling of continuity is no accident. In 1980 he and three partners opened a rink called the Skate Key, in the Pelham Park section of the Bronx. After 15 and a half years, they lost their lease--the building now houses a paint store. His partners retired, but Letizia, a 57-year-old Bronx native, decided to build anew.

"It was a parking garage," he says of the current Key (its name salutes the old Skate Key's clientele, who always called the place "the Key" for short). "It was standing, but in huge disrepair. There were holes in the roof, and you could see the sun coming in."

Was he apprehensive about moving into this neighborhood, made notorious by rappers Boogie Down Productions and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, not to mention its murder rate? "Yes I was," replies Letizia. "The crime rate was up. But I decided that a change would take place, and hoped we could ride with it."

Just before he began the renovation project, Letizia recalls, vandals broke into a neighboring construction site and tore apart an air conditioning unit, just to steal the copper cable inside the condenser. "If they sold it for the copper weight they might have got $200 for it--for $10,000 worth of damage," he says. "These are the things that got people fed up. [South Bronx residents] felt like they were living in prisons--everything had to be barred and alarmed. When you get that feeling you say, 'Hey, let's get the heck outta here.'"

But instead Letizia dug in, investing in steel cages to house his own a.c. units. "It's not like that here anymore," he adds. "The revitalization of the South Bronx has been magnificent." Letizia credits Borough President Fernando Ferrer for the upswing. "There's still a bad connotation," he notes. "You hear Jay Leno, from out in California, beating up on the South Bronx."

In hiphop culture, meanwhile, this neighborhood is known as the artistic engine that drove a musical revolution. To lace yourself into a pair of the Key's tan suede, orange-wheeled skates, clip your locker key to your jeans, and glide out onto the floor is to partake in the biggest extant vestige of that machine--the party that invented modern partying.

Letizia has also held some rap concerts at the Key. On one recent Saturday, the skating floor turned into a dance floor at one a.m., when hiphop giants Big Pun and Fat Joe performed to a crowd of about 800 from a makeshift stage near the DJ booth. "I've worked with promoters who say there are so many problems--in terms of the violence--that come with a hiphop show, they'd rather not get involved with it. They'd rather go with an adult R&B group," says Letizia. But to this Bronx boy, hiphop's air of menace is simply "a kid thing."

"We talk about kids, and this ethnic group and that ethnic group and kids today, but I'll tell you, when I was a kid--I grew up in the '50s--there was as much crap going on then as there is today. There were fights at the skating rink on Friday nights, y'know, 'You talked to my girl.' It was no different! The only difference now is the streets are tougher and the weaponry is more sophisticated."

* * *

The Key is a short walk from the Grand Concourse subway stop. Phone number is 718-401-0700.