Down the hill, past a basketball court, a steep flight of stairs and ringed by cars is what appears to be a large fallout shelter. Blank and plain, it could be also be a warehouse. Or a gymnasium.
Get closer, though, and you can’t help but feel the bass — the thumping heart of something undeniably alive.
It’s Memorial Day at Branch Brook Park Skating Center in Newark. As block parties and barbecues wind down outside in the tepid air, the rink is flush with holiday skaters coasting to the drumbeats of house music. One woman in a hijab exits the main procession of wheels to conduct a dance reverie that goes against the grain, generating her own groovy orbit at rink’s center. A young boy grips a wheeled balance support, faltering momentarily before pushing past two girls wearing disco-pink glowstick necklaces. As the “Cha Cha Slide” cues up on the speakers, a few skateless women get funky in the lobby.
This kind of scene — but mostly the people in it — star in a documentary called “The Rink” screening tomorrow at the New Jersey Film Festival. In telling the story of Newark skaters, the filmmakers paint Branch Brook’s rink as an oasis.
“Branch Brook is one of the last urban roller rinks in the tri-state area.” However, more than just some last stand in the fading roller skate landscape, the rink can be an intensely personal outlet for those who call it home.
“For me, it’s not about the space,” says Ryan Joseph, the film’s cinematographer and co-producer. As the documentarians see it, theirs is the story of Newark. Narratives about drug abuse, jail time and redemption are intercut with footage of skaters, mobile and liquid on Branch Brook’s heavily traced surface.
“The rink is a place that’s in constant motion,” says Sarah Friedland, the film’s director and co-producer. “It never stops.”
Friedland, 33, is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Joseph, 36, is a production associate at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of Arts and adjunct professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. They first teamed up while students at Hunter College’s integrated media arts program, and have received a grant to take the film on a tour of U.S. roller rinks.
The pair originally intended to pursue a project about a women’s roller derby team. Starting in 2008, Joseph, who grew up in Trinidad and lived in Newark before moving to Jersey City, photographed the Garden State Rollergirls, striking up a rapport with skaters. Yet derby was only a fraction of the rink’s lifeblood. Many who frequent the spot are gospel skaters, and adult skate-dancers.
So Joseph and Friedland decided to follow characters from two skating subsets. One, Michelle “Bone Saw” Taylor, 34, is a roller derby skater who spends her days working construction. Another, Gralen Stephon Vereen, 50 during the film, is a gospel skater who lives in Kearny and works at the Motor Vehicle Commission.
“Roller derby and roller skating is an alternate world for myself,” she says. “It gives me a chance to be who I am. To escape the harshness of reality.”
As a younger man, Vereen was ruled by the drug use that accompanied nights at Zanzibar, a club formerly located on Newark’s Broad Street. It was a hub for house music in the ’80s and ’90s. “I was a crackhead,” he says. Reclaiming his role as a father, Vereen uses Branch Brook as a “cleaner” route to expression — the music and dance without the vice.
“The Rink” frames Branch Brook as a symbol of revitalization for Newark, placing it in the context of city history, including the rise and fall of the First Ward projects, and the 1967 riots that propelled city unrest into national headlines.
Joseph says that while children may exclusively fill suburban rinks, Branch Brook routinely caters to older skaters. On Sundays and first Thursdays it’s a veritable nightclub on wheels.
“The only thing that’s missing is a bar,” says Joseph. Such vibrancy is juxtaposed with the demise of rinks in New Jersey and New York. A late addition to skating culture, Branch Brook Park Skating Center opened its doors in 1996. In the documentary, its predecessors are listed as epitaphs. The Bronx’s Skate Key: 1980-2006. Manhattan’s Roxy: 1978-2007. Dreamland and Twin City, on the Elizabeth-Newark border.
Today, Branch Brook honors skate palaces of yore, their names inked brightly on a wall under the heading, “Gone But Not Forgotten.” The film interviews displaced skaters who come to Newark but are angry, sad and frustrated that their home rinks have been shuttered.
“Probably 60 percent of our customers are from out of town,” says Jaquaya Clark, 23, sales director at the Newark rink. “We also get people from Maryland, from Camden and things like that.”
The reason for Branch Brook’s staying power is its location on public land, says Michael Feiger, who was born in Newark and grew up in West Orange. Appearing in “The Rink,” he’s a partner in United Skates ofAmerica, which has a contract with Essex County for Branch Brook. Feiger also owned Brooklyn’s Empire Roller Skating Center, which closed in 2007.
“I was right in the middle of a community losing this valuable resource,” he says.
A particular sequence in the film casts Branch Brook as a literal savior of urban skating. In it, the Newark artist Jerry Gant interprets skating as transformation. Take a person off the street, he says, strap on some wheels, and “It’s like seeing a superhero … materializing in front of you.”
With that, the camera returns to the rink on adult skate night. A house track, Black Coffee’s “Superman,” plays like a siren song, the question “Can You Be My Superman?” forming a plaintive chorus. Couples loop through the dim space like they’re driving a club highway, street lights swapped for disco balls.
As the music continues, the focus shifts to the street, flooded with daylight. People stand idle, or walk as if burdened, wearing strained expressions on their faces.
Back to the rink.
Inside, they’re weightless. Flying.
Where: Screening at the opening of the New Jersey Film Festival, Rutgers University’s Voorhees Hall #105, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick.
When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
How much: $10. Call (848) 932-8482 or visit njfilmfest.com. For more information, visit therinkfilm.com
What else: The film will also be shown as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival; it screens 6:30 p.m. June 7 at indieScreen and 4 p.m. June 9 at Windmill Studios, both in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Visit brooklynfilmfestival.org