Interview with Rink Maven, Neighbor Miriam Duhan
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The wonderful series of photos above documents a weekly outing over the past few winters to the rink in the northeast corner of Central Park.
It all started in 2015, when neighbor and BAiPer Miriam Duhan pitched the idea to me of creating a regular group of neighbors who would skate together. It was part of our TriBloomingdale Initiative in conjunction with BAiP and the 104th Street Block Association. And while lots of folks signed up, Miriam ended up skating alone or with just one other person more often than not.
We reassessed, and she soon became a regular volunteer for Hostelling International New York where each week she leads travelers through Central Park and up to the Lasker rink for an early morning skate. Above are the images that chronicle her very popular seasonal group featuring many travelers coming from warmer countries who'd never skated before.
Miriam Duhan has lived in our area since 1989. Her children were already grown when she moved in. She got involved in her block association on 104th Street, eventually joining its board. She left the board just as BAiP was getting started and has been an active member since then, which led to the original skating idea.
Lucky for the hostel, this idea evolved to be geared for their visitors, and from the gallery above, you can see the pure joy in that the simple act of a skate can bring. (Don't neglect to scroll all the way down for today's lagniappe).
Interview with Miriam Duhan
Caitlin Hawke: How did you get started on the ice?
Miriam Duhan: My knees were bothering me and an orthopedist suggested that it was time for me to stop jogging. I was very sad. But I happened upon skating accompanying my grandchildren (at the time 4 and 7) to their skating lessons at Lasker Rink. Perfect, low impact on the knees. I had skated as a child and from time to time throughout my life, and I always loved to do it on my birthday. So I decided to go weekly but wanted company. This eventually led to becoming an official volunteer at the hostel.
Caitlin: There’s a series of iconic sepia photos that I am sure you know of Victorian New Yorkers skating in Central Park, with the Dakota in the background and an otherwise little developed Central Park West. The skating area looks huge and is packed with skaters. What has changed besides the climate?
Miriam: I went to the exhibit about skating in New York at the Museum of the City of New York and apparently skating was a craze in New York in the 1800s and early 20th century. It clearly was more reliably cold because there were a lot of places which were just flooded and used for skating, including some lawns in Central Park. I don’t remember when the first artificially frozen rinks appeared. I do remember the last time the Harlem Meer was frozen solid. I think it was in 2015. Lots of people wanted to walk or play on the Meer, but the police chased everyone off. I saw it when I was on my way to Lasker.
In terms of a skating culture, one thing I love about being at Lasker is that a couple of schools on the east side bring the kids there every week for PE, starting in pre-k. The teachers I spoke to said that they wanted to give the kids a lifelong skill. The pre-k’s are the cutest to watch and the 4th graders are excellent skaters. My first year when I had no other companions, I made friends with some of the kids, and we enjoyed seeing each other every week. (Note: with regard to youth skating, the NYT recently covered the afterschool program Figure Skating in Harlem, a program for leadership and academic development as well as skating. That article is here.)
Caitlin: When and where did you learn how to skate?
Miriam:Probably when I was in 5th grade. There was a rink near where I lived in Roslyn Heights. I don’t remember any lessons, it was just for fun and very popular. There were a few times when a natural lake in Westbury froze over, and I skated there. As an adult living in Brooklyn, I skated in Prospect Park from time to time with my own kids and then on a lake in our village when I lived upstate. True, funny story: For my 30th birthday, I told my husband that what I wanted to do was go skating in Prospect Park. We got a babysitter and went. After about ten minutes he complained that his legs were hurting so badly that we had to stop. (I should have smelled a rat; he’d been a speed skater in high school). So we decided to go to see my brother in Greenwich Village, and there was a surprise party for me. I have never gotten over my disappointment! I try to go skating on my birthday whenever I can.
Caitlin: What is your favorite place to skate of all time?
Miriam: No favorite. Anyplace I skate on my birthday makes me happy.
Caitlin: Who is your favorite person to skate with?
Caitlin: Speed or figure?
Miriam: Figure. Every year now, I fix a goal of improvement and work on it a bit every week. This year its turning from skating forwards to skating backwards and from backwards to forwards. I’m very careful because, like other seniors, I don’t want to fall and break a bone. So far so good.
Caitlin: What’s your best move? Can you do any jumps?
Miriam: My feet never leave the ice. What I like to do is enjoy the music (lovely jazz in the mornings) and dance.
Miriam: They’re enthusiastic and adventurous. They think skating in Central Park is very romantic – especially if there’s snow. There’s always a huge sign-up list, though not all come. There's so much going on at the hostel. And they are really caring. One person told me that she unexpectedly arrived in NY in the middle of the night, no place to stay, and the hostel was full. They gave her a couch to crash on until a space opened up.
Caitlin: What’s a typical outing like?
Miriam: Many are traveling on their own, and they easily talk to each other on the walk over and during the skate time. Quite a few show up alone and leave with new companions interested in the same things to do next. There is no set end time. People leave when they’re ready or just sit and watch for a while. I’m on the ice for about an hour and that’s enough for most people, but some stay longer. Some go back to the hostel, some stay in the park or go elsewhere. I like to find out about them, but with big groups I only get to talk to a few people. On the ice, people with experience help and encourage newbies. I’m not a teacher, but I check to make sure beginners have tightened their skates properly. I encourage them to just go. The brain figures it out after a couple of times around. Almost everyone does well by the end. From time to time there’s a really good skater who helps others and sometimes teaches me something. On the ice there’s lots of picture taking. There’s also picture taking when we pass the waterfall in the park on the way over. I should also say that the first couple of years I got to know the staff at the Lasker skating rink, and they have been so lovely to us.
Caitlin: How do you feel during and after the skate?
Miriam: Happy and exhilarated. (In the afternoon I usually need a nap, but I doubt that the travelers do!)
Caitlin: Has your volunteering changed how you might travel?
Miriam: Hadn’t thought about travel skate experiences, but it’s a good idea. I think if I was traveling alone I’d try a hostel. And I’m encouraging my grandchildren to do so. One traveled on his own to Amsterdam, stayed at a hostel and had a wonderful time.
Caitlin: Do you have any great rinks or skating experiences on your bucket list?
Miriam: I’m thinking about visiting all the skating venues in New York. That’s as far as I’ve imagined.
Caitlin: Last question: do you have any advice for beginners or rusty skaters?
Miriam: Yes. Get out there, make sure your skates are snug around the ankles, hold on to the rail as long as you need it and move your feet. About two rounds is usually enough for people to start getting the feel of it. When your ankles feel tired or tense, get off the ice and take a break, then go back. Check out Youtube first. Recently a Costa Rican told me she’d gotten advice that way. I could see her doing the things she’d been advised and pretty soon she was flying!
Readers, as a lagniappe, I am throwing in an archival 1902 video from the Library of Congress. It shows what looks like a thousand skaters on the Lake in Central Park just at the level of the Dakota. Just look at them all!
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