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Freedom Rinks

A look at an underground subculture in a racially charged climate

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There have been two times in Joe Carter’s life when he thought he’d never roller skate again. The first time was in 1960, at Edru Skating Arena in Holt during a youth skating session. New to skates, Carter, who was 7 at the time, recalled falling so many times that the owner, Ed Corr, waved Carter off the rink and told him to leave immediately.

So Carter left, and didn’t return until he was 14 and on his way to being one of the top skaters in the United States.

Joe Carter grew up on Lansing’s west side and has called Edru his home rink for 59 years — including the seven years his brother drove him to rinks in Jackson and Detroit instead. Now Carter is 66 years old and tells the story of his relationship with Corr with the righteousness of a Sunday school teacher.

“I actually thanked Mr. Corr for making me mad enough to become a good skater,” said Carter. “He and I always spoke and had a mutual respect. Lansing wouldn’t have a rink if it weren’t for him.”

SK8 FAM

In 1989, there were roughly 2,000 roller rinks in the United States. Now, there are fewer than 300, according to skategroove.com, a hub for roller skating culture. Michigan has 17 rinks — four in Detroit alone — making it the fourth most skateable state in the nation.

Edru Skating Arena in Holt, about 15 minutes from the state Capitol, is the last rink to stand in the greater Lansing area. It was opened in 1956 by Ed and Ruth Corr — Edru is a combination of their first names.

Lansing has seen the demise of various rinks such as the Rollerdome, Rollerworld, Palomar Roller Gardens, Thompson Skate, United Skates of America and Skate City Rink.

What has remained is the spirit of Lansing’s black skating community. Every Sunday night at Edru Skating Arena in Holt is when the regulars take over the rink. On an adult night, it’s nothing to catch a senior couple holding hands and spinning in the center of the rink under a glistening disco ball, while a 30-year-old woman zips by and enters a 360 spin and gracefully exits in full stride.

At 8 p.m., people begin to load in their skate bags, stopping to catch up with friends before sweating out any leftover funk from the work week.

“People who don’t know the culture might think that we drink, smoke and act like hoodlums when we come out to skate, but we are a family,” said Carter.

Every rink has its legend — at Edru it’s Joe Carter. Carter was heralded by Rockin’ Richard Houston, a nationally ranked skater, in his biography. In 1973, Carter won a citywide talent show in Lansing, where he competed against 72 other people ranging from singers to firebreathers. Around 2006, he was honored with two other African-Americans for a Black History Month special for promoting fitness and positivity on the “Carol Greer Show,” a local cable TV program in Lansing.

Carter, who has traveled to 42 states, said he’s recognized in rinks across the nation. If not for his towering stature, it’s his signature move, the Rolls Royce Kick, that gets the crowd’s attention.

“It’s smooth, classy and timeless,” he said. “I’m the only one in the U.S. who can do it.”

The ankle-breaking move starts with Carter spinning on one skate while he pump-kicks the other leg. Then he jumps up on the back of his heels only to drop and let all his weight fall onto his ankles, so the inside of his feet are off the ground — a move, he said, many nimble skater don’t even dare to try.

Last year’s Soul Skate, Detroit’s biennial Memorial-weekend skate jam, drew a crowd of about 5,000 people according to Robert Smith, who attended with his wife. The couple said they met people who flew in from Germany and Japan just for the occasion. In their experience, the national roller skating world is “very integrated” and “one big family.”

“You forget about stuff and you just roll,” Smith said. “You come in stressed and leave it on the floor.”

Smith and his wife first met at Edru in 2006. Smith said when he moved to Lansing in 1989, he preferred rinks in south Lansing such as Roller World and U.S. Skate, where urban or dance-like skating was accepted. He said he “hardly ever came to Edru.”

“I had an incident with the owner twice,” he said, referring to Corr. “He told me I ‘couldn’t skate like that,’ so I asked for my money back.”

Coded

In the 60s, Wednesday’s soul nights at Edru became the low-key hang for black folks in the area, according to Carter. During the period of desegregation, rinks around the U.S. started hosting weekly sessions catering to black audiences through R&B night, hip-hop night, soul night and adult night.

The other six nights were considered more family-oriented and featured anything from contemporary Christian music to radio hits, a model that is still apparent in Edru’s weekly programming.

