Unlike most of us, David Miles, Jr., has plans this weekend. On Friday night, he’ll strap on his roller skates, be they purple, green or blue, suit up in an ensemble fit for the Burning Man Playa and cruise down to an area of Golden Gate Park known as Skatin’ Place.
San Francisco’s biggest park was a perfect host to thousands of skaters during roller disco’s peak in the 1970s, with as many as 20,000 people on wheels on a Sunday, when the park was closed to car traffic. They didn’t even have to own skates—as many as three dozen roller-skate vendors, like a fleet of food trucks, parked nearby to provide the wheels. Miles, long ago dubbed “The GodFather of Skate,” believes skating’s one of the last pastimes the pandemic hasn’t impacted. In fact, he’s feeling pretty good about it.
“Rarely do you find something you would do for free. Right now, roller skating is one of the few things you can still do and have fun,” he says. “It is hot. There are good people, there are some scoundrels and I’m the keeper.”
Roller skating, not to be confused with the much more coordination-demanding rollerblading, has experienced a resurgence during a pandemic that only safely allows for outdoor, distanced activities. In response to the pandemic, San Francisco mayor London Breed and the city’s supervisors have closed dozens of miles of streets to cars to accommodate social distancing and, by extension, skating.
Miles came to San Francisco in 1979 on his mother’s recommendation. It was a cold February in his hometown of Kansas City, cold enough he couldn’t work his usual bricklaying job, so he figured, why not? He set foot in Golden Gate Park three days later, mesmerized by the droves of skaters and thought, “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
He went back next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter, and maybe most weekdays, too. While Miles’ love for roller skating grew, the city continued to receive injury and noise complaints from residents. The Recreation and Parks Commission threatened a parkwide ban, but ultimately only blocked off certain areas like the streets near the Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake.
Just like the disco music they rolled to, roller skaters were going out of fashion with city officials. A 1983 news video that features Miles, republished on his Youtube channel, paints roller skaters as selfish youths who knock down elderly women, loiter on residents’ front steps and can’t be bothered to respect pedestrians with baby strollers. A fresh-faced Miles is quoted saying:
“There is a way that this can be done where everyone can be happy and benefit. But if they don’t listen to both sides of the story, they’ll never know.”
To ease tensions and protect his own right to skate, he joined and informally led the Skate Patrol, a coalition of unofficial skate community officers in a compromise with the city, to monitor park activity, control foot traffic for pedestrians and impart tips on staying upright.
Participation in roller skating suffered once the city passed a restrictive ordinance that effectively put most mobile “recreational equipment vendors” out of business, but that has never stopped The GodFather of Skate and his disciples. Through skating, Miles says he has met one of the developers of the Hubble telescope, Oakland’s first pediatrician, and even his wife, Rose, in the park. He welcomes this eclectic crowd and, for decades, has made a living engaging with people from all walks (skates?) of life.
“I haven’t had a ‘job’ job since 1987,” he asserts, supporting himself with skating-related ventures that Miles says stemmed from his own ingenuity. “I’m an old-school Burner; we take what we have and make it useful.”
In addition to the Skate Patrol, Miles has taught lessons, designed and built skate rinks, hosted private parties for the likes of Google and Salesforce and even taken his mobile rinks to festivals like Burning Man and Electric Daisy Carnival. For years, he donated skates to a group in Kenya, and worked with nonprofits like NOW Hunters Point to provide kids free lessons. In 2013, he opened San Francisco’s first indoor roller rink in the bottom of the former Sacred Heart church, which he called the Church of 8 Wheels, on Fillmore Street.
Like half the city, the Church closed in March. It weathered a potential razing, and as San Francisco moved into the yellow, the Church was set again to open for the maximum 37 person capacity, on Nov. 13. Miles said they did open that night, but decided the next day, COVID spike notwithstanding, that “we weren’t ready.” For the time being, it’s the rink in the park or the pavement.
“They can boogie, they can break a sweat and have fun,” Miles says. “We don’t follow trends; we set them.”
In addition to his Friday night skates, Sunday mornings and Saturday afternoons, Miles is set to participate in a stakeholders meeting with politicians and residents in Oakland to build an outdoor rink at Lake Merritt, where local skate groups like the Oakland Rollers gather every Monday, and have started a petition in favor of a public rink. He’s been dreaming of a night where everyone dresses up like dinosaurs, twirling around in what Miles calls “Jurassic Skate.”