NYC’s inline skating community gears up for biggest event of the year

Inline skaters unite in New York City. 
Inline skaters unite in New York City.  Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

“Skaters up!” It’s a Wednesday night and nearly two dozen inline skaters are gliding away from Union Square Park, ushered by one of five leaders standing out in bright green tees.

One of these neon-clad leaders is Michael Grebinsky, of Sheepshead Bay, an organizer of the skating group that’s been meeting weekly in Manhattan for the past 30 years. Grebinsky has been around for 10 of them.

“I still cannot beat my shadow. It still follows me around,” Grebinsky, a former speedskater, says with a laugh.

He’s lacing up inline recreational skates on the steps of Union Square South for the relaxed evening skate, which launches every Wednesday at 8 p.m., April through October. The group’s route changes weekly, but on this skate they’re traveling about 12 miles across the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn Promenade, and then ending back at Union Square.

The "Wednesday Night Skate" meetup at Union Square Park is comprised of members of the Empire Skate Club, and New Yorkers who just enjoy a good skate. 
The "Wednesday Night Skate" meetup at Union Square Park is comprised of members of the Empire Skate Club, and New Yorkers who just enjoy a good skate.  Photo Credit: Emily Mason

In the half-hour before the group leaves, regular “Wednesday Night Skaters” — teens through skaters in their 60s — roll up every few minutes and are greeted enthusiastically. Newcomers are welcome to glide up and join as they wish, without any preregistration required. 

“They just come together to have fun on skates. They don’t judge anybody. They don’t care where you came from,” Grebinsky, 56, says. “All they care about is that you want to skate with them and have a good time.”

Skating saw its heyday with roller disco in the ’70s and ’80s, but has since fallen out of the public eye, according to Arnav Shah, one of the group’s longtime skaters who goes by “Sonic.” (“He earned the nickname. He’s super fast,” Grebinsky attests.)

The activity has maintained a level of traction, though, thanks to the pop-up Dreamland Roller Disco events, thriving from a millennial interest in all things retro, the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, movies like Ellen Page’s "Whip It" and indoor rinks like RollerJam USA and BKLYN Skates.

But outdoor skating in New York City is a different beast.

“People get really intimidated by skating in the streets, but if you know how to break and stop and everything you’re going to be fine,” says Sarai Pegram, 28, of Astoria. “New York is the best place to skate and, once you learn, the world opens up to you.”

Many of the group’s regulars are members of Empire Skate Club, which has been a stalwart for the community through the pasttime’s popularity ups and downs. The club supports whatever your skating style, including slalom, where skaters creatively weave around cones; aggressive, which features tricks and grinding; and dancing, blading and urban recreational. And members of the club are eager to support newcomers to the community.

“Skating had been in decline for a while, so now what has happened is everyone knows everyone else and looks after each other,” Sonic says. “You go to events and see a lot of the same people. It’s kind of tight-knit.”

Empire’s biggest event of the year, the Big Apple Roll, is coming up fast. The free weekend retreat attracts hundreds of skaters. Set for Aug. 1-4, it features eight official routes that, in all, cover several miles of the city.

The Aug. 2 night event, for example, will see skaters dressed in their brightest clothing — and gliding through Times Square.

“Times Square is such a cliché, especially when you’re from New York you hate being there,” Pegram says. “But when you’re on skates, it’s an entirely different experience.”

This year’s Big Apple Roll will be hosted at the Empire Hotel. In addition to stops along the routes for snacks and socializing, there are several gatherings planned throughout the weekend, including a party on the hotel rooftop and pub crawl. (RSVP to join in on any of the events here.)

The skating community, of course, doesn’t begin and end in NY. Other versions of the Big Apple Roll pop up in cities around the country, like Skater Migration in South Beach, Florida, and the Philly Free Skate.

Some members of the city’s skating community, including Pegram and Shah, travel around the country — even around the globe — to attend skate weekends.

“There’s a worldwide community of skaters,” Pegram says. “It’s very grounding, and I felt like I really put roots down in the city when I found the skating community.”

Tips for beginners

According to members, Empire Skate Club wants to give people the tools to start skating and grow the sport.

“People are interested in this stuff,” Sonic says. “It’s just that they don’t have a framework to do it, so we’re trying to provide an easy way to do this.”

For those looking to get in on the action, Pegram suggests starting with getting comfortable by skating around Central Park. There’s even the Central Park Skate Patrol, which helps new skaters find their footing by offering free stopping clinics from 1 to 4 p.m. every Saturday, just inside the West 72 Street entrance to the park.

Once one has the basics down, they can join the “Wednesday Night Skate” group.

The next step up is Empire Skate Club’s weekly meetup, the “Tuesday Night Skate,” which travels farther, faster and without a sweep.

And next, people who want to explore other forms of skating can attend the “Friday Night Skate,” which moves more into slalom and aggressive skating.