Skaters at Lake Merritt
The shores of Lake Merritt are one of the most popular spots in Oakland for skaters to gather. Credit: Pete Rosos

On any day of the week, roller skaters assemble around the Lake Merritt Sailboat House parking lot to take advantage of the spot’s large, smooth pad of pavement. Beginners slide to and fro like Bambi on ice while OGs twirl to music blasting from mini speakers, and families with small children do laps for fun and exercise.

On Wednesday and Friday nights, the parking lot is transformed into a block party, complete with vendors selling drinks from a makeshift bar assembled from an ironing board with a table cloth, while DJs fill the air with the sounds of funk and hip hop. Dozens of skaters spin about, some with luminescent wheels that light up the makeshift outdoor rink.

Roller skating has seen a resurgence in popularity during the pandemic, and the shores of Lake Merritt are one of the most popular spots in Oakland for skaters to gather, along with the newly opened Township Commons Park in Brooklyn Basin. 

David Miles, Jr., also known by his various nicknames—“The Godfather of Skate,” the “Sk8father,” and “The Mayor of Golden Gate Park”—has made a living from roller skating since he arrived in the Bay Area in 1979. Miles said that a new generation of skaters, many introduced to the sport through social media videos, have discovered the same energy that has excited skaters for decades.

“You wanna look good, you wanna have music involved,” said Miles about the recent resurgence. “Have that workout you know you need. Get out of the house and have a funky good time. You don’t need a crowd. You just need smooth pavement.”

Roller skating’s newfound popularity has been driven by TikTok and other social media platforms. Over the past year, videos of people learning to skate, sometimes confidently dancing along to songs like Saweetie’s “Tap In,” have skyrocketed in popularity. A recent Buzzfeed article summed it up this way: “These very cool women on TikTok are causing roller skates to sell out online.”

Initially, I was super confused because the last person I could remember seeing on roller skates was Charlie Chaplin in the 1936 silent film “Modern Times.” But I recently bought a pair of quad skates to research this article, and I have to say it’s not hard to understand the hype.

“You wanna look good, you wanna have music involved,” said one longtime skater. Credit: Pete Rosos

Skating is a way to get out of the house. Skates are relatively cheap and accessible, and strapping on a pair and cruising the city gives a sense of freedom, despite the pandemic. After only one shaky session in my garage, I felt courageous enough to go out to the lake without fear of embarrassment.

The gatherings near Lake Merritt’s boathouse are loose and informal, but they don’t lack for energy. Most recently, Lake People Skate has been the main force behind the Boathouse lot events, which grew in popularity since the start of the pandemic and after the parking lot was closed off from Bellevue Avenue. 

Started in October 2020, Lake People Skate was founded with the intention of creating a skating and community space for BIPOC and LGBTQ Oaklanders.

“We took inspiration to make an inclusive skate due to the heightened stress to peoples of marginalized identities during COVID-19 and the continued gentrification of Oakland and the Bay,” said a representative of Lake People Skate who wished to remain anonymous.

Lake People Skate holds events on Tuesday nights and recently expanded to Wednesday and Friday nights due to demand.

Maria Long, a Lake Merritt regular, was worried about skating at first because of a knee injury, but she has been trying it out for about a month and enjoys steadily improving. The lake isn’t a long commute from her home and it’s an opportunity to socialize at a safe distance. 

“I’m still new and need my friends to encourage me and hold me accountable to go out and skate but I’m really enjoying this,” said Maria. “For the one or two hours I’m skating, I can just leave my phone in the car and be focused on learning new skills and even meeting new people.”

Kaycee Young Rydder, another Oakland skater, got into the sport by watching Oumi Janta, a German skater with almost a million followers on Instagram. After seeing her friends purchase skates and watching videos to learn, Young Rydder decided to give it a go. At the risk of seeming melodramatic, Young Rydder said, skating has changed her as a person. 

