When 19-year-old Alexis Hack slips on a pair of inline skates and takes to the streets, people look at her like she’s crazy.
“They’re like, ‘What does she have on?’” Hack says. “Rollerblading can go either way. It can be like you’re weird, or it can be like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’”
Almost any inline skater in Philly — especially those who skated in decades past — will tell you the sport isn’t what it used to be. There’s a tendency to think inline skates (colloquially known as Rollerblades, after the Nordica brand that made them popular) are still trapped in the 1980s or ’90s, forever snug on the feet of some happy, neon-clad person sporting knee-length tube socks, sweatbands, and maybe a boombox. A quick Google search for “rollerbladers” will further this image.
But that doesn’t stop Hack from skating. It’s something she grew up doing, and she’s always thought of it as a fun, easy way to get some exercise.
While rollerblading may not be the sport of the future, a devoted number of skaters are keeping it alive. For some, like Hack, it’s a matter of strapping on a pair of skates and hitting the streets. Others see it as a social activity and a unique way to engage with the city, albeit one that depends on small, tight-knit groups of enthusiasts for survival. If these groups can attract a new generation of bladers, they may very well have a presence in Philly for years to come.
Hack, a student at Temple University, says she has never heard of the Landskaters Inline Skate Club, Philadelphia’s largest group of rollerbladers. That’s because the Landskaters, who first got together in the ’80s, aren’t easy to come by. They don’t actively seek new members and, unlike many meetup groups in Philly, their online presence is barely existent. It’s easy to tell that the ’90s was the club’s golden era — its website looks like it hasn’t had a makeover since then. But the Landskaters are active, even if their numbers have dwindled.
When the Landskaters get together, they travel in a fast-moving pack, carving paths through the city with a fluid ease. The club meets twice a week, on Sundays and Tuesdays, always starting in front of the Art Museum and traveling about 12-13 miles per ride. Those newer to rollerblading are encouraged to show up for the Sunday morning ride, which is held at a slower pace. But the group doesn’t get as many newcomers as its members would like.
“We don’t bring in the young people,” says 59-year-old Rocco Sciulli, who leads the rides.
With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine the group ever appealing beyond its existing community, unless fresher faces get involved or it finds a way to connect with younger skaters via social media. (The Landskaters already use Facebook to organize among themselves.) Until that happens, Philly’s rollerblading resurgence will remain little more than a few scattered, dedicated fringe groups.
Right now, the Landskaters don’t seem to mind their modest numbers or retro identity. All that matters is they skate. The sport wasn’t something Sciulli planned to master 17 years ago, when he first started blading. It was more of an activity he fell into after a knee injury kept him away from ice hockey, his priority at the time. He found that he could move with the same speed and freedom the ice had afforded, but for miles and miles, past cars, houses, waterways and high rises. The blades gave him an entirely new perspective on the roads he thought he knew. “Skating is a unique way to see the city,” he says.
When his knee got better, Sciulli kept the skates. Soon afterward he found the Landskaters, a group of about 50 like-minded people who also get a rush out of zipping through the city.
“I got my legs back. I fell in love with the sport. I feel like I’m 16 on my skates.”
The group has a fairly wide age range, with the average somewhere in the 40s or 50s. Bobby Brown, 28, is the youngest. His mom taught him to skate during his childhood in Boston, and he never gave it up. Brown is also involved in the local indoor skating scene, which largely revolves around the Philly Roller Derby team. An aggressive, devoted group of women, Philly Roller Derby competes in cutthroat races around indoor tracks against others teams in a formal league.
By comparison, the Landskaters are far less organized, don’t compete, and aren’t necessarily die-hard rollerbladers. The one thing they all have in common is their love for staying active, and they simply prefer blading as a means of doing so. Many, like Sciulli, came to rollerblading through other sports. His story is similar to that of fellow Landskater Chuck Gillman, 70, who also picked up skating because of a knee injury that slowed his running career.
“I got my legs back,” Gillman says. “I fell in love with the sport. I feel like I’m 16 on my skates.”
Gillman is one of Philadelphia’s few longtime rollerbladers. He saw the sport in its prime and he’s seen its popularity diminish, though he doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. He’s gotten to know a lot of skaters, and one thing he’s picked up on is their demographic versatility. People who skate are rarely just skaters. They’re also skiers, skateboarders, surfers, snowboarders, and a whole lot more.
In fact, Gillman links the downfall of rollerblading to the rise of some of these other sports, which gained popularity around the same time. “Culturally, it was cooler to be on a board than skates,” he says. “A lot of people must have said, ‘Hey, that was an ’80s thing.’”
Neglected Truth Rollerblade Shop, once located on Lancaster Avenue in West Philly, deemed itself “Philadelphia’s only Rollerblade shop.” But it closed several years ago. So what keeps skaters together and active, other than their passion for rollerblading?
Beer, for one thing. The Landskaters often end their rides at a bar.
“It’s a very social thing,” Sciulli says. “I sometimes say we’re a drinking group with a skating problem.” For that reason, the Landskaters can function as a meetup group for like-minded, athletic and adventurous people. Sciulli says a lot of relationships, both platonic and romantic, have come out of the group.
“People get gym memberships, but after two or three weeks it’s no longer fun. I still find skating to be fun.”
The club’s social aspect is what attracted Susan Vinchiarello, who joined around 1995, when she was 35 years old. A skier since age 15, she was looking for a sport to hold her over in the summer. Now, she’s one of the Landskaters’ certified rollerblading instructors.
Sciulli says the group has toyed with the idea of offering free lessons, since there aren’t many places in the city that do so. By teaching others to skate, Vinchiarello hopes she can foster a love for the sport in others. “Often people get gym memberships, but after two or three weeks it’s no longer fun,” she says. “I still find skating to be fun.”
Nothing has come to fruition yet, but lessons could be one way for the Landskaters to expand, build a bigger presence, and attract younger people like Alexis Hack. For now, Hack will keep skating on her own, exploring parts of the city she hasn’t seen.
“With Rollerblades, you can go anywhere,” she says.
Maybe she’ll meet a fellow skater on the way. ◆
Photos by Margo Reed