Black Kids Need Safe Play Spaces in Every City

We owe our children safe places to play and enjoy childhood. Chicago’s Rich City Skate has always been committed to them.

By Jill Robi

Once upon a time, near the Chicagoland area in Richton Park, a safe hangout for Black youth was Rich City Skate. Owned by the Alexander Family for a decade, the facility had to close its doors in the summer of 2016 due to financial issues. Since that time, they’ve been featured in the documentary United Skates (available on HBO and HBO Max) and opened a struggling GoFundMe called Awaken the Dream in the fall of 2018. In the film, co-owner Buddy “Buddy Love” Alexander said, “We kept our admissions at $5 so that everybody could afford it. But it takes a lot of $5 to fill up this rink. It takes a lot of $5 to pay $96,000 in taxes.” Today, it would probably take a little bit more than $5— it will take tens of thousands of dollars to help the rink reopen.

Their goal with the fundraiser was to save the building of the rink, transferring it over to the nonprofit Tree of Knowledge Foundation. Though they planned to have a successful campaign and be able to open their doors by 2020, this was not meant to be. Rich City Skate remains in limbo.

We believe safety is a right, not a privilege, and we should provide the children with safe spaces.

The Alexander Family

Rich City Skate prided itself on its safe haven status. In the description of their GoFundMe, they stated the rink was, “a place where children (and adults) could find refuge from the mean streets. It was a neutral territory that would allow all who entered to remove their armor, laugh and smile, shake hands and relax. It was a safe place where children could once again be children.” On their GoFundMe, where they beseech donors to help the children, they comment on how the closing of the rink devastated the community, and that the number of youth killings has since increased.

When Black youth lose access to safe spaces or outlets to be kids, “it would definitely increase the depression rate in the state, starting at a very early age in comparison to how it used to be,” says Phoenix-based therapist Milan Daniel.

During the pandemic, activities, where youth could be with their peers, were especially limited. “After-school activities and sports are likewise limited, and many libraries and youth centers are closed indefinitely,” mentioned a Bloomberg report. While social media life has helped assuage some aspects of isolation, interacting with friends in person is a tall order to replace. Social cues, physical interaction, and general camaraderie are lost when limited to screen interactions.

Black teens, of course, have a whole different issue beyond the pandemic: having safe spaces where they won’t be watched with suspicion, viewed as criminals, and allowed to just be. Earlier this year, 17-year-old Terion Fortson was tased at the Historic Fourth Ward Skate Park in Atlanta. Eyewitness Brendon Aldridge said, “He was only vaping. She asked him for his ID. He was being calm, he wasn’t being like, ‘No, I’m not going to show you my ID.’ She tased him. It was crazy, because while he was on the ground, shaking, she was like, ‘Get down, get down,’ like he wasn’t already on the ground.”

Daniel also thought that indoor spaces, like the rink, can be helpful during the year, as they would be immune to climate changes like in the desert landscape of Arizona. “If there were more air-conditioned spaces for kids to do things that were a little more sports-like that we can’t do outside, that would make a difference,” says Daniel. Daniel was mindful of issues such as seasonal depression, and being stuck at home.

Indoor facilities, while useful in any city despite the weather or season, have to deal with costs in a lagging economy. The pandemic has contributed greatly to this issue. Facilities may be inundated with sick or resigning workers. And children are suffering for it.

In Chicago, the Alexanders say, “many [children] are held hostage in their homes and schools, afraid to go outside.”

In Las Vegas, Kayla T. spoke to the challenges of trying to find recreational outlets for her 9-year-old daughter. “You look up trying to find places for kids, and there’s nothing like that [right now]. We used to have a Bouncy World. We also have a skating rink. While they didn’t close it down, they raised the prices. It’s not a family-friendly budget place anymore.”

At the start of this year, Covid 19 cases were on an uptick and have continued to rise, propelled by the Omicron variant. Businesses have been affected across the board—including large retailers like Macys, Walgreens, Starbucks, Nike, and more—shutting down locations, and spending millions of dollars to help alleviate short-staffing.

“I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the business every two weeks like I was in 2020,” said Oklahoma City retail owner Morgan Harris of Green Bambino. “But we have no idea what businesses we will have to run post-pandemic. The uncertainty is here to stay several more months, if not longer.”

Meanwhile, in Hammond, Indiana, parent Mya G. said that despite societal challenges, there are many options for her 14-year-old son. “We have the Boys and Girls Club, and we have the YMCA. We also of course have outdoor parks.” Mya said that her son has the most fun at the Y, where he’s able to enjoy activities like basketball, swimming, and weight training.

And when it comes to the comfortability of predominantly Black spaces versus non-predominantly Black spaces, Daniel spoke about the differences. “Typically, individuals who have to grow up faster to handle things in the house, learn to pay bills, care for people, sometimes their parents, and sometimes see negative things. [Usually] a little sooner than they should in comparison to the more affluent, white cultures. Children of color do/will have a myriad of reasons outside of carrying adult weight in the house, by simply going to the store. A safe space to relax and enjoy themselves in an age-appropriate manner is a break they need from simply existing in society.”

Daniel also spoke about the importance of safe spaces for children of color, and how the lack of these resources will impact their psyche down the road. “It’s very important for kids who ‘grow up fast’ to have safe spaces to play. Without these spaces kids grow up to deal with mental disorders that stem from a form of childhood trauma; carrying [adult] weight they are not meant to carry.”

The Alexander family is still pushing to open the facility as a community-based rec center, or are open to a gifted location with their non-profit Eden 360 International.

“We haven’t given up the fight!” said Buddy Alexander. “Rich City Skate is in all of our hearts. The family wants to diversify and bring impact to our community.”