This story was originally published in July 2016. It re-aired on Nov. 25, 2016 as part of The California Report Magazine’s “Hidden Gems” series.
Daniel Albert climbs a dusty church tower, lifts his arms above his head and grabs hold of a rope that comes from a hole in the ceiling. As he pulls it, the church bell on the other end chimes and resonates across this central San Francisco neighborhood. It’s 7 o’clock on a Friday night.
Then the music begins. But instead of hearing hymns, I hear disco. That’s because I’m at the Church of 8 Wheels. It’s a roller disco in a 120-year-old former Catholic church, just blocks from San Francisco’s famous Painted Lady rowhouses at Alamo Square. Albert is the operations manager, but he doubles as a rollerblading sensation. If you’ve been to this church, on Fillmore at Fell, you’ll know him as the guy with metallic reflective wings.
In the expansive space, old pews are pushed against the walls and lights reflect off a disco ball and onto the ceiling murals. David G. Miles Jr., known as the “Godfather of Skate,” proselytizes. “I am your roller disco minister,” he says. “I mean, it’s the Church of 8 Wheels, and as the godfather it’s my responsibility to spread rolligion everywhere I go.”
That’s right. Rolligion.
The Church of 8 Wheels is Miles’ brainchild.
He moved to San Francisco in 1979. “I started skating in Golden Gate Park on my third or fourth day in San Francisco,” he says. “When I went out there I saw four people go by on roller skates and I was like, ‘Wow! They do that here?! I can do that.’ I went and got a pair of skates.”
He met his wife in the park, and later their kids learned to skate just after they learned to walk. Miles organized skate groups on top of the Embarcadero Freeway after the earthquake of 1989, and he even skated from San Francisco to Los Angeles — 14 times.
I’m not that ambitious, but I figured I could at least skate for one night.
Miles’ daughter retrieves my skates while on her own wheels. I stow my bag at the coat check that Miles’ niece runs. Sometimes Miles’ son will DJ the bumping music that ties the experience together. It’s a real family operation.
Sitting in a pew, I lace up my skates. I want to look something like Miles in his fuzzy purple leg warmers and sparkly red-and-black top hat, so I put on the next best thing: a cupcake costume.
Whether you waddle or sail around the rink, there’s something incredible about the giant stained-glass windows and disco lights. Beyond the funky-meets-virtuous vibe, the history of this building is rich. The former Sacred Heart Church closed in 2004, due to low attendance and a need for costly seismic repairs. But during the century it was open, the church saw a demographic that changed with the neighborhood around it. Notably, it once housed a Black Panther breakfast program.
Tonight, though, it’s about funky town and raspberry berets. Miles, who takes turns DJing and skating, spots some first-time rollers.
“This is what I call the 45-second skate lesson,” he says, helping out a pair in their 30s. After doling out his standard instructions, he encourages them: “One lap. That’s all you need. When you come back around here you’ll be going, ‘Hey, it’s pretty cool.’ ”
Miles skates back over to me and smiles. “It never gets worse,” he says. “It only gets better. I love it.”