Ten-year-old Susanna Aderotimi had been roller skating only once before Friday.
But after a few laps around a new outdoor rink in West Garfield Park, she already was planning a return visit.
“I like that you get to move around,” said Susanna, who attended the rink’s opening day Friday with a group of Chicago Park District day campers. “It’s like exercising.”
The rink, at 4008 W. Madison St., is only a temporary structure, built on one of many empty lots along the neighborhood’s main commercial corridor.
Along with the rink, there’s a community plaza — a project that some residents hope is the start of rebuilding the West Side.
The main attraction is the outdoor roller rink, where attendees can borrow skates at no cost if they don’t bring their own.
Besides dozens of day campers, there also were some Chicago police officers taking spins around the rink.
Business was brisk, with dozens crowding into the plaza and taking their turn on skates at any one time.
As some adjusted to having wheels for feet, others used Friday as a chance to show off more advanced skills.
Fifteen-year-old Jaquan Yates has been skating since his sister got him interested nearly four years ago. Like Susanna, Jaquan said skating helps give him a workout.
“(The outdoor rink) is a good place to practice because it’s different from skating on concrete or at indoor rinks,” he said.
Jaquan said he’s happy there’s a rink in his neighborhood now and plans to be there often.
The plaza, built by All-Bry Construction Co., was paid for with money from the state’s Cannabis Regulation Fund. It has tables beneath a white tent on one side of the rink and more under green and orange umbrellas on the other side. Another rest area across from the rink includes benches and logs for sitting.
The city has plans to erect a permanent structure by next June, with construction starting in the fall. The temporary plaza will remain open until fall, though the exact closing date remains uncertain. Entrance to the plaza and rink is free.
Ald Jason Ervin (28th) said while the rink was specifically requested by residents, the extra seating leaves room for the plaza to offer more than just skating. Friday night, there was a showing of “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
Mercedes Pickett, 29, was the first to step into the rink on Friday. She lives just a couple of blocks away, so she put on her rollerblades and skated to the rink. After rolling up to the plaza, she swapped her rollerblades for a pair of loaners from the rink.
Pickett said the outdoor roller rink is exactly what the youth of the West Side need.
“Allowing youth to utilize this facility is going to give them the voice to say, ‘We are here and we are taking back our empty lots,’” Pickett said.
The more space youth and families can take up, the better chance they have of disrupting crime in the area, she said.
The Sun-Times reported in June about plans for the rink and, despite the joy some residents felt about the rink, others were concerned about placing an outdoor rink so close to a known open-air drug market and high-crime area.
Nicole Harrison, 35, grew up skating, although it was only during the pandemic, when she found herself with more free time, that she got back into it. She didn’t know what to expect of the new rink, and when she heard it would be at Madison Street and Pulaski Road, Harrison wasn’t sure it would work out.
But seeing the number of people show up for Friday’s first day left Harrison hopeful.
“I think people on the West Side have a respect for each other and wouldn’t turn this negative,” Harrison said. “People have respect for safe spaces, and this could be one.”
Ervin acknowledged community concerns over the plaza’s location but said the rink is still a step in the right direction when it comes to combating the violence.
“The jury is still out to see if this will work out,” Ervin said. “If we have to regroup in a few weeks, that’s OK. But we know doing nothing won’t solve anything.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.