Carter started the Sunday adult nights at Edru around 2001, when the Corr family passed ownership to David Jackson, who owns rinks throughout Michigan.

Music is an integral part to skating culture. The smoothness of Detroit-style skating is directly influenced by Motown. In Chicago, they call their loose footwork “JB Style” after the Godfather of Soul, aka James Brown.

DJ G.Rob has provided the soundtrack for the 21-and-over-night at Edru for 10 years, delivering smooth tunes by Luther Vandross, Kool & The Gang and occasionally hip-hop — something that wouldn’t have been allowed at Edru 30 years ago.

During the ’80s, when roller skating was in full tilt, hip-hop artists were still ostracized by mainstream media but got exposure at inner-city roller rinks. As depicted in a scene from “Straight Outta Compton,” N.W.A performs at Skateland in their hometown of Los Angeles, shocked to realize the crowd full of skaters already knows their songs. This moment is often overlooked in the film, but the rink propelled the group and forever influenced the soundtrack of underground roller skating culture.

However, N.W.A. would never play through Edru’s speakers, according to a 31-year-old woman, who asked to have her name withheld. She said the soundtracks for adult nights is unusually “slower” than popular rinks in Flint and Detroit. She said attempts have been made to diversify the music, but she believes that management is concerned that faster music “will make black people act out.”

Past problems

In June 1990, the Lansing State Journal reported on an incident at Edru where a committee from Lansing’s West Junior High School accused Corr of racial discrimination. The group paid Corr $250 to rent the rink and promised him a turnout of 300 to 400 people. Only 70 people showed up, which seemed to create hostility between Corr and the patrons.

The committee co-chairperson told the LSJ that Corr repeatedly called grown black men “boys” and referred to the soul and hip-hop laden playlist as “wild.”

At one point, Corr unleashed a Doberman pinscher into a crowd of skaters. The report did not mention any injuries.

In an interview with the Lansing State Journal he said “I’m not going to let anybody take over my rink. It stirs people up when you start playing soul music. I don’t want soul music being played steadily until they get out of control.”

Members of the committee were scheduled to meet with representatives from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, but no decision was found in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission decisions between 1989 to 1992.

In a follow-up article, a black fraternity canceled their monthly party at the rink, while two letters to the editor were published from supporters of Edru. Michelle Marcus and Toscha Densmore cowrote a letter of support stating that Corr often let his Doberman roam the rink and that “the dog would never run out on the main floor.” The woman added that Corr’s rules “apply to everyone” and it would be a shame for a family-owned business to “get shut down because of a misunderstanding.”

Disappearing Act

The 2018 documentary “United Skates” follows Phelicia Wright, a Los Angeles mother of five who lives to skate. During a car ride, her 16-year-old son said he looked forward to skating every week to blow off steam. Not long after, the family is seen taking their last roll in their hometown rink. The owner explained the lease was discontinued and was up to be rezoned so a big-box store such as Walmart or Home Depot could replace it.

The result? The family ventures out of the city limits to a “family-friendly” rink in a suburban area. Like many rinks of this kind, the entrance is littered with signs prohibiting sagging pants, headphones and various sizes of wheels used to perform tricks.

As the African-American family unpacked their bags and laced up their skates, two staff members approach informing them their skates do not meet protocol. One of the kids point to a white man on the rink with the same small wheels, but the staff — both white — seem uninterested. Wright refuses to pay for rentals and the staff escort the family to the parking lot.

The family was visibly devastated, but it all comes to a head six months later. With no rink and a fractured routine to keep him focused, Wright’s teen son is charged with burglary and incarcerated.

Carter believes that the closing of roller rinks impacts the black community the most. It’s an affordable way to network, exercise and keep families together, but he said it’s threated by the economy and city officials who see more boon in “a Walmart or big chain store” than a roller rink.

Lansing’s United Skates of America building at Logan Square sat empty for years before Electronic Data Systems call center came in. It’s recently reopened as an Extra Space Storage facility.

Carter added that “our young men and women are out of control,” referring to shootings, staged fights in rinks and disobeying rink rules.

“The majority are just skaters, but that ruins the whole thing for everybody because some city official sees it on the news, parents are saying ‘I don’t want my kids going there’ and the whole thing is ruined,” said Carter.

