Not a skateboarder

undercroft southbank photo

shared on Flickr via a cc licence by old_skool_paul

Sometime around the middle of last year I heard for the first time about the new plans for the undercroft on the Southbank. The undercroft is a world famous skate park. Skate park isn’t quite the right word – that sounds like one of those sanitised places build of wood and metal and special surfaces sat behind a fence and sanctioned by local governments. The Undercroft isn’t that. The undercroft was somewhere I had been and knew off by heart before I’d even been to London as an adult. Featured on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 (you have no idea how formative that game was on the minds and musical tastes of a slightly to mid alternative once-younger generation).

But look, I’m not a skater. It’s just a made-up place to me. But to thousands of people it’s a home. It’s one of those homes you build with the people you choose which makes it stronger and sit heavier on the landscape for all its folds. Also, according to The Kind Of Paper I Read (Guardian) it’s “hailed as the birthplace of British skateboarding, a spot that has nurtured the homegrown talents of skateboard professionals such as Lewis “Chewie” Cannon, Ben Fairfax and Joey Pressey.”

But, look, I’m not a skater. I don’t know who those people are. I am however a lefty reactionary type, so when I heard in the middle of last year (it must have been before September because it’s when I was working at Hide&Seek) that that big Goliath of culture was set on demolishing that plucky David of counter-culture I signed up to that petition, and shared it. Like all good internet reactionary lefties would. The Southbank centre has submitted a £120m plan to double the capacity of their buildings and practices. That involves developing the current space being used to skate in. ‘Developing’, and using the space to build retail spaces to help support their artistic and outreach plan instead.

I dutifully sent out a tweet. And shared it on Facebook. But then Alex in the office saw it and leant over and said ‘did I know that they were going to be building a bigger, better, more purpose built skate park’ to replace it? Did I know about all of the outreach that the plans would allow Southbank to do – all of the development of kids and artist local to the venue? Had I read the statements and understanding from the SBC? Did I know about the consultation and how closely they’d worked with skaters to design the replacement? And people I know and like have been part of that consultation process – explaining the plans to passersby, volunteering to support something they strongly believe in, and I then feel muddled. Felt a bit guilty about the simplicity of this tweet, and I couldn’t work out where the line was, where I had to work out I stood. I couldn’t see it.

So, I forgot about it. Like I could. As a good, lefty reactionary who was not a skater who had other stuff to do.

And then it came up, a couple of weeks back. I’m currently dating a guy who is a skater. And his housemate is a skater too. And I saw a picture on his instagram of them handing the petition over. And the boyfriend who’s not known for his interest or certainty regarding anything political said ‘yeah but it won’t do anything’. So I asked for their opinions on it, finally realising I knew skaters to ask. Hasn’t the consultation been really careful? Aren’t they building a better place to skate?

And they said ‘look, it’s not about that, it’s about how skaters take over these places, these left over places on the edge, and they make them into something, and suddenly loads of people go there, and it’s cool, and desirable, and then the people that never wanted them in the first place just come and take them back’

Academic people thinking about skateboarding as an urban practice also talk about the turning of ‘space’ into ‘place’ (p.139 on)

I wouldn’t know, I’m not a skateboarder. But I spoke to two,

It comes down to this: “why is your cultural practice more important than mine?
Why are our made up places less important than yours?”

That’s the line.  I know where I stand on it. How about you?

Lambeth Council link to plans
Long Live Southbank link

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3 Responses to “Not a skateboarder”

  1. Paul January 23, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    I’m not a skater, or dating a skater, so take this with as much salt as you like, but I disagree with a couple of the points here – as you’d expect, since I’m pretty sure you already know where I stand on this :)

    [I’m aware the next three paragraphs are probably based on a misinterpretation of one of your quotes, so I’ve had another try in the one after it – sorry!]

    “then the people that never wanted them in the first place just come and take them back”: I don’t know about the people that never wanted them in the *very* first place, but for decades Southbank Centre have cleaned, maintained and insured the undercroft for skaters’ use; staff at all levels have attended to injured undercroft users, sitting with them while ambulances are awaited; and the expensive public liability insurance of the kind that has brought the future of a Stratford skate park into doubt – – has been paid by Southbank Centre every year to keep the skate space open.

