The rolligion of San Francisco’s beloved roller-skating community.
by Erynne Elkins
Cooped up in my small apartment, imagining what I’d otherwise be doing on a Friday night in August, I return over and over to the same memory: my first visit to the Church of 8 Wheels roller rink.
It was a crisp Saturday night in February. I had moved to San Francisco ten months earlier in pursuit of a more financially viable, sustainable quality of life. After toughing out the transition to a new and expensive city, I finally found my niche and landed my dream job. I decided to celebrate with a favorite pastime of my youth. My friends and I, clad in colorful shirts, patterned leggings, fuzzy leg warmers, and glow-in-the-dark hats, walked briskly up Fillmore Street toward the Church. At the door, bass-saturated music pulsated out onto the steps, and a stream of colorful strobe lights blazoned the entrance. I was mesmerized as I looked up at the massive Romanesque-style building, formerly the Sacred Heart Church. While we weren’t there to pray, paying homage to a spectacular experience seemed inevitable.
We entered, and an enigmatic gatekeeper dressed like Morpheus from “The Matrix” silently beckoned us onto the floor. Long rows of pews lining opposite sides of the roller rink teemed with skaters of various ages, genders, and ethnicities adorned in sequined, fluorescent, and plush attire. The skate rental counter resembled a packed bar in a popular 1970s nightclub. We skated smoothly around the rink, grooving to the DJ-curated disco music, falling down and laughing as we got back up, and marveling at the select group of master skaters who moved with pure majesty. Enveloped in laughter, camaradarie, and technicolor outfits, I felt at home. Finally, in this new and unfamiliar city, I had found my people.
A couple of months later, well into San Francisco’s stay-at-home order, I emailed guest DJ and Church of 8 Wheels skate guard Aimee “White Chocolate” Stevland to learn more about the Church and the city’s roller-skating community. Skate guards like Stevland, wearing yellow reflective jackets or Church of 8 Wheels shirts, roam the rink floor ready to assist if anyone falls or injures themselves. “We work really hard to make sure people are having a good time and staying safe,” Stevland wrote me back. A familiar face at the Church and part of the Golden Gate Park Sunday skating community, she was inspired by Church of 8 Wheels founder David Miles Jr. (aka “D”) to welcome skaters from all walks of life. “I saw the tremendous work D was doing and wanted to help him in his efforts to share this fun and healthy activity with others,” she wrote.
Miles Jr. is a local legend in the San Francisco skating community. He’s the Godfather of Skate, with a persona that’s part athletic Santa Claus and part funkadelic Pied Piper, recognizable by his glitzy top hat and giant fuzzy leg warmers. Over the phone in early March, he recounted the story of the formation of the Church of 8 Wheels.
Miles Jr. grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and moved to San Francisco in 1979. One pivotal Sunday, after playing tourist in Union Square, he hopped on a Muni bus going to Golden Gate Park. And that’s where his initiation into the Bay Area skating scene took place. “It was magic! Thousands of roller skaters clad in short-shorts and knee-high tube socks going up and down the street. People were just having a good time,” he told me. He returned the next Sunday with his skates, and the Sunday after that, for four decades.
“I always thought going to the park on Sundays was like going to church,” he said. He flashed back to 2006, remembering a conversation with his close friend John Childers about religion. They were discussing their consensus that a church isn’t a building but a community. “That’s when John said, ‘Yeah, this is the Church of 8 Wheels!’”
For years, the Church of 8 Wheels was an established community, popping up every Sunday at Golden Gate Park (Skatin’ Place) and in Miles Jr.’s mobile roller disco at Burning Man. It wasn’t until 2013 that the opportunity for a physical location arose. And, in a seemingly magical coincidence, the location up for offer was an empty church. Miles Jr. negotiated hosting roller-skating parties, and the owner, impressed by the large crowds of dedicated skaters, let the parties grow into a weekly occurrence. Consistent turnout earned Miles Jr. and his team a permanent location for the Church of 8 Wheels. It was like that for the next seven years.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Church of 8 Wheels’ doors have been closed since the mid-March shelter-in-place mandate took effect. “The way that we do almost everything is going to be different now,” Miles Jr. said. “Like everything else, skating will evolve. We have to figure it out.”
Even before the pandemic forced him to close the Church, the Fillmore location was under threat. In early March, the current property owners submitted an application and plans to convert the structure into residential dwellings. The public hearing has been canceled, for now, in response to the stay-at-home order. Regardless, Miles Jr. is ready for what’s next. “I’m looking for a bigger place. I don’t want to be sitting there when the bulldozers come,” he said.
These days, if you go to the Church of 8 Wheels online store, you’ll find an array of brand-new roller skates for sale in “Kim Chi Orange” and “Redilicious,” as well as face masks featuring the Church’s logo.
With the Church closed, its regulars have taken to the streets, parks, and area sidewalks.
Most popular is the Skatin’ Place in Golden Gate Park, where enthusiasts continue to flock from noonish to sundown on Sundays. Bring your own skates or rent them from a shop at the park entrance on Fulton Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. “There are more and more skaters coming to the park. And not just our park, but all over the country,” Miles Jr. told me. “Outdoors is the future. This is what I’ve always advocated.”
I have no doubt this congregation of skaters will gladly worship in the great outdoors, myself included. ♦
Erynne Elkins is a Chicago native, San Francisco transplant, and semi-devout vegan. When she’s not tending to her blog, changing her hair for the umpteenth time, or forgetting to give herself a tarot reading, she works as a nanny and breathwork facilitator.