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Facing shutdown, Chez Vous still a place for peace

Tierney McAfee

Chez Vous owner Greer Toney is pulling out all the stops to keep Boston’s only roller skating rink alive and rolling — including hosting a hip-hop video shoot.

The video, for Harlem rapper Blue Chip’s single “King of Hip-Hop,” was filmed Aug. 23 as part of Chez Vous’ P.E.A.C.E. (Positive Energy Always Causes Elevation) Night. It features shots of local children skating and dancing around Blue Chip.

The event raised $600 and drew 127 guests. Proceeds will go toward installing a new sprinkler system for the roller rink. Chez Vous has been open since 1932, but if Toney can’t raise $170,000 for the sprinklers, she will be forced to close its doors for good on Nov. 14.

“Luckily, everyone wants to help because they realize that what we do here is integral to encouraging positive social interaction among our youth,” Toney said.

Despite donations of money, labor and materials from the likes of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the local sprinkler fitters’ and electrical unions, and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, Toney said the rink is still far from reaching the goal.

However, with the local fire department and Suffolk Construction also working to keep Chez Vous open, Greer said she remains optimistic.

“There’s a lot of work that I have to do here, but I’m up for the challenge,” Toney said. “If we can get these kids off the street and in here, even for four hours, at least we know what they’re doing for those four hours. We know they are not out there wreaking havoc on the community.”

Toney said she hoped the video shoot would not only raise money for the sprinklers, but also promote nonviolence in the community.

“We always have peace inside Chez Vous,” she said. “We don’t have an issue with that at all. This is about extending the peace that we have in here to outside.”

Toney’s dream reached all the way to Harlem. Blue Chip said he was inspired to visit Chez Vous by his manager, Keri Singleton, who grew up in Boston and frequented the roller rink. Singleton’s father was killed by gunfire in Boston, an incident that motivated him to help prevent violence in the community.

For his part, Blue Chip, whose real name is Ray Watson,  said he is shocked by the number of shootings in Boston. According to Boston Police Department statistics, the city had seen 194 shootings in 2008, including 29 firearm-related homicides, as of Aug. 24. That number was down from 206 for the same period in 2007.

Still, “something needs to be done,” he said. “I think I can bring something positive to the kids by helping keep this place open.”

Blue Chip, who previously counseled children at the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club and has a young son of his own, said he thinks it’s important for rappers to acknowledge their duties as role models for youth.

To that end, he said, “King of Hip Hop” encourages kids to question what’s going on in the world around them, from national politics to community affairs.

 “I try to take responsibility by making music that children can listen to,” Blue Chip said. “It’s about teaching them to do the right thing, but also about being real with them, and that’s what I try to do in my music.”

The video will be released on Sept. 8, and Blue Chip said he plans to return to Chez Vous in October to film another.

“Everyone’s excited about the video,” Toney said. “How often do our kids have the opportunity to be part of something like that? Not that often.”

Despite Toney’s efforts to quell violence in Chez Vous, the rink’s unfortunate past lingers. In January 1994, several teens opened fire inside the rink, injuring seven people. The violence subsided until February 2006, when a 15-year-old was fatally stabbed at the rink.

“Most of the reports on Chez Vous are negative because of bad history,” Toney said. “When gangs first hit this area, Boston wasn’t ready and neither was Chez Vous.”

But Toney said she is ready now. To help prevent violence within the rink, she enforces a strict zero-tolerance policy. Patrons are required to leave their do-rags, hats, hoodies and handkerchiefs at the door to eliminate broadcasts of gang symbols and colors.

Security guards give each rink-goer a thorough pat-down before they can enter the building, confiscating potential weapons like pens and lighters.

“The kids know they can come in here and feel safe,” Toney said. “This is the one place they can come and socialize and have a good time and not have to worry about looking over their shoulder.

“When you take that gang element out of the way, everybody that comes through our doors is on the same level. Ain’t nobody representing nothing but having a nice time.”

Toney, also known as “Nana” to the rink’s clientele, has run Chez Vous for over a decade. She makes it her business to meet, greet and hug everyone who walks through her doors.

“This is a family situation going on here,” Toney said. “This is my life, not my job. But they know if they call me their nana, I’m going to treat them like I would my own grandkids … so they better not mess up.”

If they do, Toney ushers those involved into her office, where all parties remain until the conflict is resolved.

But Toney said the sense of togetherness that Chez Vous offers far outweighs any problems, and believes keeping its doors open is essential to maintaining peace in the community.

“Every time the kids come together under one roof, it’s helpful,” Toney said. “Because the more familiar you are with a person, the harder it is to have a problem with them. When no one is a stranger, you start to break down barriers.”