For three generations RollerCade has been an integral piece of one of Detroit’s most underrated, underground activities, roller skating. Since the 1950’s, the family-run business has been a hub for the skating culture and community. Today, the rink is owned and operated by Kyle Black, the grandson of the company’s founders, Johnnie May and Leroy Folks.
On a cool, summer night in the heart of downtown Detroit, I sat next to Kyle on a picnic table near RollerCade’s pop-up roller rink inside of the Monroe Street Midway. The space was closed for the day and the music that had been playing through speakers surrounding the roller rink – the music that could be heard floating in the breeze across downtown every day this summer – had since gone quiet. We were now left with the sounds of a bustling city at night. The noise of traffic and people laughing like a river flowing in the distance as Kyle educated me on the roots of RollerCade.
“My grandparents started RollerCade in 1955. My grandfather built the building by hand with some local friends from his neighborhood. At first, his goal was to open a nightclub. It became a roller skating rink because of my grandmother. See, she wanted to have a business that could involve her children. At the time they had three or four kids and she wanted to have some sort of business that they could come and enjoy as well and she could be around them as often as possible. One summer, my grandparents took a family trip to Idlewild, Michigan.
Idlewild, in the ‘50s, was a place for Black people to go and be able to express themselves and take a vacation. It was secluded in the middle of the forest. Everything was Black-owned, so it was like a hideaway resort for the Black community.
It had a beach. It had a bowling alley and movie theater. And it also had a roller rink.
MY GRANDMA SAW THAT THE KIDS HAD SO MUCH FUN AT THE RINK AND WHEN THEY CAME BACK HOME THEY WANTED TO GO TO THE LOCAL RINK EVERY SUNDAY. THE PROBLEM, OR MAYBE THE OPPORTUNITY, CAME WHEN THE LOCAL RINK CAUGHT ON FIRE AND BURNED DOWN. SO NOW THE KIDS DIDN’T HAVE ANYWHERE TO SKATE. ALL THE OTHER NEIGHBORHOOD KIDS STARTED WANTING TO SKATE, TOO. ALL THESE KIDS KNEW THAT MY GRANDPARENTS HAD THIS MOSTLY FINISHED BUILDING AND THEY WOULD COME KNOCKING ON THE DOOR ASKING IF THEY COULD SKATE.
It was like a light bulb moment for my grandma. My granddad was still thinking he was building a club, but with my grandma’s persuasion it turned into a roller rink. Now they had a business where she could be around her kids everyday.”
Kyle went on to explain to me the history of RollerCade, its ties to Motown, and the rink’s influence on the specific “Detroit Style” of skating – all of which you can learn more about in Audetorium’s latest print edition, Detroit Skate.
As the city sky turned from twilight into a dark night, Kyle leaned his arms against the table, kicked his feet out and surveyed his pop-up rink with pride. Just before I had arrived, Kyle had been interviewed by the local news and given a speech to an audience on stage inside the Midway. At the moment, things seemed to be moving at the exact pace that Kyle thrives in. COVID had slowed things down for most companies in the entertainment industry and RollerCade was no different. Kyle is finally starting to see things begin to pick up again after waiting out his forced hiatus. Today, instead of wondering how to keep things from falling apart during a pandemic, the young business owner is wondering how far he can take things.
“Even back in school when I played sports I would run to the locker room after the games, change my clothes, and get to the skating rink as quickly as possible. Skating and the rink, even back then, were always in the back of my mind. Now that I run things, it’s moved from the back of my mind to the front. It’s always there. I am always working. My passion for it has never died out. It’s a flame that’s always burning. Like, even if I have a bad day at the rink, at least it was a day at the rink, you know?”
So much of Kyle’s life revolves around the rink and keeping his grandparents’ dream alive. By doing this, he has become an integral part of both the Detroit and Flint communities. RollerCade isn’t just a roller rink dedicated to turning a profit; It’s a community center. It’s a place to hold birthday parties or memorials or other important events for his family and neighbors.
IT’S A HISTORICAL LANDMARK OF DETROIT THAT KYLE’S GRANDFATHER AND HIS NEIGHBORS BUILT WITH THEIR OWN SWEAT AND BLOOD. IN THE FUTURE, ROLLERCADE WILL BE A PART OF THE LEGACY THAT KYLE HIMSELF LEAVES BEHIND.
“My grandpa passed away in his early ‘50’s. He was fairly young when he passed and my grandmother kept things going at the rink for almost 20 years after that. I have wondered what my grandmother would think of the business and how things are going now. My uncles and aunts, the people that knew my grandma the best have told me before when I have done things that it’s how my grandmother would have done it. How I handle a conflict or an innovative idea I might have. They have told me it reminds them of how my grandma might have done things. That makes me really happy because it helps me know I am on the right track. My hope is and always has been that I am continuing to put her legacy in a positive spotlight and expanding on it and helping it reach more people than she had ever dreamed of.”
The success of RollerCade is summed up in Kyle’s motivation for continuing to build on his grandparents’ legacy. Some people do things for fame, some for money, and some for only themselves. Kyle, much like his grandmother, his mother, and the uncles and aunts that helped raise him, is doing this for the people he loves and his community. I don’t think anything could be more “Detroit Style” than that.