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Wanna Try Roller-Skating in San Francisco? Better Head to Church

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People in roller skates cruise around a large empty church, now converted into a roller rink. Multicolored laser lights fill the room, and a shimmering disco ball hangs from the ceiling. The walls of the room are lined with the church's original stained glass windows depicting Catholic religious imagery.
Skaters get warmed up at the beginning of a skate session at the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Read the transcript of this episode of Bay Curious.

The Bay Area is filled with unique things to do — you could find a porcelain treasure on a beach covered in 70-year-old ceramics, visit a herd of bison in Golden Gate Park or, as Bay Curious listener Katie Talda discovered, go to a roller disco in an old Catholic church.

Katie and friends recently visited the Church of 8 Wheels, San Francisco’s only indoor skating rink. She said it’s not what she expected to find based on the outside of the building.

“It’s a huge open space and you expect to walk in and, I don’t know, go see an opera,” she said. “But instead there’s people rolling around in circles. Then you get all the fun music playing and lots of cool lighting.”

The novelty of this experience left her wondering: When did the building go from being an active church to a roller-skating rink?

Skaters make their way around the rink while classic disco and soul plays at the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Godfather of Skate

The Church of 8 Wheels roller disco is run by David G. Miles Jr., a legend in the Bay Area’s skate scene. To many he’s known as “The Godfather of Skate.” As Miles says, “Skating is my entire life.” Miles grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and learned to skate as a kid, taught by his older sisters. He says his family went to the roller rink often: “We went roller-skating like, you know, people go to the movies,” he said.

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But it was moving to San Francisco that really set him on the path to becoming a roller-skating devotee. Miles arrived in the late ’70s, when skating had exploded all over the city, especially in Golden Gate Park. According to the park’s own estimates, in the summer of 1979, anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 skaters would show up to cruise along JFK Drive on Sundays. Miles quickly became part of the scene.

The boom in skating also caused contention with city residents, who pushed for a total ban on skating in San Francisco. Miles joined the Golden Gate Park Skate Patrol, a skating ambassador group formed to keep skaters in the park safe and in designated areas. They skated all the way from San Francisco to Sacramento to make their case to the state of California that cities should be allowed to regulate, but not outright ban, roller-skating. They won.

By the late ’80s, Miles was making a living exclusively with skate lessons and events. In 2000, he attended Burning Man for the first time — it would become a regular occurrence for him. He’s part of the camp that builds the Black Rock Roller Disco, which they run 24 hours a day the whole week of Burning Man. There is clearly Burning Man influence in Miles’ skating outfits, too, and in the space that would become the Church of 8 Wheels.

David Miles skates back to his DJ booth at the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

From church to roller disco

The building that now houses the roller rink, at 554 Fillmore Street, is part of what was formerly the Sacred Heart Catholic Church complex, consisting of the church, the rectory, the convent and a school. The church was designed by architect Thomas John Welsh, who designed many other Catholic churches and schools in the Bay Area. Built in 1897, it survived the 1906 earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, on the corner of Fell and Fillmore streets in San Francisco, 1939. (Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

In 2004, the Archdiocese of San Francisco announced the church would be closed, due to the high cost of seismic repairs. The property was sold to a private buyer. The building has since been designated a historic landmark in the National Register of Historic Places.

Miles says the roller disco in the church started out as a one-night party. In 2013, a friend of his suggested he get in contact with the owner of the empty church to see if they could host a skate night there. The owner agreed, on the condition that Miles help clean up the inside of the building first. They hosted the party, and it was a success. Miles says he even had a rope light up in the shape of an 8, perhaps anticipating the future Church of 8 Wheels.

Following the success of the first party, the skating night became a weekly event. Now they’re up to four nights a week, and Miles said recently they’ve made their agreement in the space more permanent.

“So we’re basically here forever,” he said, “It’s better than [winning] the lottery. It’s so fun. People call it a job, but it’s not a job. I would never stop doing this.”

David Miles announces that skaters will change direction at the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Over the years they’ve made more improvements to the building, refinishing the floor into a smooth surface for skating, and installing a ton of disco lights and a professional sound system. Where the church’s main altar once stood, now there’s a DJ booth. The Godfather of Skate is usually there playing a collection of disco and soul hits while wearing one of his signature colorful top hats.

Miles also continues to champion skating everywhere in the city. Outside of the church, Miles and his fellow skaters are often found at the now-permanent “Skatin’ Place” in Golden Gate Park.

“What you have at [Golden Gate Park] is like my masterpiece outdoor roller rink,” said Miles. “I’ve nurtured it from 1984 all the way up to now. [The city] just improved it. They enlarged it 7,000 more square feet. And to top that off, they did a mural — 93 feet long — that commemorates roller-skating in the park forever.”

Quite the change of heart from the city’s stance in the 1970s — in part thanks to the Godfather of Skate.

Skaters make their way around the rink while classic disco and soul plays at the Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

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