A group of Bay Area roller skaters got together at DeFremery Park in West Oakland earlier this month for what they called the “Panther Skate Plaza Project Kick-Off Party.” Hundreds showed up to roll around, mingle, and learn about an ambitious proposal to create a new outdoor roller skating rink for West Oakland.
The name of the project pays homage to the legacy of the Black Panthers, the radical political group that used DeFremery Park as a hub for meetings and community events. The roller skater collective’s mission is to “create a safe, inclusive, and accessible space for roller skaters of all ages and identities, that is organized by the community while contributing to the rich history of West Oakland and DeFremery Park,” according to their Instagram page.
Donna Norcom Milich, one of the organizers behind the campaign, said that when the pandemic started in 2020, longtime roller skaters and people new to the activity sought out places to begin learning how to skate and build community. Although some saw skating as having a “revival,” Milich said it has long been a favorite pastime among Black Oaklanders.
“Black skate culture is ginormous. It’s so big. And you would think it doesn’t exist because it isn’t something that’s widely covered. And so it seems like it’s a subculture, but it’s really not a subculture,” she said. “It’s huge in African American culture and goes back generations. It’s not that we are the only ones who skate. But it really is big.”
As big as the skating community is, according to many, Oakland doesn’t have enough accessible, safe, and well-maintained places to skate.
Milich has been rollerskating since she was in her 20s and has congregated with skaters all over the country. Locally, she has roller-skated with folks in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park and all around Oakland, including at FM Smith Recreation Center and now DeFremery Park at an empty parking lot between the basketball court and the skate park.
The conversation about building an outdoor roller skating rink at DeFremery Park began with a local rollerskater named Kei Kei who, Milich said, spoke to Gregory McClain, the recreation center director with the Oakland Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department.
The idea spread on social media, and for the past four months, volunteers have been meeting at DeFremery Park Recreation Center once a week to brainstorm, spread the word, design the rink, and figure out how they might fund it. Currently, the collective has an online petition for members of the community to sign and a survey to gauge interest. Milich emphasized that the group isn’t taking any monetary donations, as the Panther Skate Plaza project is still in the early stages.
The goal is to have a proposal penned to bring to City Council, which has the final say about how Oakland park space is used. The “vision in progress,” as Milich calls it, is to develop the empty parking lot at DeFremery Park where skaters already gather. Milich estimates that it will cost around $100,000 to resurface a 10,000 square foot space in the concrete lot.
“We could really use someone’s expertise who could donate a couple of hours to help us come up with the site plan and cost estimate,” she said. The collective is entirely volunteer-based.
The group has looked at the square footage of other spaces currently used as makeshift outdoor skating rinks. For example, the roller-skating park in Deep East Oakland at Liberation Park is 6,000 square feet in size, and the basketball court at FM Smith Recreation Center off Park Boulevard is 4,250 square feet.
“It would be great to have a space that isn’t just a novelty but that it sustains a community,” said Milich. One function the park could have is holding after-school programming for kids.
Milich said that it has been challenging to navigate the city’s website to figure out viable ways to fund the project.
One option is that private donors could provide the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation with funds, which could be used by the city to build the rink. There’s also the option of asking the City Council to allocate public funds for the project, but city revenues are tight right now and it’s unclear if there would be a surplus next year when the council makes mid-cycle budget adjustments.
For now, members of the roller skating collective want to make sure that those interested sign the petition and take the survey to inform how the future Panther Skate Plaza can serve the community.
“It’s about Black joy. It is access to recreational space. It is not about building tennis courts that look appealing to people that don’t live here yet so that this place can be gentrified,” Milich said. “It’s about making space for the people that already live here to do the things that they do that are positive to enhance their lives.”