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Good times roll again

Chez Vous reunites skaters as rink's violent past fades

Pulsing beats of hip-hop music and sounds of children's laughter fill Chez Vous roller skating rink on a Sunday afternoon, rebounding from the funhouse mirrors and graffiti-style lettering on the back wall to the video games in the front lobby.

Smiling kids with neon glowsticks hanging from their necks glide around the hardwood floor. Others wobble and grasp the yellow safety rail along the wall. When the session winds down, they skate over to five round plastic tables and sit on wooden benches to untie their tan skates with orange wheels.

Watching closely is rink manager Greer Toney, whom many know simply as "Auntie." Wearing a bright yellow "Chez Vous" T-shirt and holding a silver whistle between her lips, Toney notices two boys have bumped into each other and fallen. No injuries, but feelings are hurt. Sensing tension, Toney swings into action. She calls one of the two -- a wide-eyed boy with cornrow braids -- into the cramped pro shop and tells him to start a conversation with the other boy.

"Find out his name, how old he is, and where he goes to school," she instructs, and he scampers away.

Moments later he returns with the other boy, who is wearing an NFL cap slightly too large for his head.

She puts her arms around each of them. "I want you two to be friends and keep coming to Chez Vous. You all are beautiful young men," she says.

Her mediation is an apparent success.

"The best thing is to get them talking," she said later. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

The proverb is apt for Chez Vous, an institution of sorts in north Dorchester, near Mattapan. Located next to the Area B-3 police station at the intersection of Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Street, it has been a gathering place for three generations of Boston's black community. But it has also been stained by violence, including a gang shooting and a fatal stabbing, the latter allegedly sparked by two skaters bumping into each other on the hardwood.

Bad times in '94It has been a decade since hooded gunmen opened fire in the rink, injuring seven teens. That shootout splashed Chez Vous across local headlines in January 1994, making the rink's name almost synonymous with the surge of gang violence in Boston.

"Absolutely horrific," said Toney, recalling the shooting. "It was the worst experience I've ever witnessed."

Just 10 months later, in November 1994, an alleged collision between two skaters escalated into a fatal stabbing outside. After the stabbing, the state stepped in and closed Chez Vous, saying the Toneys had not been paying workers' compensation insurance.

But things have changed for the better at Chez Vous.

The rink reopened with beefed-up security near the end of that troubled year, 1994. Walk-through metal detectors and security cameras were installed. Staffers began using hand-held metal-detecting wands and two-way radios to alert one another to potential trouble.

The rink formed a partnership with the Boston Police Department, and Toney still attends monthly meetings with Boston police and community leaders. (Despite repeated requests, Boston police did not provide crime statistics or comment before City Weekly's deadline.)

Over the past few years Chez Vous organized a team to rollerskate in the annual Walk for Hunger. During the summer, the rink employs 100 youths in community service projects, Toney said. Last April, Toney was invited to the White House for a President's Business Advisory Council dinner.

"That's part of the history of Chez Vous, of how far we've come," said Toney. "We have worked our butts off to bring it where it is today."

Toney is holding the rink's first-ever skating reunion next Sunday, bringing together adult skaters from Chez Vous and from Bal-A-Roue, a defunct rink in Medford, and Spin Off, once located on the corner of Ipswich and Lansdowne streets off Kenmore Square. When a fire at Chez Vous closed the rink for three years in the 1970s, Toney said, skaters went to Bal-A-Roue and Spin Off, both of which closed in the 1980s.

Chez Vous is among the few remaining places in the Boston area where families can roller skate. In recent years, many roller rinks across the country have closed, according to Robin O. Brown, executive director of Roller Skating Association International, an industry organization that has 14 member rinks operating in Massachusetts.

"The economy has hit the leisure activity business pretty hard," said Brown. "We have less than half than what we had 20 years ago."

Roller skating experienced steady growth from the 1940s until the disco era of the 1970s, a boom period for roller skating. Many of the rinks that opened then have closed.

