Free Skate: The End of the Culver Ice Arena

First published in L.A. Observed

If you were to rip the roof off the Culver Ice Arena and look directly down on a free skate session you would see a beautiful, spinning mandala of humanity.

The eye of the mandala is the heart of the rink. It’s where the small, steely girls twirl and twizzle day after day, carving their Olympic dreams into the ice. It is in neighborhood rinks like these across the country that future Michelle Kwans are born. The girls are fierce and sparkly, their chalk white boots neatly laced against nude tights, double-jointed arms flung outward as they practice their moves in the field.

The next lane outward is where elderly couples pair-skate in bright sweaters like loose-limbed Lindy Hoppers, their arms hooked in a cordial diagonal. Skating is so much more than sport, it is art, and it is social engagement. It is civilized.

The next and widest band of the clockwise kaleidoscope belongs to the recreational skaters. People who make it a point to get out on the ice every so often just because it’s fun at the rink. Gaggles of girls gossip while pimply boys trail them, skating on the insides of their ankles. Toddlers cling to their mothers, and show-offy girls with pom-poms on their boots toss their hair for whoever may be looking.

Threading dangerously through all of this are the black-booted hockey boys, shilting along on shiny blades that shave the ice into slush. Their blades have no teeth for braking. They are coiled and confident, swooping like ravens through the crowd, threading the needle, startling everyone.

The outermost circle wavers with toddlers, wall-clingers and first-timers. They heel-toe it across the ice while clinging to the wooden barrier. Children on double-runners tumble forward, or fall backward; smacking the ice so hard it takes a minute before they can gather their breath to wail. Everyone skates around them. Skating is about falling down and getting up again.

Encircling this dial of life are the bleachers, and if you look closely you can see me sitting towards the top, a review copy of something open in my lap, watching the mandala move, hoisting a thumb’s-up every time one of my daughters skates past in the rotation.

I am a native New Yorker; so skating has always been a part of my life. My mother loved skating so much she wrote a book about it. She took my sister and me on regular excursions to Rockefeller Center and the Wollman Rink, of course, and I have many happy memories of those places. But the rink I most loved was an indoor rink out in Yonkers, next to the Stella D’Oro cookie factory. Its exterior was of the same vintage and non-aesthetic as the Culver rink. A teenager in a ticket booth clicked us through a turnstyle. Thick strips of meat locker plastic hung over the entry and a fan blew us inward. Once inside we beheld the utter enchantment of the rink.

Disco fever had turned skating sexy. It was the era of ice dancing. Pools of colored light slid across freshly-Zamboni’d ice and Donna Summer filed the air. My mom would lace me so tightly into my boots I’d lose all feeling in my feet. I staggered like a double amputee across black rubber mats to the rink’s edge. But the minute my blade found the curved, dirty edge of the ice, a strange, hypnotic grace would come over me. I could glide, and the beauty of smooth, horizontal movement transformed me. I became Esther Williams, Fanny Bryce and Billie Jean King all wrapped up in one eleven year-old girl. I felt lovely and powerful, even as I wobbled and fell.

Girls need that, so I made it a point to bring mine to the Culver Arena on a semi-regular basis, in an era when Britney Spears was on the P.A. and “girl power” was a hot slogan. I bundled up and endured the chill and the monotony of the bleachers every week to catch up on work. Sometimes, though, I would give in to the urge to rent skates and join my girls, feeling once again the singular grace and beauty of moving over ice on steel blades.

They still play Donna Summer at the Culver Ice Arena and “Last Dance” fades out as a voice booms out over the P.A. telling everyone to clear the rink, free skate is over. My girls come off the ice and we are ready for the other thing we came to the Culver Ice Arena for – the snack shop.

A desultory teen takes our order. He pushes the button on the hot chocolate machine and sweet brown liquid groans into a Styrofoam cup. A wad of soft, salty, pretzel-shaped dough is removed from the science oven and served to us on a thin paper plate. Carbs, salt and sugar – it’s all we need to get to get us home to dinner. We sip cocoa and watch as the Zamboni lumbers out onto the ice. It moves slowly, transforming the shredded ice back into wet glass. All of the loops and dents, the crazy script of our feet is erased forever.

It isn’t that the loss of the Culver Ice Arena will mean the end of skating, just a certain type of skating for a certain population of Los Angelenos. Future Olympians destined for gold will find their way out to the Valley, or down to Orange County, where other rinks remain open for training. The LA Kings will find a new place to practice. But the closing of the Culver Ice Arena will destroy a unique and beautiful cultural and social ecosystem that has been benefitting locals for over fifty years.

I heard there is a possibility that when they switch off the freezers at the Culver Rink and let the ice melt, and the half century of permafrost under the building thaws, the whole building will simply collapse. It would make the next owners’ job easier. No wrecking ball needed, just a bulldozer, the Zamboni of earth, erasing forever the place where generations of people once came to spin and twirl together.