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To neighbors and Detroiters in the know, RollerCade isn’t just a great place to skate. It’s a legendary community hub.
By Kevin Moore, Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow
On a stifling afternoon last month, a few kids in Southwest Detroit escaped the heat indoors, playing games they created and whizzing around in circles on roller skates.
Standing a few feet from the entrance of RollerCade, third-generation owner Kyle Black watched the skaters with a smile on his face. Black, 27, has run the rink since 2012, but he’s been skating there almost as long as he’s been walking. His grandparents bought the property on Schaefer Highway and chose to build the skating rink at their kids’ request.
RollerCade opened on Jan. 9, 1955, in the midst of the Civil Rights era, managing to keep the lights on during decades of population loss and disinvestment in Detroit. The rink is one of the oldest continually open, black-owned rinks in the country. It has been a popular destination for nearby residents ever since it opened, fueling the city’s vibrant skating culture and operating as much like a community center as a business.
The rink’s history is connected to demographic trends dating back a century. Detroit’s African American population expanded greatly in the 1920s as the nation underwent the Great Migration, with many answering automaker Henry Ford’s clarion call in 1914 to pay his workforce $5 per day. The city’s southwest side (in addition to communities like River Rouge and Inkster) was a popular destination for blacks because of the willingness to rent to African Americans and its proximity to the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn.
Legendary Flame Show Bar band leader and Motown Records executive Maurice King lived there. So did Ben Carson, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Through the ’40s, African Americans were only able to open businesses — or live — in restricted locations, most notably the commercial district in the Black Bottom neighborhood east of downtown. Black Bottom was bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for a highway in the name of urban renewal. But in the ‘50s and ‘60s, more and more black-owned businesses took root in other neighborhoods, with smaller commercial districts around the city serving people who lived nearby.
John Arnold, a notable radio personality at the AM radio station WCHB through the 1990s, knows RollerCade well after growing up in Southwest.
“There were a lot of successful [black-owned] businesses on Visger and Schaefer, and RollerCade happened to be one of those businesses,” Arnold said.
Businesses such as laundromats, movie theaters and flower shops helped shaped the community of Schaefer and Fort Street, he said. Most of those have closed, and the area is now home to a few independent stores.
Arnold, who attended Detroit Southwestern High School, described the neighborhood of his youth as a close-knit community.
“Back in the 1960s… parents sent their kids [to RollerCade] to be safe and out of trouble,” he said.
Motown stars including members of the Temptations were known to visit the rink, recalled Ronald Folks, who has been coming to RollerCade since it opened.
In the years since, Black said, the business has sometimes struggled when dealing with issues like building maintenance.
“There were times where we weren’t able to get loans because of the area we were in,” he said. “Banks did not want to give us loans.”
Black is currently applying for grants and trying to find funding as part of his goal to expand RollerCade, which is primarily used by people in the neighborhood.
“In the next 5 to 10 years I want to build a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in the same location,” he said. “With our limited space, it’s hard to be a service to people outside of southwest Detroit, and with a bigger facility we will have the space and resources to do so.”
Black envisions building a full-sized arcade and kitchen to go along with the rink, creating a space that could host national skating parties.
For neighbors, the rink already looms large, serving as a home away from home in the decades since Arnold’s youth. Jessica Wilson, 26, grew up at RollerCade, first skating there when she was 5 years old.
“RollerCade is such a positive thing in the community,” Wilson said, describing it as a haven. “[It] is a place for peace of mind, positive energy and good vibes. There’s no negativity taking place here.”
Black knows his family’s business has only maintained for so long because of their neighbors’ support, and he returns the favor through events he organizes, like a street cleanup and regular backpack giveaways for kids.
“We strive to be a positive outlet for the community,” Black said. “We have a neighborhood-first mindset, meaning we want to make sure our people in the community are taken care of.”
RollerCade is open to the public Tuesdays, 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays, 12 to 2, 2:30 to 5 and 6 to 9 p.m, with free entry and skates available for rent. They also offer youth skating classes, host open skate parties and offer rink rentals — see their Facebook page or call (313) 736-0832 for more info.
Kevin Moore is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. He graduated from Wayne State University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. He is a former college athlete and played baseball for three years. As a Detour fellow, Kevin tapped into his sports knowledge to highlight a space in his Fort Street and Schaefer neighborhood in Southwest Detroit that give residents opportunities to come together and get active, shining a light on how athletics promote health and are essential to sustaining the community fabric.
Detour’s Emerging Voices fellowship program was funded in January 2019 by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a partnership between the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.