"Those rinks went in and out like flash, like disco did," said Brown.

Inline skating has revived some roller-skating rinks, but inline skates are a rare sight at Chez Vous, where almost every skater uses traditional, or "quad," roller skates with two pairs of wheels.

Born in the DepressionChez Vous opened at its Rhoades Street location in 1932, according to Toney. Bernard and Faye Leventhal, a Jewish couple from Milton, purchased Chez Vous two years later, and operated the rink for decades.

"People tell me, 'I remember when Blue Hill Ave. was an all-white neighborhood, and I used to skate at Chez Vous,' " said Toney. "The neighborhood has changed, but one thing we don't change is the name."

In the early 1990s the Toney family started operating the rink, leasing it from the Leventhals. Now three of Toney's six children work there. Her 37-year-old son, Edward "Bert" Toney, owns the place.

"This business has given us inspiration, man, to want to help people and get them to help themselves," said Toney's 33-year-old son, Anthony. "This is a great place. Safety and fun are our main priorities."

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who stood by Chez Vous when it was temporarily shut down after the violent incidents in 1994, said last week he's proud of the progress the rink has made over the past 10 years.

"Chez Vous is used by a lot of preteens. The gang element doesn't exist there anymore," said Menino. "It's very popular, it has after-school programs, and it's used by church groups. You don't have the problems that we had in the past, and that shows that the neighborhood has grown stronger, more cohesive."

Chez Vous also hosts concerts, weddings -- and an after-school program known as the rink's "street team" launched four years ago to "provide kids having difficulties with a structured program that gets them off the street," Toney said.

The street team consists of a dozen kids who do their homework at the rink and then learn military-style drills when skating is not in session. Mondays through Thursdays the street team wears yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a roller-skate logo as they do jumping jacks and push-ups inside the rink. On Fridays the street team members don camouflage fatigues to jog and march outdoors.

R-E-S-P-E-C-TOn a recent Thursday evening, 30-year-old Dana Robinson stood in front of a half-dozen street team members.

"Stand at ease," said Robinson. His booming voice echoed throughout the empty rink, where he led the group through a series of drills.

When the street team stood at attention, they were inspected by 17-year-old Desmond Evans, a broad-shouldered young man wearing a green shirt, tie, and shiny black shoes. Evans walked up and down the row of yellow T-shirts, inspecting the street team members' posture.

Evans belongs to the ROTC program at English High School. He is counting down the days to Sept. 16, when he turns 18 and can join the US Army. He helps train the Chez Vous street team.

"It gives the kids something to do," said Evans. "What makes me happy is that it's a big step forward for them. This teaches them respect."

Ron Scott, 40, stood near the lobby as the street team marched on the hardwood floor. He first walked through the doors of Chez Vous in 1984, a 20-year-old kid who wanted to be a DJ. He started spinning hip-hop at Chez Vous, and now he DJs its weekly gospel skate sessions.

"I've seen a transformation in this place," said Scott, a softspoken man, wearing a patterned sweater and glasses, his neatly trimmed beard flecked with gray.

The rink underwent renovations in June 2002. The hardwood floor was replaced. Scott installed new lighting and a new sound system.

The kids he used to play music for are now parents bringing their kids to skate, Scott said.

"It becomes a part of you after a while. It's a living monument to this community. Our kids have no place to go," said Scott, watching Greer Toney's 5-year-old granddaughter Diamond bounce a ball on the carpeted floor.

"There's the next generation," said Scott. "We're just trying to make it better for the next ones coming through."

The reunion skate will take place at 8 p.m. next Sunday. This event is 25+. Chez Vous is located at 11 Rhoades St., Dorchester. Skaters and staff from the former Spin Off rink in Boston and the Bal-A-Roue rink in Medford are encouraged to attend. For more information, visit www.chezvous-boston.com.Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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