TJ Crawford is just happy he hasn’t fallen down yet.
Crawford, a West Garfield Park resident, helped bring roller skating back to the West Side with a new free outdoor rink and community plaza near the corner of West Madison Street and Pulaski Road. He said roller skating is a key part of the West Side’s history and of Black culture — but he is out of practice as a skater himself.
“I am investing in my own knee pads and my own helmet, because I expect to fall a bunch of times,” Crawford said. “But again, I’m going to do it because participating in this is … symbolic of what it means to participate and do things that aren’t easy, right?”
Crawford said his struggles getting around the new rink are “a great metaphor” for the work being undertaken to build the community space and promote wellness and safety in West Garfield Park.
“Building something is going to take a little while to catch on,” he said. “We might fall and stumble along the way, but we’re here both to lift up one another. We’re here to protect one another. We’re here to encourage one another. And we’re here to move forward together.”
Crawford is the head of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, a group that spearheaded the effort to bring the family-friendly plaza to “the heart of the West Side.” The roller rink and plaza opened to the public on July 23. Its official unveiling, with a ribbon cutting ceremony featuring Mayor Lori Lightfoot, is on Friday.
The plaza sits on a formerly vacant lot between two businesses on the busy Madison commercial corridor. Behind a tall fence and a security desk is the large blacktop roller rink. It’s surrounded by picnic tables, a gravel seating area with logs cut into stools and a stage. The plaza is decorated in the Pan-African colors of red, black and green, and there are murals by local artists on the fences that separate the park from the street and the alley.
“This is a benchmark that helps to [signify] that even greater things are coming,” Crawford said. “And it also helps to reinforce the fact that we have value as a community. This land is valuable, not for others, but for us.”
Tara Dabney said the decision to build a roller rink was based on feedback from residents who said the No. 1 thing they wanted was a safe place to bring their children. Dabney is the director of Development and Communications for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, which helped facilitate the project.
Dabney said in the first week of being open, they’ve seen kids’ birthday parties, daycare groups and parents and their children enjoying the rink.
“It’s just great to see that excitement and that energy here on this corner, and particularly where there’s been so much disinvestment and people have so many negative thoughts,” Dabney said. “You hear people talk about opioid addiction and violence [at Madison and Pulaski], but you don’t ever hear people talk about the kids who grow up here, and the joy that you still see all over.”
Christyn Freemon, who is also part of the Rite to Wellness Collaborative, is raising two kids in Garfield Park.
“Play is important. And play is often a privilege,” Freemon said. “So you often have to take your kids to another neighborhood or community just to play. But mentally you need time to play.”
Freemon also echoed Crawford that the new rink and plaza is a step toward undoing decades of disinvestment in the West Side — disinvestment that has resulted in elevated levels of crime and violence. West Garfield Park has the highest rate of gun violence victimization in Chicago, according to city data.
“Opportunities deter crime,” Freemon said. “Nobody just purposely wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a criminal.’ It usually is a result of a lack of resources.”
But some in the neighborhood actually pushed back on the community area because of concerns that drawing more people to the intersection would mean an increase in violence.
The Institute for Nonviolence and the MAAFA Redemption Project, two organizations that work with people close to Chicago gun violence, helped put together a safety plan that includes the high fences obscuring who is inside and private security staffed by anti-violence workers.
Chicago Police Sgt. Daniel Allen said he had been very involved in the safety planning for the roller rink.
“You have some resistance from some people who feel like it’s going to be a magnet for negativity,” Allen said. “I think it’s a good thing, me personally, because it could potentially move the negative element out of the way.”
There used to be dozens of places to roller skate in the city. Today only a handful remain, and none of them are on the West Side.
West Garfield Park was once the home of the Chicago Roller Skate Company, “the superior skate maker” in the U.S. according to the Made in Chicago Museum. The headquarters on West Lake Street was built in 1918 but has since closed. So too has Hot Wheels Roller Rink at Pulaski Road and Chicago Avenue, and Madison Gardens near Western and Madison.
Crawford said he’s heard from some old skating clubs who are looking to host reunions at the new plaza.