Update: The day after this story appeared, Empire operator Michael Feiger addressed skaters at the roller rink and confirmed the facility is being sold. Click here for more news.
In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, concern is growing among elected officials, residents, and skating aficionados over the future of the much-loved Empire Roller Skating Center amid reports that plans are underway to sell the building and close the facility this spring.
For weeks, online blogs and chat rooms for skating enthusiasts have buzzed with speculation that the Seattle-based retail chain Costco is purchasing the building that houses the 30,000-square-foot skating rink. But Empire owner Michael Feiger won’t say what’s happening. Feiger hasn’t responded to a Feb. 16 letter from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz inquiring whether the property is being sold, according to spokesman Max Twine. Nor did Feiger respond to several calls from City Limits seeking comment.
As for Costco, a spokesperson at the company’s east coast office in Virginia said he was unaware of any plans to build another grocery warehouse in Brooklyn. But that has done little to ease mounting fears that the Empire – a bustling community center with an electric vibe, popular with both children and adults – may soon close after more than 70 years in business.
Members of the newly-formed Project Save Empire say they first learned about plans for a potential sale from several Empire employees late last year. “We were told that a deal was done and that these were the last days of skating there,” says Kevon Johnson, a spokesman for the group who has skated at the Empire since 1977. “We’ve been trying to meet with the owner to find out what is going on, but it’s been very hard to track down any information. So we decided to do something to prevent it from closing because it’s been like a second home for a lot of us.”
As part of its campaign to preserve the arena, the group has been collecting signatures for an online petition and plans to hold a rally outside the Empire on March 24. It’s the latest in a string of local roller skating rinks whose impending demise was revealed in the past year, including the State Key, shut down in the Bronx last March; the Rink in Montvale, New Jersey, which is expected to close in May; and the celebrated Roxy in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, which was immortalized in the 1984 hip-hop film “Beat Street” and is slated to close March 10. Though New York City once was home to scores of indoor skating rinks, the Empire will soon stand as the last of its kind in the city.
Founded by Henry and Hector Abrami on Empire Boulevard in the mid-1930’s, the arena offered a range of activities and events that catered to the neighborhood’s predominantly Eastern European population, from boxing to roller skating accompanied by organ music. It’s an era that skating instructor Lezly Ziering, 73, fondly recalls. He first skated at the Empire in 1945. “It was a big, beautiful skating rink,” he says. “I was a decent skater, but the adults used to do the waltz on their wooden skates. I wished I studied more of their moves.”
By the late 1970s, skaters at the Empire were moving to a different beat after a resident DJ replaced the organ and an increasing number of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean settled in the area. At the height of the disco era, the Empire emerged as an international sensation, rivaling the pageantry of dance clubs across the city and playing host to everyone from Cher to the late John F. Kennedy Jr. It was also where skater extraordinaire Bill Butler first crafted a series of moves dubbed the “Brooklyn Bounce,” which has since earned the arena wide acclaim as the birthplace of roller-disco.
More recently, the Empire has experienced its share of instability, including a two-year shutdown from 1998 to 2000 after the death of manager Gloria McCarthy. The skating center entrance was also the scene of a shooting that wounded four people in the early morning of Jan. 3, 2007. Days later, City Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Crown Heights) and Empire owner Feiger announced a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The NYPD says no arrest has been made in the case.
A community forum about the skating center was held at Medgar Evers College two weeks after the shooting, and the main agenda item was security. “Some people thought it would close after the incident and they wanted to express their appreciation,” says Pearl Miles, district manager of Community Board 9, who adds that Empire owner Feiger was not in attendance. “We can neither confirm or deny whether there has been a sale. It’s private property and the owner can do whatever he chooses, but this would be a loss to the community if it’s sold,” Miles said.
But Tanya Odums, a social worker who manages a team of skaters aged 12 to 20 called Brooklyn HYPE (Help Young People Excel), argues that community residents have a stake in the Empire’s future too. “There’s money for new rinks in Prospect Park, but they can’t find the money to preserve and revive the Empire,” said Odums, referring to Borough President Markowitz’s new plan to commit $7.5 million toward a $39 million fundraising effort by the Prospect Park Alliance to build two outdoor skating rinks in the park by 2010.
As one tactic to prevent the rink’s possible closure, Project Empire plans to file an application to have the center designated as a city landmark. “Whether the property is publicly or privately held, any individual according to the law can make a landmark preservation request,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon.
Failing that, members of the group might pursue a long-term plan to purchase the facility themselves. For longtime skater Ziering, who has taught amateur and veteran indoor skaters at the Roxy for decades and is now looking for new space, the significance of the Empire has never been clearer. “Closing it would be even more horrendous than the Roxy because it regularly provides a place for children. Right now, it’s the only game left in town.”