They glide through the night-blanketed streets of Montrose, the Heights and even Clear Lake, their skates clicking, bike bells chiming and headlamps bobbing across the smoothest asphalt in town. It's a parade without a cause, a procession without a funeral.
Two or three times a week, the street skate community gives its rolling ranks a reason to unite in a hobby that's held a unique place in the Houston landscape for more than 30 years.
Since the Urban Animals skate club evolved from a small klatch of rink rats playing hockey downtown in 1979, roller skating outdoors has surged and waned, kept alive by a group of "fun-lovin' folks who like to skate and socialize and drink cold beers," according to John McKay, who joined in 1981. Today, groups like the Houston Skate Trash and Inline Swine organizes five or six skates a week.
There are beginners skates, aerobic skates and social skates from bar to bar. When the weather warms up there are frequent, themed outings like the prom skate, the funny hat skate and the bra skate.
"Nobody gets left behind and everybody is welcome," Joelle Litwak, the informal organizer of a weekly skate that leaves from the Shiloh Club in the Heights, says.
I joined her and three other intrepid souls on a Wednesday night as temperatures dipped below 40 and the crisp sky revealed a full moon and vivid glances of the skyline along our route. As we wended our way along some of the Heights’ smoother streets and bike paths toward Washington Avenue, they were quick to tell me that the longer Thursday skate from Montrose Texas Art Supply gathers a much larger crowd. Their group's attendance rises as the temperature does too.
A biker joins the cause
If you don’t have skates but want to check out the scene, just bring your bike like I did. Sun and Ski Sports and McKay’s Montrose Skate Shop are good places to get equipped with either quad or inline skates, and the picnic loop in Memorial park is a good place to practice.
If you do arrive on eight wheels, the only requirement is that you know how to stop before taking to the street.
As we rolled a block or so down the right lane of Washington Avenue before the next bar, they told me how skaters convinced the city in 1991 to legalize skating in the streets, and that some even carried copies of the ordinance to remind police.
It turns out my compatriots for the evening had decades of Houston skating experience between them, and over the next beer they regaled me with tales of skating down parking garages, through the convention center and in the tunnels downtown. They also revealed a large overlap between the street skate and art car communities, and I began to realize that both represent the kind of quirky, non-pretentious groups that make Houston the approachable and laid back place that it is.
The next leg turns took us to the edge of Memorial Park, through interesting neighborhoods I’d never seen in the daytime and eventually to another bar. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you where it was or how we got back for one last beer at the Shiloh, but it was fun.
At 11:30 p.m. this small group of people I’d known for only a few hours were still offering me pointers, beer, and information on skating events, updated regularly at the Houston Skate Trash site.
Cruising around the often gravel-strewn streets of Houston on roller skates in the dark obviously isn’t for everyone. But if street skating sounds even remotely appealing, you’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier group of people to join.
As Litwak puts it, “we want to encourage people to come out and give it a try."