“It’s really gotten me out of my comfort zone. I’m not normally one to be super social—but now when I see another skater I just go over and start talking to them about skating! I would have never ever done that before,” she said.

The lake’s burgeoning skate scene has also created opportunities for vendors and other small businesses. Felicia and Ursila Martinez run Homemade Secret Kitchen, a delivery and pickup kitchen selling garlic noodles, tacos, and more. Ursila also used to come to Lake Merritt with her son so he could practice skating for field hockey. She noticed the new gatherings and saw them as an opportunity to boost her business. When I visited them in early February, it was their fourth Friday at the boathouse parking lot. 

“Friday’s start out with families out there, and as the night progresses and the families start to go home, then it turns into more of a hangout—people are doing tricks to the music,” explained Felicia.

Roller skating’s newfound popularity has been driven by TikTok and other social media platforms. Credit: Pete Rosos

Wednesdays, Felicia said, are more relaxed and more likely to see skaters dancing in unison, something she loves to watch.  

For “Sk8father” Miles, exposing people to the joys of skating is a calling. Miles approaches the gospel of skating like a prophet spreads religion. The roller rink he operates in San Francisco’s Fillmore district is named the Church of 8 Wheels. Miles has been an organizing force for starting rinks around the Bay Area and has helped establish mobile rinks in Las Vegas, Santa Barbara, and Napa County.

He’d like to see a permanent rink set up in East Oakland. Miles has been working with organizers of the Black Cultural Zone to create a mobile rink at Liberation Park by the Eastmont Mall. Black Cultural Zone CEO Carolyn Johnson is hopeful about the idea.

“Roller skating has a strong tradition in Oakland and a beautiful expression in the Black Community,” said Johnson. “However, roller skating has been outside of the reach of most in our community as rinks disappeared from the urban landscape.”

Oakland’s last roller rink, Rollerland, opened on Telegraph Avenue in 1930 but closed in 1973. In the early 1980s, according to Miles, who was a regular at the lake, Lake Merritt was home to a massive skate scene, but near the end of the decade, popularity tapered off. 

Miles also has his eye on the clearing in front of the Lake Merritt gazebo, near Children’s Fairyland. He helped start a petition asking the city to make the project a reality. Oakland Rollers, another skater group, also have a survey for Oakland residents about where they’d like to see a roller rink built. 

Miles sees new rinks as an opportunity to make quad skating mainstream and to be seen as integral to Oakland’s park landscape, just like basketball and tennis courts.

“You have an opportunity to meet people and have fun. It’s safe and it’s what you want to see happen in the park,” he said.

Unlike many outdoor hobbies, skates are relatively cheap and accessible. Credit: Pete Rosos

Perhaps one of the reasons roller skating has caught on during the pandemic, fueled very much by social media, is that it’s just as much about the music as it is about skating. At Lake Merritt, music is everywhere. Hand-pulled wagons with speakers playing funk music, bikers playing portable reggae, drum sets at the amphitheater, and drum circles at the Pergola provide a soundtrack around the entire lake. Skating gives movements to the soundtracks of Lake Merritt. On Friday nights, skaters of all sorts groove to Slick Rick, Kanye West, Dua Lipa, A Tribe Called Quest, and other artists. And even if you can’t dance, as I can’t, skating comes close enough.

Children are among the most eager participants at the Lake Merritt Boathouse parking lot skate parties. Preschool-age kids roll around happily as they tell their parents to watch them perform tricks or just do laps. Even if their coordination is lacking, their enthusiasm more than compensates. 

On a recent night, one young skater beamed as he wiggled his arms to the music, and continued to smile after slipping and falling every direction possible. After 30 minutes of uninterrupted fun, he rode back to his caretakers and shouted, “Did you see me? I didn’t even fall once!” Neither parent seemed to believe him, but he made a convincing case otherwise.

“I didn’t fall!” he insisted. “Those were my dance moves!”