- Laura Henley
By: Laura Henley
Washington Heights in the 1960s was a new up and coming area on Chicago’s southside. It grew fast with the Dan Ryan expressway connection to I-57 & I-94. Brand new homes and schools were built to accommodate all the Black families moving to the area which was attracting blue-collar steelworkers alongside white-collar doctors and other professionals. The usual urban sprawl and other retail opportunities took their toll on the neighborhood businesses, just as they had had on the area’s mom-and-pop stores.
By the early 70’s the economy had suffered, and the steel mills were no longer creating the well-paying jobs once prevalent in the area. Inflation that was affecting the country was also having an impact. If you’re old enough, think about food shortages and gas lines. Well, I am certainly old enough to remember.
My group of friends and I spent most of the summer of 1976 hanging out on our porches, talking and watching as the world passed by. We spent our Saturdays buttering our parents up to take us roller skating at either Art’s Roller Rink in Harvey, IL or The Markham Skating Rink in Markham, IL, both a pretty good distance away and definitely a car ride for us.
Then one day, while roaming the neighborhood, we noticed some activity at the now-closed A&P Grocery Store location. Well, being the curious group that we were, we investigated. We met Greg Evans, a recent graduate of Lake Forest College for Business and Economics. He was very 70s cute, drove a Corvette, and piloted his own plane. He good-naturedly humored this early teen group of girls giggling and ogling him but that’s not the best part because, lo and behold–our dreams were coming true! With the Evans family’s business backing, Greg remodeled the old store location and opened a skating rink that fall. Need I say we hounded that poor man nearly daily until we convinced him to hire us all when the rink opened.
The ‘Loop’ was more than a skating rink; it was a safe haven. Many young people who skated at the rink were using it to escape the drug and gangs prevalent in the inner city
A NEW ERA
The Loop Roller Disco opened September 1, 1976, and a new era was born! It was so exciting to be a part of such a great time in the city. People from all over Chicago and surrounding suburbs made the “Loop” the place to be. On a Friday night, the Loop was jumping; all of the R&B, Soul, and Disco hits were playing. If you were a skater then, you were looking forward to hearing JB’s cuts and showing off your ‘crazy legs,’ ‘big wheel,’ and other stylish techniques. If you were a novice, watching and learning and taking a few spills on the floor were par for the course. Some did not skate at all, just being there in the atmosphere was enough. Whether you were 5 or 50, the skating rink had a session for you. I worked most of them along with my crew, Lisa G, Lori G, and our new friend and coworker, Kathy S. (Fun Fact: Lisa G grew up to be The Current Magazines’ founder and publisher, Lisa Dawn Taylor!)
I loved the music and fashion, forget those stupid 70’s parties where people dress up like clowns, we were very fashionable and sharp (think Soul Train). Other skating rinks opened on the southside in the coming years, Screaming Wheels, The Rink, and Rollerina. Roller Skating disco style became popular all over the country. Even Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon, releasing a few roller-disco themed movies.
The Loop was more than a skating rink; it was a safe haven. Many young people who skated at the rink were using it to escape the drug and gangs prevalent in the inner city. Some fights happened, mostly related to girlfriends and boyfriends and who belonged to whom. Greg Evans also had the foresight to hire off-duty Chicago Police officers for security, giving some of the skaters a chance to get to see and know police officers in a more positive light. Some skaters, as a result, even became Chicago and State Police Officers like David G, who was one of the original Loop Gents, went on to become an officer and recently retired from the force. There were also Chicago Sports legends and celebrities that would frequent the Loop. Revie Sorey of the Bears was a regular at the adult sessions.
There were also many Skate Clubs at the Loop. My coworkers and I were known as the Loop Ladies and Gents. We had bright yellow jackets with our names embroidered on them that we coveted. We also wore them when we went as a group to skate at other rinks. My Friend Kathy Smith (Warford) still has hers! She and her brother Vince Smith were among the lifelong friends made at the Loop.
Adult skating even became a thing with the 25 and older sessions. Many of these skaters had grown up skating and wanted to continue without the youngsters. This type of skating session has caught on across the country. The 2018 Emmy nominated HBO Documentary US Skates chronicles the popularity of these African American themed skate sessions. The documentary also reports on how this and other skating sessions are disappearing. One of the rinks featured in the program is the Richton Park Skating Rink (Formally Olympic Skate World when Greg Evans was owner before it closed in 2017.) Today, skating rinks still serve as a safe haven for young skaters. In Los Angeles, there is even an adult session in which warring gang factions skate together and have made a pact to keep the sessions peaceful.
Chicago still has a couple of southside rinks to get your skate on. They are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Roller Skating and Bowling Center at 1219 W 76th St, Chicago, IL, (312) 747-2602, unitedskates.com and the iconic The Rink-Chicago at 1122 E 87th St, Chicago, IL. The Rink is closed for remodeling.
Expect a Grand Re-Opening in March, 2022. In the meantime, our old stomping grounds before we had a Chicago roller rink–The Markham Rink, is still open for all kinds of skate sessions at 16630 Dixie Hwy, Markham, IL. (708) 339-7373.