It’s always gonna be 1986 at
Skate City Aurora. Or maybe 1996.
It could also pass for 1976, really.
Because whether you were a teen in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or later, the roller rink takes you back there as soon as you push open the heavy black door. The same thin carpet that has always adorned the floor is still there. So are the upholstered benches where countless teens have slipped on and off a pair of brown skates with orange wheels. The low hum of a good skater whooshing from snack stand to rink sounds the same way now that it did when that skater was sporting JNCO or Jordache.
The display case near the front shows off a couple of top-of-the-line pairs of skates like it always has. There’s a womens pair in marshmallow white and bubble gum pink. And a men’s pair is smooth black and bright crimson.
At the arcade, the fleet of games could have come from any other time a Clinton or Bush graced a Presidential ballot. Tekken is there, and so is ski ball, and so is Donkey Kong, albeit each a newer and better-looking version of their former self.
And while the turntables are gone from the DJ booth, replaced by several computer screens and a Mac tower, and the playlist has added a few tracks, the same jams you remember are still in heavy rotation. You’re gonna hear Thriller. And limbo, too.
Maybe it’s that need for nostalgia that keeps people coming back.
Or maybe it’s the low price. For just $7 — $5 to get in, $2 for a pair of skates — you can speed around the rink for a couple hours. That sort of value kept Skate City humming through the recession, both in 2008 and 1978.
And maybe it’s because skating is just a good time.
Whatever it is, roller rinks have a remarkable staying power — and committed fans. In the middle of a brutal spring snowstorm in April, Aurora Skate City near East Hampden Avenue and South Chambers Road was packed. Staff there say they almost never cancel events for the weather, but it’s not just that. It’s the clientele, they gladly braved the storm and a few dozen 5-year-olds took to the rink for lessons. After that, the tables were packed with birthday parties and others who just came out to enjoy a skate with their friends and family filled the rink.
The skating scene is nothing if not consistent, owner Terri Ingrum says after helping teach a group of 5-year-olds to skate on a Saturday morning. Even when the economy tanked, the roller rink thrived. Those tough economic times were among some of the rink’s best.
“People can still afford to take their kids skating,” she says, a pair of black Riedell skates on her feet.
But some things have changed, if only slightly. The disco nights have been replaced by Justin Bieber nights. And there was that stretch in the 1990s when rollerblades were all the rage.
“All of a sudden everybody was skating on rollerblades like it was the thing to do,” she says.
Ingrum remained loyal to the classic “quad” skates. And these days the pendulum has swung back in her direction, a shift Ingrum seems pleased with.
“You can just do more on quads,” she says.
But skaters are always finding ways to personalize their skates. These days, the hot trend is bright lights at the bottom of skates, which give the skaters an almost space-aged look as they glide around a darkened rink.
And it’s still a popular job for teens looking to jump into the workplace.
Anika Malone started working at the rink last year. For the 16-year-old roller derby enthusiast — she goes by Bananaka Split when she mashing foes on the derby track — the rink seemed like a perfect job.
“It’s kind of getting paid to skate,” she says. “Which is never a bad thing.”
Malone gets to wear her bright yellow Bont brand skates as she glides into and out of the rental room. “They’re pretty fancy, yeah,” she says of the skates, which certainly stand out. They’re not like the “brown bombers” that fill the racks in the rental room, though many of those are getting steadily replaced with a newer batch of grey skates. Those ones don’t seem to have a nickname yet.
When she’s not working the rental room, Malone also gets to DJ some. This summer the preferred jam among the skaters is “Stitches” by Canadian crooner Shawn Mendes. It seems no matter how many times she spins it, the skaters want more.
“I’ll still get 10 requests for it,” she says.
The diehards and the staff at Skate City tend to come to the hobby from a variety of angles. While Malone got into it through roller derby — and thus rocks the quad skates — Shyanne Stephen, a manager there, got into skating through hockey.
Stephen, who has been at the rink for close to five years, says that means when she does wheels on her feet, they’re a little different from Malone’s.
“I’m more in-line than quad,” she says.
While much of the staff — including the DJ, whoever is working the rental counter and the rink marshall who makes sure skaters are safe — wear skates while they work, Stephen says not all staff members are asked to. Especially for the crews lugging piping-hot pizzas and nachos to tables packed with youngsters celebrating birthdays, the skates wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Definitely not,” Stephen says with a laugh.
Skating’s popularity follows a pretty typical path among many of the regulars, she says. As elementary schoolers, kids like the rink, but they like it more when they reach middle school. Around high school, the interests tends to taper some, but many fall back in love with the hobby when they’re adults.
And for some, it’s as much a matter of who you go with as anything.
Patti, 61, said she’s been coming to the rink every Friday with her two granddaughters, ages 10 and 7.
She tried skating before a couple decades back. She went with her husband just one time, though.
“I didn’t have very much fun,” she says, leaning against a stack of blue lockers while her granddaughters played Limbo on a chilly Friday afternoon.
All that changed when she came in with her grandkids. Now she likes skating so much, she doesn’t just come every Friday — she went out and bought herself a pair of her own skates: A set of shiny black Riedells with rainbow laces. She has wrist guards, too.
Safety first, ya know.