For 200-plus skaters in New York City, skating isn't just a throwback to the '90s
NEW YORK — Every week through the summer and into the fall, a group of inline skaters spreads out over the New York City streets like a giant, flashing amoeba.
Skaters share the road with cars, jump on and off sidewalks, and leap over utility hole covers. Drivers slow down as they're briefly engulfed. Pedestrians stare while the group flies past.
"It's the best moment of skating when you don't need to do nothing with your feet," said Alizarin Waissberg, 36, who wore LEDs and a bright purple helmet adorned with pink silicone spikes as she skated downhill through Central Park in mid-August. "Just let the incline take you further," she said. "It's great."
She was part of Wednesday Night Skate, an informal group in New York City that meets each week – weather permitting – between April and October. She and the other skaters are fueled not by '90s nostalgia, but by the balance between unchecked speed and staying upright.
Arnav Shah, 36, one of the group's main organizers, said they have met since the '90s, but attendance dropped to only a handful each week in the 2000s. People slowly started to return in the mid-2010s, and by 2019 the group's weekly average was around 50 people.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, though, he said the numbers accelerated quickly. This summer, he said an average of 200 to 300 people have been attending each week.
"This pandemic, people had nothing better to do, and they [were] like, 'You know what? That thing I've been putting off ... skating? That's what I'm going to do now,' " he said.
Many attendees said they learned to skate as a kid, then stopped for some years before picking it back up in recent years.
For 32-year-old Queens resident Devon Henry, skating isn't necessarily a throwback.
"I'm nostalgic for the '90s. But also, there's new things that are coming out," he said, comparing skating to video games like Nintendo's "The Legend of Zelda," which had versions when he was a kid but now have newer ones – like "Breath of the Wild," released in 2017.
"You know," he said, "the way that I skate now isn't the way that I was skating when I was a kid ... It's literally like 'Breath of the Wild' on my skates."
Others, like Richard Miller, who didn't want to share his exact age but is over 40, were adults when they skated in the '90s. He said the sport developed a bit of a reputation for being "nerdy," but it has felt different in the past two years or so.
"You pass people on the street [now] and they say, 'Oh, that's cool,' " he said.
The group spans ages and demographics, though it skews slightly male and many attendees tend to be in their 20s and 30s. They represent a relatively wide set of racial and national backgrounds – with often around a third coming from Latin America.
Shah said the group has been becoming more and more diverse over the past three years.
Thirty-year-old Edison Bautista – originally from Santander, Colombia, but living in Queens for the past two-and-a-half years – said inline skating has remained very popular in his home country since the '90s. He said he started skating as a kid, and found out about this group from a friend after he moved to the U.S. His favorite part about coming was the community, he said.
"Soaking up other cultures, meeting other people and [learning] how they think, the level of skating that they have, their skills – I can learn from them, and they can learn from me," he said in Spanish.
The group skates fast, usually covering 8 to 13 miles in around two hours. Each week, it takes a different route through the city, and Shah said the group's volunteers help keep skaters together and as safe as possible.
As the group sped through Manhattan, volunteer Michael Grebinsky, 59, wore a bright neon yellow shirt, a helmet with a flashlight attached, and a set of wireless speakers around his waist. As the 1982 single "Don't Give Up" by the group Stars on 45 played in the background, Grebinsky said that night, he was playing the role of the "sweep."
"I make sure that nobody [is] left behind," he explained.
If people can't keep up, he recommends they meet the rest of the group back in Union Square at the end.
"And people tend to listen," he said.
Naomi Adams, 30, kept her balance on a bumpy section of street in the East Village wearing quad skates – with wheels arranged in a square pattern. Most of the rest of the group wore inline skates – with wheels in a row – like the eponymous Rollerblades.
Adams said she had to pay close attention to the rough surface, but didn't have any problem keeping up. She found out about the group on Instagram, and it was her first night.
"I go to rinks, and I skate in the street, but never anything like this," she said. "I love the dodging in between cars, making sure we're jumping over the cracks and the hard streets of New York City, you know?"
As she spoke, another skater let out a loud "whoop" from the darkness behind her.
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