Ice, Served Two Ways: Plain or Glamorous

New York Times
December 24, 2009

by Ariel Kaminer

JEWEL BOX Bryant Park offers a glorious backdrop to skate against.

The weather report out of this month's climate summit in Copenhagen was cloudy with a chance of planetary annihilation. Scientists and protesters alike demanded radical change in how we live, work and govern.

Amid all the calls for public action, though, a New Yorker might also have heard a softer, more personal call as winter's chill settled in: Make the most of this cold weather; there may not be much of it left.

Already this year, one of the world's most famous ice skating races, the Elfstedentocht, has been placed on the endangered species list because of melting over large patches of the course. If the Netherlands are already too toasty for ice skating, how much longer can New Yorkers count on that simple childhood pleasure?

Just in time for such dispiriting questions, City Ice Pavilion in Long Island City, Queens – which proudly announces itself as New York's only rooftop skating rink – recently celebrated its grand opening. Well, "opening" is a bit of a stretch, since it's been up and running for a year.

Actually "rooftop" is a stretch, too. Doesn't it sound romantic – holding hands while you and your agile partner spin around the rink, graceful silhouettes framed by the Manhattan skyline? Unfortunately the roof is that of a two-story storage facility, and the entire thing is enclosed in a big white bubble, so in the end you might as well be underground. Oh well.

At 33,000 square feet, City Ice Pavilion is gigantic and pristine, as though someone had only just peeled away a protective layer of plastic. Surely people have sat in the bleachers, but they left no trace. Perhaps someone has eaten at the refreshment stands, but when I visited one weekday afternoon, they were closed. For a while, except for a small, static class clustered on one end of the rink, I was the only skater on the ice.

Having the run of an empty rink, with the klieg lights burning and a Black Eyed Peas song blaring, it is dangerously easy to picture yourself as the underdog hero of an '80s teen movie – the one where the bullies pick on the kid because he didn't make the hockey team, so he practices all night and destroys them at the next season's tryouts. Or the one where the bullies pick on the kid because his father is a skating rink janitor, so he practices all night and destroys them at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Either way, there is a scene toward the end where the kid is gliding around the arena as though suddenly weightless, hands raised high in victory, eyes scanning the jubilant crowd for the coach who never gave up on him, while tears of joy and pain and sheer physical exhaustion stream down his cheeks.

I managed to avoid getting quite that emotional, but I must say, it was a lot of fun.

Eventually a few more people tottered on. A stocky guy, new to such pursuits, tried lacing his skates like his sneakers – wide open – and immediately fell on his face. The teenage boy with the Russian accent was making strides with the tiny girl in barrettes and leg warmers. The class was lined up shoulder to shoulder, taking big Frankenstein steps like some scene from "Thriller."

The climate in the rink was relatively mild: One teenage girl skated in a tank top. Still, keeping that bubble of air the right temperature is no mean feat. Think about what it costs to run a household refrigerator. Now multiply that by a space the size of an airplane hangar, plus the additional chilling for the ice itself. That's just what it costs the rink operators. The cost to the environment is harder to calculate, but the cooler it gets inside ice skating rinks, the warmer it eventually gets outside.

Climate control is not an issue at the Pond, the outdoor skating rink in Bryant Park, which Citigroup sponsors. The Pond is outdoors, so air-conditioning is provided by Mother Nature.

The differences from Long Island City continue from there.

The setting – in one of the city's prettiest parks, between the Grace Building to the north and the old American Radiator Building to the south – is so inherently glamorous that when the Zamboni comes out, accompanied by the lush strains of "You Go to My Head," it feels as though a star has graced the adoring crowd with yet one more curtain call. Spectators stand up to take pictures.

On the northeast corner of the rink, visitors can drink $12 cocktails on low white couches at Celsius. Or they can stroll through more than 100 temporary shops selling gifts and handicrafts. Or skate: Admission is free, and skates, from a concession that looks like the lobby of a boutique hotel, are 21st-century sculptures: molded plastic in Yves Klein blue, closed with clamps instead of laces.

To be sure, it's all one gigantic publicity stunt for Citigroup, and one can only imagine (with unsympathetic glee) how much it costs. I'd be very surprised if it wins them even one new checking account. But so what, they took the bailout money. They owe us.

The rink can make Bryant Park feel as much like the center of the world as the tent shows do during Fashion Week. The fact that all this glamour is being shared by unfashionably dressed tourists or clumsy kids makes it worthwhile. And the fact that a middle manager can sneak away from a Midtown office for a few quick laps and return before anyone notices she left proves that New York is the greatest city around. At least until the whole thing disappears under the Hudson River.