Through a “heartbreaking” year, neighborhood parks help New Yorkers roll with the punches
As New York City’s coronavirus lockdown stretched from days to weeks, Kelley Heyer grew desperate for distraction. “April and May in particular were really tough and scary, with so many people getting sick,” says Heyer. Her work as an actress and a nanny had dried up practically overnight, so like millions of her fellow New Yorkers, she was suddenly cooped up in a small apartment, pushing herself to keep afloat on the surreal sea of grief, fear, and boredom.
That’s when she started to notice a trend. “Suddenly, roller skates were everywhere on Instagram,” she says. “I thought, that looks really fun! I want to wear cute outfits and learn how to roller skate!”
She wasn’t alone: sales of outdoor gear like roller skates spiked this spring as more people sought ways to keep active during the early days of the pandemic. Vogue called skating “The Trend of Summer 2020.” Heyer managed to track down a pair of skates online, which arrived on her doorstep in late spring, just as the city’s coronavirus infection curve reach a level where it was safer for people to venture outdoors. “I was itching to get outside, and the skates came into my life,” Heyer says.
The next step? Finding a place to skate. The skaters she followed on Instagram glided down wide suburban boulevards, not a pothole or pedestrian in sight. “Well, I live in Manhattan,” Heyer says. “I didn’t want to be dodging traffic and puddles and dogs and people and construction before I even really know how to stop or steer.”
Heyer did a mental inventory of her neighborhood. What about the schoolyard near her bus stop? She knew students weren’t there, so she figured it would probably be locked. But she carried her skates over one afternoon to check it out anyway—and was thrilled to discover that the gate was wide open.
Until her new hobby sent her searching for a patch of smooth pavement, Heyer didn’t know that the school down the block—P.S. 111—was one of 210 New York City schoolyards that The Trust for Public Land has helped renovate as a green, welcoming parks, open to the community when school’s not in session. “Oh my god, it was perfect,” Heyer said of her first time through the gates. “It’s enclosed, it’s quiet, the pavement is in great shape, and there’s even a turf field where I could practice my jumps.” She laced up her skates, straightened her face mask, buckled her helmet, and started teaching herself how to skate.
When we caught up to her, Heyer was two months in and making great progress. She’d gotten the hang of a move called “the manual,” popping up her front toe and back heel and gliding on two wheels. Her spins were getting smoother, and she was just getting balanced enough to try some dance moves she’d seen other skaters show off on Instagram.
Before students returned to school in September, Heyer tried to practice at P.S. 111 every day, which has given her the chance to connect with neighbors who are also taking advantage of the yard’s peace, quiet, and open space. (And as New York City’s schools have begun to reopen for in-person learning, outdoor space like P.S. 111 has been an important resource for students, teachers, and families as well.) “I’ve made friends with some of families who live around here, since I see them almost every time I go,” she says. Sometimes she’ll chase little kids on scooters across the basketball court, and other times she’ll pull her skates off and hang out with them in the shade. “Their parents have been inside with the kids for most of COVID, so they seem grateful to have someone else to distract them,” she says.
Shade trees, ground murals, benches, turf, and a track are just a few of the upgrades we helped bring to P.S. 111 in Manhattan. It’s one of 210 playgrounds we’ve transformed into green, welcoming public parks throughout New York City.
Photos: Timothy Schenck
After months without work, she’s hopeful that some of the momentum she’d built behind her acting career will return as the industry finds ways to get safely back to work, and she misses the kids she nannied for. The past few months have been “heartbreaking,” Heyer says, but skating at her neighborhood schoolyard has been “a much-needed break from the COVID madness.” Regardless of what happens in the months to come, she reckons skating is a hobby she’ll hang on to.
“It offers freedom and community, and a chance to be silly and girly, which I love,” she says. “But it’s great exercise, and it’s a real sport, too. Making it look easy is something you have to work for.”
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