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‘It’s a part of us.’ Historic skating rink celebrates 20 years in East St. Louis

100622_DH_Larry Wise Skate city.jpg
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Larry Wise and his family are looking forward to continuing the traditions of Skate City in East St. Louis.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Bend your knees. Ensure your shoulders are straight. Sway with each step. Don’t drag your feet. Pick them up. Your knees should be in line with your shoulders. Pretend like you’re running.

These are the instructions that Larry Wise Sr. has given to beginner skaters since he was 16 years old.

His words aren’t didactic. They’re precise, yet firm. Wise Sr. wants you to become a better skater by the time you leave the rink because, well, skating is an art.

“If you think you’re about to fall, try to bend your knees so you don’t hurt your wrists,” he advises on a Wednesday evening in August.

“Your wrists are the weakest bones in your body, so you don’t want to mess them up.” Wise Sr. is the co-owner of Skate City, located at 2200 E. Broadway in East St. Louis. For nearly two decades, Wise Sr. has given the same set of instructions to beginner skaters in the same slanted, white building. The rink will celebrate its 20th anniversary next month.

“It’s been a success, not only for the community which we serve, East St. Louis, we also served Centreville at that time, Alorton, Cahokia, (the three cities merged last year to become Cahokia Heights) Washington Park and Brooklyn communities because that’s where we were getting all of our skaters from, so it’s been a blessing for all the kids who grew up in that area and had nothing to do on the weekend,” Wise Sr. said.

“It kept them out of trouble. It also gave them exercise as it relates to being mobile but also to just get out and have fun.”

100622_DH_Skate City sign.jpg
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Skate City in East St. Louis is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.

History 

Although Wise Sr. and his wife Patricia, officially opened Skate City’s doors in November 2002, Wise Sr. has worked and skated in the building since he was 11 years old when Skate City was known as Skate King. At the latter, which opened in 1970, Wise Sr. was a jack of all trades. Sweeping floors. Collecting skates. Guarding skate traffic. He eventually worked his way to becoming a manager of the rink at 16.

Wise Sr.’s dedication to skating started when he was five years old. He skated on the sidewalks near the John DeShields Homes, where he grew up.

“That’s all we had to do back then in East St. Louis was to roller skate, other than going to the recreational centers and play basketball and learn all types of sports and skills,” Wise Sr., who now lives in Swansea, said. “But if you wanted to skate you had to be in a skating rink.”

So, Wise Sr. ensured he learned everything he could while under the leadership of Mathew Foggy, the owner of Skate King.

“He was just a very great worker,” Foggy, 73, said. “He’s fond of saying that he was cloned before cloning was ever talked about. He followed me as I ran the rink. He was a great learner. Wise was one of the youngest session managers that the company ever had.”

After Skate King’s East St. Louis location closed in 1996 (there’s a St. Louis location that’s still open), Wise Sr. went to work as an officer for the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department.

100622_DH_skate city sign add.jpg
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Skate City in East St. Louis is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.

“You had the gangs kicked up in East St. Louis,” Wise Sr. said. “It wasn’t the place to come to, so he shut it down. Four years, five years after that, I was with the sheriff’s department then and every time somebody saw me, they were like, ‘Why did you close the rink?’. I didn’t close the rink. I didn’t own it. In ‘02, I went to Mr. Foggy to see if we could get the rink re-opened and he said, ‘I’ll do you one better. I’ll sell it to you.’ From that point on, it was it.”

And they’ve been rolling ever since.

“You treat every customer as if they are somebody—from the little one to the oldest one in here,” Wise Sr. said of one of the primary lessons he learned from Foggy. “The little one in skates is probably one, and the oldest one that was skating was 80. (You) treat people with respect and they will return it. They will take your respect, your kindness, your decision-making and they will tell somebody else about how good it was when they were here, and it becomes a revolving door.”

Impact 

Over the years, Wise Sr. has run the rink with a host of cousins, his children and his wife. He manages the skating rink while working as an officer for the East St. Louis Park District. His son, Larry Wise Jr., often DJs at the rink. And the rink is where the older Wise and his wife met for the first time. Maintaining a familial warmth and comfort is an essential mission for Skate City.

The younger Wise said skating is one of the first skills he learned as a child.

“We have a motto in our family which is once you can walk, you can skate,” Wise Jr., 36, said. “We put the beginner’s skates on, and that’s the same thing I did with my children, the same thing my sister did with her children. They’re little walker skates and you just walk with them, but it gets your balance going and gets you used to rolling just a little bit before you put the real skates on.”

Wise Jr. said he’s grateful that the family business continues to be a source of entertainment for other families in the community.

“It’s amazing,” Wise Jr. said. “A lot of businesses don’t last this long, definitely in the city of East St. Louis. We’ve seen a lot of businesses come and go. We’ve been pretty steady for 20 years. It’s been a blessing and hopefully we can continue to thrive.”

100622_DH_skate city group.jpg
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Skate City in East St. Louis is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.

And given the adverse effect of COVID-19 on businesses across the globe, Skate City still operating as East St Louis’ lone skating rink is a blessing indeed. Prior to the pandemic, the rink was open seven days a week. Now, Skate City is only open on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. On any given night, there are about 60 skaters, although there used to be as many as 100.

Lekeisah Searcy, of O’Fallon, has gone to Skate City since she was a teen. Searcy usually attends the “Old-School Night” on Mondays. She regularly accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of recording videos of customers skating while she’s also skating. Searcy posts the videos on her social media pages.

