Ask the average person to name quintessential San Franciscan things off the top of their head and the list might look something like this—the Golden Gate bridge, ever-present fog, top-tier sourdough bread and that row of houses from the Full House intro.
Ask a local, however, and the list might look a little different—heated arguments over the best burrito spot, Dolores Park on a sunny day, a fondly remembered game at Candlestick…and a man named David Miles Jr.
Admittedly, most might not know Miles by name, but San Francisco’s “Godfather of Skate” has been a beloved fixture of the city and the wider Bay Area for over 40 years. His deep-seated love for roller skating has seen him sweep down the steps inside City Hall, skate from San Francisco to Los Angeles more than 15 times for charity and create safe spaces for communal skating all over the city.
“Every time something’s going on with skating, I’m doing it,” Miles told Hear/Say. And the Godfather moniker? “I think it had to do with James Brown—people thought that I was the hardest-working man in roller skating and so they started calling me ‘The Godfather.’”
Miles’ hard work normalizing roller skating in San Francisco is on display every Friday night and Sunday afternoon when crowds converge at Skatin’ Place, an unassuming asphalt lot nestled between JFK Drive and Fulton St., opposite the Music Concourse. Roller skaters of all ages, backgrounds and abilities gather to glide in infinite counter-clockwise circles or attempt choreographed dances to music pumping from the P.A. system Miles provides. Other visitors to Skatin’ Place line the grassy slopes around the lot, watching the colorful show and sharing snacks and drinks.
It has the easy feeling of a birthday party that happens to occur every weekend, or perhaps a family reunion that everyone is invited to—but Miles says it wasn’t always this way.
“We were not in their good graces,” Miles says, reflecting on city officials’ reactions to the early days of skating in the park. “You can say ‘prejudice’ and all, but that wasn’t it. It was more of a class thing.” In the beginning, roller skating, like most sports created without formal rules or designated practice areas, was considered the pastime of social outsiders and the rebellious youth—a far cry from the family-friendly sport it has evolved into. Earlier this year, Skatin’ Place even welcomed Mayor London Breed on a Sunday afternoon to help spread “rolligion,” as Miles calls it. “Now, the city basically accepts us. We’re an asset.”
Miles’ San Francisco journey actually starts in Kansas City, where he was working as a bricklayer in the 1970s, making good money but caught in a bad relationship and searching for a way to begin a new life. His mother had recently moved to San Francisco, and after hearing her descriptions of the West Coast, Miles followed her without looking back.
“I caught the bus, came out here, [and] they dropped me off on 6th and Market,” Miles says with a laugh. “You ever been down 6th and Market? Put it this way—I wasn’t impressed. At all.”
Soon enough though, Miles found his way to Golden Gate Park. “I saw four people go by on roller skates and said, ‘Wow. They let people skate out here?’” Miles remembers. “And they go, “Oh yeah, there’s lots of roller skaters, every Sunday the park’s closed to car traffic.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, okay cool, I’ll come check it out.’”
“It’s been 42 years. I might have missed 20 [Sundays] in that whole time. But from that moment on, I was hooked.”
Miles had found his new life and a brand new family that came with it. Every day after work, Miles would strap on his wheels and meet other skaters at the Bandshell on the western edge of the Museum Concourse. The scene drew a certain type of person, according to Miles: folks looking to find a safe space to express themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin. But not everyone appreciated the gaggle of skaters practicing moves or sharing a beer or two in the park. The “museum people,” as Miles calls them, (specifically the Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum) felt that the boisterous skaters were disruptive to the area. They wanted to remove them.
But then, something surprising happened. Instead of a brute force eviction, the museums teamed up with the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department to encourage Miles and his friends to join the first ever Skate Patrol. Enforcing no-skate areas, keeping the peace and administering first aid, the Skate Patrol, Rec and Parks promised, would help the general public accept skaters and prevent a blanket ban on skating. Miles became the group’s de facto leader after an impromptu election at a nearby bar on Geary St.—and the Godfather of Skate was born.
“I’m a military guy. I’m going to put you into squads,” Miles remembers thinking. “We’re going to get trained in first aid, certified in CPR, and we’re going to be a real force. Not just a motley crew running around roller skating. And from there, we started representing.”
The rest is history. Miles and the growing roller skate community championed a variety of causes they believed aligned with their 8-wheel ideals, like multiple skating events for charity, mobile roller rinks that traveled to Burning Man and the Electric Daisy Carnival and a decades-long campaign to make JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park permanently car-free. They even had a public access show chronicling their Sunday skating at Skatin’ Place.
“My whole thing is—let’s show them skating’s good,” Miles says. “I’ve basically been doing that ever since—trying to show the power that they’ve got nothing to fear from us. We just want to have a good time.”
Today, Miles and the roller skating community are seen as an asset and a uniquely San Franciscan feature, embraced by both city government and residents alike. When MIles isn’t running his current venture, a renovated church-turned-roller rink in the Lower Haight called, unsurprisingly, the Church of 8 Wheels, every Friday night and Sunday afternoon you can find him at Skatin’ Place, meeting old friends and sharing his love of roller skating with a new generation. Just look for the man dressed in bright colors and a top hat, waving a microphone like a drum major for a neon-colored circular parade.
“Get out there and live life,” Miles asserts when asked about his personal roller skating philosophy. “It might not be skating for you, maybe it’s something else. But it’s that special energy that you need to survive, that makes your life feel worthwhile. You’ve got to find it. I found it in skating, and I’m going to stick with it forever. It’s the key to my life.”Jesse Rogala can be reached at [email protected].