In my pre-global warming childhood, I spent a fair amount of time ice skating. There was always smooth ice a few times a season in the woods near my parents’ house (and miraculously, one frigid year, on the vast expanse of the Hudson River). Unfortunately, though, my urban lifestyle and these weird times of 60 degrees in January have combined to basically excise ice skating from my life for the past 15 years—a sad development because it is an amazing workout that is fun, decidedly unsweaty, and a great way to spend a winter afternoon outside.
The brand-new LeFrak Center in Prospect Park, a $74 million dollar Bloomberg legacy project that offers not one but two state-of-the-art outdoor rinks, delivers the kind of skating I have been pining for. I was there on opening weekend, which meant a few minor headaches, but I was ultimately pretty dazzled by the facility and left feeling optimistic about the ice time in my future.
LeFrak is a five-minute walk from the entrance to the park at Parkside and Ocean Avenues, and if you go at night, the spotlight beams and the Top 40 music wafting through the blackness will guide you to your destination. The building was designed to blend into the park’s landscape as seamlessly as possible, and the deference given to its surroundings shows. The modern limestone structure has a green roof that gives you the impression, from the outside, that the entire facility is housed within one of the park’s hills. At any rate, it is difficult to grasp that two enormous, interconnected skating rinks—one covered and one completely open-air–lie behind the unassuming facade.
Like most things that are worth doing in this town, skating at LeFrak on a weekend is an idea that occurs to a lot of people, and waiting in line is simply part of the deal. There was one line to buy entrance tickets ($8 on weekends), another line to rent skates ($5), and a third line to rent a locker from one of only two ATM-like kiosks ($5 for 3 hours). If you are lucky enough to have the sort of life that allows for a weekday skating jaunts, take advantage of it and avoid the crowds. For us working stiffs who have to rely on weekends, though, I recommend carrying anything of value in your pockets and leaving your shoes under a bench because that locker nonsense was almost a deal-breaker. Also, if you own skates, bring them, not just to skip another line but because the rental skates at LeFrak are, at least in my experience, foot vises that cut off all circulation below the ankle, dig into your flesh in strange places to the point of bruising, and generally prevent you from being upright for more than fifteen minutes at a time. And yes, they were the right size.
Those complaints aside, the ice itself was spectacular. Although there were hundreds of skaters, there was enough space to really glide along without that unsettling feeling common to crowded rinks that you might at any moment be slide-tackled by a wayward, unsteady child. The covered rink is marked for hockey and well-lit for the games and figure skating lessons that will take place there, but I was really impressed by the ellipse-shaped adjoining uncovered rink. Dimly lit by the moon and a few spotlights, it is bordered at first by seating for the rinkside café and then by the dark, vaguely foreboding park at night. Skating out to the far edge under the stars was thrillingly reminiscent of the pond-skating I did as a kid and brought back a feeling I was never able replicate at Chelsea Piers or the rink at Rockefeller Center.
The other new Brooklyn rink, McCarren Rink, was set up in the pool site until it closed for the season on January 4, much to my surprise and probably many others who expected the rink to stay open through winter. Although it’s gone until next fall, the McCarren Rink was open until 10pm every night of the week, making it possible to imagine an evening skate under the stars becoming a regular habit if you live in or frequent North Brooklyn. The rink was small and could get crowded, but the skates were comfortable and you could bring your own lock and throw your stuff in the pool lockers for free, which was a nice touch. My one critique: the ice was in terrible condition when I was there and in desperate need of a pass by the Zamboni I saw sitting idle nearby. People were getting stuck in grooves and falling all over the place, which was actually sort of fun for a few minutes but wouldn’t be ideal for either a serious skater or a cautious beginner.
Another, smaller-scale skating experience that’s still open (and more akin to the Rock) is the pop-up rink at South Street Seaport. Skating on the Hudson this is not: on a recent weekend morning, there were about 30 people on the ice and it already felt cramped, but there was something undeniably cool about skating around smack in the middle of Fulton Street, with the backdrop of Financial District skyscrapers looming. Happily, the skates felt like Uggs compared to the torture devices at LeFrak, but admission and rental will run you a cool $18 per person, which did seem expensive for such a small rink. The hours make it appealing to anyone who can take the ferry there or go after work–the ice is open until 9pm on weeknights (LeFrak closes at 6pm Monday through Thursday), and an adjoining bar in a converted shipping container suggested that it would be a fun place for a date, when the skating itself might not be the evening’s main event.