“Since I’ve been filming, I’ve had so many people share their personal stories on how skating saved their lives, helped them lose weight and then just simply making meaningful friendships,” Searcy, 43, said. “For me, hearing those kinds of stories of how people have been going to Skate City for 20 years, they came there when they were kids, some people are younger, some people are older, I think is monumental for culture because it’s a long-standing business in East St. Louis that a lot of people have stories to tell (about).”

“It creates an environment for kids to go, and it’s an outlet for a lot of people. It’s a culture thing, but it helps you learn, (helps you) create friendships.”

Culture 

The ties between skating and culture, specifically Black culture and hip-hop culture, are intricate and intimate. Throughout history, skating rinks became the primary site for budding artists to showcase their talent, network with other artists and test how marketable their music could be by testing it with skaters. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, one-third of the multi-platinum-selling group TLC, began her career by dancing at an Atlanta skating rink before being a part of one of the most successful girl groups of all-time.

Across the river from Skate City in St. Louis, legendary rapper Nelly met local producer Jay E in 1996 at the now-defunct Saints Olivette Roller Skating Rink, which also housed a recording studio. The pair went on to develop the sound for Nelly’s first and second album, along with creating songs for the St. Lunatics.

WESL, a former AM radio station based in East St. Louis, frequently supported Skate King. It was the first station in the country to play The Sugarhill Gang’s seminal 1980 hit “Rapper’s Delight,” which became the first rap single to reach the Billboard Top 40 chart.

“That’s where all the music would come through at the time with some of the best DJs at the time,” Wise Sr. said. “One of the legendary DJs was Rod King. They called him Dr. Jockenstein. Him and the radio station supported the skating rink at the time when it was Skate King. That’s how all of the hip-hop music was played. That’s how all the entertainers who came in town made their appearance at Skate King/Skate City.”

Fictional depictions of skating’s deep history with community and music can be viewed in cult classics like “Roll Bounce” (2005) and “ATL” (2006). Felix Hill, a professional skater who frequents Skate City, had a small role in the former film and coached actors on set to enhance their skating skills in the movie.

He said Skate City has the “smoothest concrete in the United States,” which he lists as an advantage.

“That skating rink taught me a lot because it’s made out of concrete,” Hill, 57, said. “One of the things I love about Skate City is it’s the only skating rink that I’ve been to where I can wear all white or very expensive clothing and slide across the floor and my clothes will not be dirty, damaged or torn. At other skating rinks, I’ve went through plenty of clothing, just on wood (floors).”

Although he’s a native of St. Louis, Hill remembers regularly traveling across the river to the original Skate King, where he formed his passion for skating. Hill said he’s in a Facebook group of skaters and said Skate King and now Skate City are universally adored in online chats.

“That’s like the heartbeat of East St. Louis,” Hill said. “If you were to try to destroy that skating rink or stop it right now, it’ll be some serious protesting right now. Social media will go crazy, as far as us skaters. It’s just not East St. Louis people.

“Do you know so many of us St. Louis people go across that bridge to that skating rink because (of) good music, good vibes and Wise and that skating rink has been there forever? We were raised there. It’s a part of us.”

‘A part of us’ 


Hill also firmly underscores that skating is also a part of Black people and culture.

“We’ve always skated, (but) skating rinks were not for Blacks,” Hill said. “It was mainly for whites. Whites went and they used to dress up in their suits and they used to play organs. After the Civil Rights Movement kicked in and they had to integrate, a lot of them could not stand the fact that they had to share a skate that a Black person put their feet in, so they moved away from the skating rink.”

Before Matthew Foggy owned Skate King, the rink was called Starlight. However, it closed due to social unrest during the Civil Rights Movement.

“The skating center in East St. Louis operated for a number of years,” Foggy said. “When I was a kid, I skated at that skating center, and it closed during the racial tension of the 60’s. I was in college and became ill and needed some income, so I re-opened that skating center and was able to purchase it.”

Foggy initially named the skating center as Martin Luther King Memorial Rink, in honor of the civil rights leader who died nearly two years before the rink officially opened. He eventually settled on naming it Skate King.

Larry Wise Sr. understands skating’s rich history for Black people in East St. Louis and beyond. He’s lived it. Now, he’s focused on continuing the legacy that Foggy created and furthering Skate City’s mission in fostering a safe environment for future generations.

Although specific details for a 20th anniversary celebration are still underway, Wise Sr. plans to host a celebration during Veterans Day weekend and have a family-themed skate on Friday, an all-night skate on Saturday (all-night skate) and a gospel skate on Sunday.

He’s looking forward to seeing veteran skaters like Felix Hill and others return for the celebration. When asked if he always knew his business would operate for 20 years, he gives an emphatic “Yes”.

“It’s not being facetious or anything because what I learned from (Foggy), I knew I’d be able to do it for myself, and I’ll be able to make this journey as long as I can make it along with my family–my wife, my daughter my son,” Wise Sr. said. “I knew that because skating is what you call a pioneer in East St. Louis.”

Skate City is open on Monday (Old-school skate night) from 7-10 p.m., Tuesday (Family skate night) from 7-9 p.m. and Thursday (Adult skate night) from 8-11 p.m. Admission is $4 on Tuesday nights and $7 on Mondays and Thursdays.

DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

DeAsia Page covers East St. Louis and its surrounding areas for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.