Though it has been closed for over 15 years, fond memories of Empire Roller Rink are fresh in the minds of New Yorkers who skated there. The Brooklyn rink, once the epicenter of New York’s roller disco scene, is the subject of the latest episode of Undiscarded, a recently launched podcast that explores the fascinating stories behind the unusual artifacts housed at The City Reliquary Museum in Williamsburg. In the episode, host Tania Mohammad talks with rollerskating legend Eric Alston about a beat-up old roller skate that hangs from the ceiling of the museum. On the surface, the skate is just a dirty, old plaything, but diving deeper, this object sparks stories of 1970s culture, urban communities, the Civil Rights movement, and a lost New York City institution.
The rental roller skate that hangs in the City Reliquary is itself a remnant of the lost Empire Roller Skating Rink in Crown Heights. Known by many names throughout its time – Empire Rollerdrome, Empire Skate Center, Empire Roller Disco – the rink is considered the birthplace of roller disco.
The rink was constructed at the site of an old Ebbets Field parking garage in 1941. Skaters from all walks of life flocked to the rink to glide across its Maple wood floor. One of those skaters, Bill Bulter, came to be known as the Godfather of Roller Disco. Bill had his own unique style of skating called jammin’, which he would show off on “Bounce” nights at the rink.
In the 1970s, Butler’s smooth moves attracted big-name celebrities. Artists like Prince, Elton John, and Cher all laced up and went for a spin at Empire. The careers of legendary skaters like Maurice Gatewood and Roger Green, and DJs like DJ Big Bob (Robert Clayton), were launched from the Brooklyn rink.
The rink flourished through the 1980s, but trouble came in the 1990s. Crime and rising rent costs caused many of the city’s large skating rinks to shut down. The local community rallied behind Empire Roller Rink, but after a tragic shooting incident and the owner falling ill, the rink was forced to close in April 2007. Empire was the last of New York City’s big rinks to close.
In the 7th episode of Undiscarded, skate legend and long-time Empire Skate guard Eric Alston recounts stories from his time at the rink, and shares how 3 generations of his family skated at Empire! Alston went to the Roller Dome every Saturday where he would watch families, teenagers, and adults, all taking on the challenge of navigating on wheels. Alston reminisces how no other rink was like Empire, “None of them had the spirit, the visuals, the feel, the sounds, the energy the vibe you got at Empire. It was a singular experience,” he shared with Tania.
The podcast episode is one of many homages to Empire that have popped up recently. In 2018, The City Reliquary hosted an exhibition about the famed roller rink called Empire Skate: The Birthplace of the Roller Disco. This is how the skate originally came to be part of the museum. Roller Wave, a 24,000-square-foot space where skaters of all ages can take part in the old-school pastime, recently opened up in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal Mall. The space pays homage to Empire Roller Rink and features live DJ music. The pop-up Roller Rink will be open through June 4th.
Empire Roller Rink also lives on in a new book of photographs shot by acclaimed street photographer Patrick D. Pagnano, published by Anthology. Photos featured in the book can be seen in an exhibition at The Gallery inside Brooklyn’s Ace Hotel through July 29th. You can listen to Undiscared at undiscarded.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Next, check out Rockefeller Center Will Transform Into a Roller Rink