Quick on Their Feet, Rollerbladers Come Together on Detroit's Streets

One by one the folks wearing thick helmets and with narrow wheels on their feet circled round a bar on Joseph Campau, swapping skate stories on this scorching August evening. Their stories have been collected over 20 years of skating with groups like City Rollers (now defunct) and Motor City Blade Runners.

Stamina. When 50 folks wheeled from the Post Bar downtown to the Post Bar in Auburn Hills and back again.  

Shivers. The time a guy in a Ford Probe picked up two skaters by the nose of his car and set them down a block away with hardly a scrape.

Cheers. People recall some of the best games in Comerica Park, watching through a peephole in the chain link fence.

Fears. Veteran skaters rolled along West Vernor under the Michigan Central Station, yelling "wowie" in the middle of the tunnel to ward off evil spirits on ghost trains.

On this night, billed as the 2008 Great Detroit Skate Reunion, 75-plus adults on skates and a few bicycle riders set out on a 12-mile, landmark tour of Detroit. These are big kids -- 20 to 60 -- who don't come in when the streetlights go on. That's when the revelry starts.

Skate-friendly Detroit

For the past couple decades, skaters have found fast friends to join them as they sashay through the city, stopping at skate-friendly taverns for libations and lively tales.  Z's Villa on Piquette is one of the favored watering holes. "Skate friendly" means a place that permits people with wheels on their feet to clomp around.

Walter Johnson, founder of the Motor City Blade Runners and Detroit Blading Company, ties his silver dreadlocks in a rubber band under a helmet and starts rolling. A resident of Highland Park and long-time skater, he can name every skate-friendly Detroit tavern from the Grosse Pointe line to Dearborn. He's out cruising on wheels four or five days a week. Usually he's with a cluster of people who look like ducks following single file behind.

As I struggle to keep up on bike, he talks about Detroit skating as the best kept secret in America. The pavement is smooth, topography is pretty flat and the back streets are often empty -- ideal conditions for young urbanites, who like to dance and twirl on the steps of the Joe Louis Arena, gush at the majesty of Indian Village mansions and whoosh along the Detroit RiverWalk with a warm breeze at their backs.

Johnson and his wife Carolyn have skated nearly every city in America. There's the Inline Club of Boston, the Tampa Bay Road Rollers, the Atlanta Peachtree Road Rollers, the Mad City Rollers in Madison, the Get Inline Chicagoland and American Flyers Inline Speed Club in Santa Fe Springs. Some of his friends have participated in Friday night skates in Paris that draw over 25,000 participants traveling at a break-neck speed of 20 miles an hour past the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Whizzing through the streets

Reunion skaters recall the 1990s when Detroit drew 200 or more skaters, forming a slow-moving train through the city. They hope to revive the adrenaline. On the reunion night, young boys salute us, little girls laugh and giggle at the strange grown ups with neon patches. Participants yell, "Come on along," as they whiz past bystanders.

"Detroit looks fabulous; it feels safe," says Marlene Butkiewiecz of Pinckney, who plans to make the RiverWalk a regular skating destination.

"Honey, you need to skate the neighborhoods," says Franco Bazell of Detroit, who tells tales of sliding through sectors of dead factories, gracious homes and tall buildings with equal ease over 20 years on skates. "You want to experience life. See it, feel it as you roll by."

Skaters say their sport is the ultimate way to explore the streets: slow enough to take in the view, fast enough to see a lot of scenery.

A loyal group collects at the Cornerstone Tavern near Stroh's River Place at 7:15 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday. Bob Armstead, reunion leader, aims to revive skate culture through all four Michigan seasons, whenever the pavement is dry and the sky is clear.

Are you bait for swift cars? "Not often," Armstead says. He watches to see that all stragglers are accounted for. Frequent skaters suit up in twinkling lights resembling human Christmas trees and travel in bunches for visibility. Ride leaders alert others to obstacles and traffic. Smart folks wear helmets, shoulder and knee pads and wrist guards, and practice stopping on dime and balancing on uneven surfaces.

The gang steps over the concrete barrier to skate on the nearly completed Dequindre Cut, a 1.2 mile trail lined with graffiti. "This is so hip," says Kathy Kostello of Royal Oak. Fresh asphalt on the trails means fast sailing, unhampered by the incessant cars on a road.

Yet, the abrupt trail-end at Gratiot proves precarious. Skate coordinators Armstead, Richard Mempnock and Mark Carpenter watch for traffic with the help of George Federyszyn and Tom Pickett as skaters zoom across eight lanes of concrete on Gratiot to reach Eastern Market on the other side.

"We're trying to figure out a temporary relief plan," says Kimberly Hill, with the Eastern Market Corp. The official opening is slated for later this fall. By then, a sidewalk from the Gratiot trail head to a traffic light at Russell Street should be ready so users can cross safely to the market.

Nevertheless, Johnson says the adventure of overcoming potholes, bad roads and construction is what makes skating fun. "You train yourself to ride over any kind of surface, and then you can experience every street," says Johnson, who teaches beginning skate classes in Detroit and Palm Beach. He logs over a thousand miles a year on skates.

On this night, he revels in a full moon and starry sky. He stops for a long drink of water on the RiverWalk, delighted to see boats churning along the Detroit River and to hear strains of a jazz concert at Chene Park.

The group heads back to Joseph Campau where pizza, beer and more stories await.  People have so much fun they agree to stage another reunion on Sept. 23. They feel no need to hide from the cold or the dark. In the fresh, the perpetual Peter Pans will suck in the night air and free their minds naturally.

Want to keep on a roll throughout the fall?  One group of skaters meets at Cornerstone Tavern, 225 Jos. Campau at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Or join the Motor City Blade Runners for a beginning skate at 3 p.m. Sundays at Bert's Market Place in Eastern Market, 2727 Russell.  For info on classes and other skates, call Walter Johnson at (313) 378-3880.

Maureen McDonald is a former inline skating zealot who now rides her bicycle all over the city. Send feedback here.

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