West Philly is home to America’s first ice rink built by and for a black community – and this week it reached 36 | Way of life
Jimi Lewis slipped on the ice to teach his first skating lesson over 50 years ago. Thirty of those years were spent on the cold, slick ice rink behind a small grove of trees on Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philadelphia, in the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives.
âI told them that when I die I want them to dig a hole in the middle of the ice and bury me there so I’m still there,â Lewis said. âI am happy here.
Lewis’ happy place – Laura Sims Skate House – turned 36 on Tuesday. Lewis, who had been away for the day after a busy opening weekend to greet the skaters on the ice, remembers the day he learned that an ice rink was coming to his neighborhood.
Lewis was then teaching students at the University of Pennsylvania and Haverford Township rinks. The mother of one of his students called him to tell him that Cobbs Creek had her own ice rink.
âI got on my bike and got down there,â the septuagenarian remembers. “I stood up and watched them build the rink with tears in my eyes.”
He was delighted to be able to introduce skating to the children of his neighborhood. Immediately he knew he had to work on it. He was the second hired just after the director.
This shock and excitement made sense. Laura Sims was the first ice rink created for an African-American community by an African-American architect. The staff, which still include Lewis, have been predominantly black over the decades.
The city-owned ice rink opened in 1985, designed by Theodore R. Capers, the principal architect of Saxon & Capers and one of the few black architects working in an area that is still predominantly white today with less than 2% of certified architects. identifying himself as black or African American. Capers, who also rebuilt two other rinks in the city, Scanlon and Tarken, is known for designing the renovations to the Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library. Blackwell, who died in 2003, was a force behind the rink, securing funding for land and construction, but the dream of a rink for Cobbs Creek began in 1973 with a resident and community organizer named Laura Sims. It took over a decade of writing letters, petitions and meetings – and it paid off.
Sims didn’t know much about hockey, but wanted the neighborhood kids to have the chance to participate in a game played by kids from the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in town. Decades later, the sport continues to grapple with allegations of a racist internal culture and lack of diversity.
Lewis, who fell in love with ice skating at the age of 11 after visiting the old Philadelphia arena and rink with an uncle who worked there, remembers how Sims made his case for the rink.
The activist was hitting walls with city council, where members said there was no need for an ice rink in Cobbs Creek because black kids didn’t skate as much as white kids.
She decided to invite some members of the city council to her home in the neighborhood. When the politicians arrived, they saw a school bus parked outside, full of kids ready to hit the ice at the Wissahickon Skating Club in Chestnut Hill.
âAnd when she brought them in, she said, ‘They’re going to skate in Wissahickon and why? This is our neighborhood. They love to ice skate, but they don’t stand a chance unless we do something in our neighborhood, âLewis said, telling the story.
When Sims and Blackwell finally got it right, the kids showed up to prove his point. About 1,500 people attended the opening of the facility, then known as Cobbs Creek Skate House in the Park. After a recruiting push from Sims and others, neighborhood kids were lining up to try out this mysterious cold-weather sport.
At its peak, more than 100 players between the ages of 6 and 18 competed in teams. Two-thirds of the players were black. The other third were white children from Delaware County.
Over the decades, the rink is recognized for being one of the first in town to offer weekly classes to local school children, provide scholarships through the Cobbs Creek Figure Skating School, and host multiple tournaments and programs focused on diversity as well as after-school tutoring.
Four of Lewis’s students went on to become professional skaters. Lewis himself has been a chef, artist, dancer and singer, but Laura Sims’ ice skating will always have his heart. Friday night, the first night of the season at the rink, he was there, welcoming the children as he graciously moved around the Olympic expanse. He pointed out that the young skaters twirled on the ice as alumni and encouraged the beginners to let go of the wall.
âThis is the only place where I know that no matter whatâ¦ if I come here, I will be happy,â he said.
Due to the pandemic, the rink does not give private lessons, but free skating began last Friday. Residents can register to skate here. Public skating is from 10 a.m. to noon.
This article first appeared on WHYY.org.