    There’s never been any suggestion at any point in the Festival Wing planning process by Southbank Centre that they don’t welcome the skaters, BMXers and graffiti artists on the site, or want to get rid of them. They commissioned Central Saint Martin’s to run a project – – to engage with the undercroft’s users before they even announced the Festival Wing plans, and I have heard Jude Kelly speak on numerous occasions in no uncertain terms about how important urban arts are to Southbank Centre. (And her actions speak volumes in other areas to illustrate this, for instance encouraging people to use the RFH cloakroom space to rehearse numerous types of dancing, shouting down howls of protest from the traditional orchestras worried about their audiences mixing with the dancers when handing in their coats, until they were forced to concede it actually worked rather well and the audiences largely liked it.)

    So I simply don’t accept that this is a case of the space being taken back by people who never wanted them there. They very much do want them there, which is why they’ve gone to such lengths to engage with the undercroft users and encourage them to shape from the ground up the designs for the new space.

    Ah, on re-reading, all of the above may well be based on a misinterpretation of what I’ve quoted from your post. If “them” is the unwanted spaces, not the users of the spaces, what I’ve written doesn’t address that at all! I think the reason why I misinterpreted it in that way, and so the counterargument to the real meaning, is as follows. Yes, the skaters have been there for 40 years, and yes, they’ve made the undercroft ‘space’ a ‘place’, for skaters, BMXers etc. But that isn’t what’s then made it a good idea to reclaim the space and use it as part of Festival Wing. I can see how that could (and does) happen elsewhere, and would be (and is) infuriating and unjust. But this space isn’t now being reclaimed by its owners because of its transformation by skaters over 40 years; it’s because of the success of the transformation of the Royal Festival Hall in 2005-7, and the site as a whole into a Festival Of Britain-inspired, broad, inclusive festival site under Jude Kelly since 2007. Prior to the RFH transformation, the skaters had been there for 30-odd years yet their presence hadn’t made it any more of a ‘place’ (beyond, obviously, undercroft users/spectators): most of the RFH riverside was still a grubby access road largely devoid of people and creepy after dark. The model used for the RFH transformation, albeit with far less public funding now available as part of the mix, is the one being proposed for Festival Wing.

    And “why is your cultural practice more important than mine? Why are our made up places less important than yours?”: I don’t think they should be. I think you’ve phrased it this way as part of your conclusion’s careful ambiguity, because these questions clearly work both ways: why is access to that one specific spot for skating more important than all the other opportunities for all the other people, whose funding is completely dependent on being able to move the skaters slightly along the river to a larger, more prominent (in terms of passing footfall) location? To my mind, *none* of the users of the welcoming, free-for-all Southbank Centre should ever be seen as more important than any of the others – and that includes the undercroft users. If their continued use of the undercroft prevents the rest of the plans from happening, in my opinion that will really be strongly prioritising one group’s cultural practices at the expense of so many others’.

    But yeah, I’m not a skater, and with my heart firmly on my sleeve on this topic, I’m never likely to be asked out by one either.

  2. David Goldsmith January 24, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    Excellent commentary, Hannah. And very good points by Paul in response.
    I work at Southbank Centre (but have no role in representing it in social media) and thought your blog well worthy of a link on …

  3. Dave February 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Paul, the South Bank Centre has also done a lot to STOP skaters from using the place in the last 25 years, like removing paving stones, cutting grooves into paving stones, erecting barriers, and employing security guards.
    Saying they clean the place as if they are doing the skateboarders a favour is ridiculous – it’s the South Bank Centres RESPONSIBILITY to clean the place, just as it is the responsibility of every cultural institution and business to clean their premises.
    And the INDIVIDUALS that have telephoned ambulances, sat with injured skateboarders, etc are acting as all decent human beings should, and are not representing the South Bank Centre as an organisation. Please don’t act as if the South Bank Centre nurtures the skateboarders in some way.

    Public liability insurance. If I, as a pedestrian, were to fall down one of the slopes or the stairs, I could sue the South Bank Centre. So don’t make out that this insurance is just there for the skateboarders! It is to deal with ANY accidents that happen on the SBC’s land.

    They don’t want to get rid of the skaters? So – they’ll leave the space as it is, rather than turn it into cafes? If that was a case the skaters wouldn’t be fighting the plans!

    How can you say “they want them there” when what they want is for them to bugger off down the road, to a spot which isn’t so commercially viable? It’s not the same thing.

    I’m a skateboarder, though I no longer live in London, and when I did the South Bank was not my kind of spot. However, every time I’m at a skatepark I’m engaging with people of many races, both sexes, and of an age group from around 8 to 50 years old. I’m engaging with them outside of ordered structures (performer/audience, artist/audience, teacher/pupil, employee/paying guest) and this I have to say is a pretty unique thing in the modern world. It is for THIS reason I support the mission to save the Undercroft as a place for skateboarding (and other urban i.e. not institutionalised, forms of self-expression)

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