At this writing—a few days before Christmas—I have just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City to take in the holiday attractions we hear so much about, like the big tree in Rockefeller Center and so forth.
So forth is right; there’s lots to take in any time in New York, but the holiday season is especially intense there. The real miracle on 34th street is that you can get in the door of jam-packed Macy’s department store.
But this is not a travelogue. My role here is to recall Duluth’s near-western neighborhoods, particularly what was once known as the West End, where I grew up. In touring around New York City, though, I couldn’t help but notice that the so-called Big Apple is actually ahead of Duluth as far as outdoor ice skating is concerned, a pastime I once enjoyed at outdoor rinks in my old neighborhood.
Weather permitting, Duluth’s outdoor skating rinks try to get going once December is under way, usually not that-all successfully. They are not open at this writing, for example.
But they’re skating outdoors in the Big Apple—at Rockefeller Center, of course, and at Bryant Park next to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan. I suppose they have outdoor artificial ice there and we have to wait for the weather to cooperate.
I couldn’t help but notice, though, that people skating at these high profile rinks are not as adept on the blades as folks generally are around here. Lots of hesitancy and stumbling around. I did my early stumbling around at Lincoln Park rink in the West End, 25th Avenue West between Fifth and Sixth streets.
It was one of two major rinks maintained by the city in that part of town. The other was at Harrison playground on Third Street at 30th Avenue West. I skated there too, at times, but Lincoln rink was my home rink. (For a time—and for the record—the West End also had a pair of small minor rinks—one at 19th Avenue West and First Street and the other adjacent to the former Ensign School, Piedmont Avenue and 11th Street.)
Unlike today—when hockey seems to have all but taken over many of Duluth’s outdoor rinks, with sparse use of so-called pleasure skating areas, when I was a youngster (mainly the early 1950s)—outdoor rinks were packed with skaters just about every night; children and young people going around and around counterclockwise, boys teasing girls by pulling off their babushkas. (Well, they called them scarves, but their function was the same as the babushka.)
The Lincoln Park rink’s warming house was unlike any I have ever visited, and is worth describing here because of its uniqueness. I still don’t know why it was configured this way: The wood-frame structure was long and narrow, and had three partitioned sections that were divided by cyclone fencing, so you could see through the entire building but only enter one section at a time. Girls changed their skates and warmed up in one end, boys on the opposite end, and in the middle was the domain of the omnipotent rink director and his royal court. It was from there that a barrel stove warmed the entire interior.
Strangely, there was absolutely no intermingling of boys and girls in the Lincoln Park warming house. It was like social practices in Pakistan or Afghanistan that segregate males and females. Some older boys and a few adolescent girls were allowed in the middle section, where the rink director reigned, to keep him company.
I never figured out how to be invited into the middle section, but, looking back, I think the secret was to display brashness and coolness on the part of the boys and cuteness, despite babushkas, on the part of the girls. The rink director I knew best—but I doubt he knew lowly me—was a stocky guy called Bud, who ruled his domain with an iron hand. Truly, it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to enter the sanctum sanctorum middle section of Duluth’s Lincoln Park rink warming house—unless you were brash or beautiful.
When I got a little older, I switched to the Harrison rink, where its sizeable brick warming house was gender integrated. Harrison had had its halcyon days in the 1920s when even adults took to skating for regular recreation—this according to my father, who frequented Harrison after service during World War I and on into the ’20s, which were his 20s. It was still going pretty strong in the mid-1950s when I joined in games of pom-pom pull away after the little kids were sent home after 9 p.m.
Harrison Park no longer has a skating rink, but remains as a fair-weather playground. The Lincoln Park rink has been flooded and maintained in recent winters, but on the occasions when I’ve driven by I rarely saw anyone skating there. The three-section Lincoln warming house was burned down by vandals years ago, replaced with a cement block structure.
So, at this writing, they’re skating outdoors in New York City, but not yet in Duluth, which is regarded as the frozen north by New Yorkers. But we’re better skaters, once we get started.
[Editor’s note: Most of Duluth’s rinks were operational before Christmas, but Lincoln Park’s rink was still not open as of the last weekend in December.]