The twin concrete rinks tucked into a corner of Judkins Park just off 23rd Avenue are unassuming at best. A small plaque acknowledges Seattle as the birthplace of hardcourt bike polo—the rink hosted last year’s North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship—and the boards are a rotating street art canvas that changes by the week.
But for diehard rollerskaters suffering from pandemic restrictions on indoor skating and the newcomers fueling a surge of interest in the sport, this slab of cement is an oasis. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, weather permitting, Roll Around Seatown will be on hand with a speaker, a playlist, and plenty of tips to teach skaters the basics of skating backwards, crossing over, striding, pivots, spins, balancing, and rhythm skating.
While Roll Around Seatown has been plotting to cultivate an outdoor skate scene in Seattle since the end of summer 2019, the pandemic forced organizer Tiffany Mason’s hand. With Southgate Roller Rink shut down and the national skate jam circuit canceled, she kept skating in her Renton garage.
“You get lonely,” Mason told me on a recent weekday afternoon at Judkins, with a view of Mt. Rainier hovering in the background. “A big part of skating is community and fellowship.”
As Seattle parks began reopening in early May, Mason and fellow skaters trotted out the Roll Around Seatown banner they had printed last year and hung it up on the bike polo court. Word spread fast, as roller skating had become a hot quarantine hobby. Too hot, perhaps—like bikes, skates are on backorder worldwide.
Today, Mason estimates that 80% of the regulars at Judkins are “new faces” who were not a regular part of Seattle’s tightknit skating scene, one node in a much larger nationwide subculture with deep roots in Black communities from the civil rights era to influencing club culture. For an old-school skater like Mason, who has been skating since 1984, that has meant a lot of coaching. While a crush of newbies to their cherished hobby might turn off some seasoned pros, Mason happily obliges.
“That’s our secret sauce,” she said. “We include everyone so they feel like they have a seat at the table.”
The welcoming vibe was evident as the after-work crowd strolled in, some still wearing business casual with a pair of skates slung over their shoulder. For Oriana Estrada, who lives nearby in the Central District, the skate scene at Judkins has helped patch a temporary hole caused by the cruel whims of coronavirus.
“Century Ballroom was my life and with the pandemic I’m not able to dance,” said Estrada, a salsa and samba regular. “So I’m trying to accommodate new passions and become an average skate dancer.” Estrada grew up going to skate parties in Bellevue and Kent but never took skating seriously as an adult, though having a skate-inclined fiancé from Brooklyn has helped, as has the family-friendly nature of the sport—Estrada’s step-daughter was in tow.
As the skate scene flourished this summer, Roll Around Seatown upped the ante. They hosted a Juneteenth “Roll for Rights” as a skater’s form of peaceful protest, a Labor Day white party, and some autumn roller discos. On the first Saturday in October, DJs WD-40 and Sho Nuph held it down on the 1s and 2s with the kind of classic, sub-110 BPM music that makes grooving on eight wheels so addicting: R&B, funk, disco, old-school hip-hop, vintage pop. They’ll be at it again on Saturday, October 17 from 1-6 pm.
In a socially distanced summer, the two hard courts at Judkins became a hot commodity. With Seattle Parks and Recreation officially hands-off when it came to organized activities in parks this summer, Mason coordinated directly with the ringleaders of bike polo, futsal, and street hockey—the other sports that use the twin courts—to hash out days and times to avoid conflicts. It was, you might say, the “mundane iceberg” befitting of an anarchist jurisdiction.
With the ever-present skateboards and BMX crowd at the Judkins skatepark and breakdancers regularly turning up for evening sessions on the basketball courts, this corner of Judkins Park was one of the liveliest spots in town over the summer. As I headed to the I-90 Bike Tunnel en route to a dip in the lake, I found myself rubbernecking at sparkling roller discos and raucous futsal tournaments. What’s more, the new skate scene is rolling along in the shadow of the new Judkins Park Link station, which will make this vibrant urban park life even more accessible to the rest of Puget Sound.
For now, Mason would love some outdoor lights to extend the evening skate scene in the darker months—at peak summer, they were rolling until the last slivers of dusk at 9:45 pm—and a Honey Bucket or two. (Jésus Aguirre, are you listening?) She is also scouting possible covered locations for the inevitable rainy stretches that have already arrived. Long term, maybe funds for a proper outdoor skating rink could work its way into the next Seattle Park Levy? Or just do it the New York way and get some rich person to pay for it?
While Mason, who works for Boeing as a procurement agent, looks forward to Roll Around Seatown as a social outlet after a long day of WFH isolation, the salutary benefits are even more profound. “I’ve been told that I’m saving lives,” she said. “People have lost their jobs, can’t pay their mortgages, worried about family
members catching Covid. For however long you’re here, you can relieve that stress and have a little bit of self-care.”