Other side of the counter

Edru got new management along with ownership in 2001. The current manager, Jackie Cortez, has been working at roller rinks for 15 years.

Cortez oversaw a rink in Howell that Jackson also owned, but he transferred her to Edru in 2013. She said she wasn’t part of any conversations with the Corr family or Jackson about traditions the rink wanted to keep in place.

“I mean I knew the owners back then, but I wasn’t at this rink so I don’t know,” said Cortez. “We do stick by some rules and I don’t care what color you are, you’re not going to come in here with your shirt up to here, you’re not going to have spaghetti straps. They aren’t my rules, they are Edru rules.”

When you first walk into the rink, signs explain the dress code and behavior expected at the rink. It also primarily plays Top 40 music during the day, and the fourth Sunday of every month which is dedicated to Christian music.

Soul nights were discontinued in the mid-70s by Corr due to fights and “various reasons”, according to Carter. However, the tradition is carried through Sunday’s adult night sessions.

Cortez said she was not aware about the situation in 1990 between Corr and the West Junior High Committee, however, she has had accusations in the past from customers that some of her staff is racist, including herself.

She shared a story about a black, 14-year-old girl, who after being asked “at least five times” to cover her stomach, continued to hike up her top. On the last warning, Cortez had one of her male employees escort the girl to the office. Cortez said she remained calm when the teenager began cursing. He gave her another chance to adjust her shirt, but the teen wasn’t interested and set off another string of expletives. The girl got picked up from the rink and Cortez said she hasn’t seen her again.

Cortez got a call from the teenager’s mother, who she said “started talking to me the same way the girl was and told me that I was prejudiced.”

Cortez said she’s been called many unsavory names by customers, including “a Trump lover.”

“I’m the least racist person, whether you are a kid, adult, yellow or black, whatever,” she said. “I will still be a believer in that people need to stop talking about it. How will we move forward if we don’t get past it?”

Ownership

Carter said more African-Americans should own rinks.

“We’re losing rinks because of so much BS, but at the same time, a lot of it would be solved if we black people became rink owners. We skate more than anyone else, so why not?”

But that’s been tried before. Truelane Rhymes-Pea came to Lansing from Milwaukee in the late ’80s with her mother and said she “heard so many negative things” about Edru that she decided to take a break from skating.

When her kids got older, she brought them to Edru, but she “felt a little negativity” from staff and didn’t make it a habit.

In 2015, when a friend invited her to Detroit’s Northland rink and her memory was jogged back to skating parties and competitions with her childhood troupe “Ebony Dolls.”

“That’s when I got into investing into the rink,” said Rhymes-Pea.

In 2016, she opened Skate City Rink in an old government office on Southland Street, behind the old skating rink turned storage facility. Her vision was to create a safe space for African-American youth where “parents will be able to drop their kids off and know they’re not going to get in trouble.”

She said the opening day pulled in an “awesome crowd,” but the more seasoned skaters were dissatisfied with the narrow rink walls and raised concern about a “lump in the floor.” Rhymes said she understood where the concerns were coming from, but was hoping to get community support to help fix the floor and widen the rink.

What ultimately brought the rink to its demise, she said, was a “bad seed” in the group of founders and the Skate City Rink closed after just 6 months of business.

“Let’s just be happy that we got a black skating rink, first of all,” said Rhymes-Pea. “We always complain and we never support each other. That’s why we don’t have anything.”

We don’t skate, we roll

Last Sunday pulled in a larger crowd of about 20 to 30 skaters. A teen couple arrived early to put on skates for the first time. When regulars started to roll in, one of the senior citizens skated out to the struggling young couple to give them a few pointers. While the young skaters headed home early, they left smiling rather than defeated.

When asked what makes the skating world better than the real world, Carter, almost immediately, referenced Detroit’s Soul Skate for its universal appeal.

“I’ve been to 42 states because of skating. If you look at the United States right now and how divided we are with police shootings, Congress can’t make a decision — at a national skate party you won’t see that,” he said. “I wish CNN would broadcast Soul Skate and let the world see how well these people get along. They are exchanging numbers, eating together, laughing. This is the way skating culture is.”

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