Save Southbank Skatepark

Earlier this week the Guardian, in conjunction with Zadie Smith, launched a photography competition to find an image that captures the meaning of urban life in London today. The picture that accompanied the story was of Southbank Skatepark. In many ways that picture captures what is wonderful about the vibrancy of urban living today. And also its sadness, because the iconic skatepark faces closure as part of plans to upgrade facilities on the Southbank. This Saturday, to coincide with Yoko Ono’s weekend of activism, and as protests against the commodification of parks in Istanbul still dominate the news, a peaceful gathering  is planned on the site, which will bring together not just those who use the space now, but artists from every cultural sphere whose lives and works it has touched.

Hungerford Bridge landscape 3

When I logged into my email this morning to find that the poem I wrote about this sublime liminal space had just won the Notes Poetry Competition, I took that as the prodding finger of fate, or at least a point of connection that meant the editors might considering publishing a piece on why the Southbank Skatepark matters, both as a particular space and as an example of the liquid, elastic, liminal urban penumbras that act both as the heart pumping and the kidneys constantly filtering and cleaning the lifeblood on its journey round our cities.

I don’t think there was a moment when I stopped, turned to the buzz that was going on just back from the river, and had my breath stolen. For me, the Southbank Skatepark was a beat growing louder and faster in my creative consciousness, pressing itself first into my novels, then into my stories, my articles, and finally bursting out into the poem Hungerford Bridge, where the opening stanza “skateboards and blades played our private soundtrack/ scored from the clacketing backbeats of the Thamesside track” references explicitly but the whole poem takes its spark and rhythm from the setting. This is a place where I feel myself slipping between worlds, clipping the edges of a vital, vibrant life force, coming back changed, hopeful, invigorated, challenged, inspired, feeling that the chaotic equations of urban turbulence don’t hold, not always, that somewhere, here, there is the cleansing possibility of flow. If only for a moment.

It didn’t take long to realise that I wasn’t alone amongst my literary colleagues to feel this way. Lucy Furlong, whose “Amniotic City” is one of the best and most innovative poetic tributes to London I have ever read, puts her feelings beautifully:

“It’s a visceral, changing, moving, free range potent space, a breathing place, a dwelling for the communal exchange of ideas, the making of art, a vibrant and valuable hollow respite amongst the built up buzzing glow of brands, a resonating crack and snap of urban creation, a place to take my newly-wielding skateboard kid for inspiration.I don’t want to tell him it is gone.”

And Joanna Penn, bestselling author, mastermind behind The Creative Penn, told me

“I love that there is a space for creative and physical expression in the middle of the increasing commercial area of South Bank. Over the years I have stopped to take pictures of the fantastic graffiti art, popular there before it was considered “art” by the wider world. It provides a more dynamic and fast-moving creativity to the larger installations and galleries that surround it.”

My long-term collaborator, whose picture of the skatepark is the cover for my latest poetry collection, Veronika von Volkova, says that it makes her feel “like one has stumbled upon a special secret.” and Tom Chinvers of wonderful publisher Penned in the Margins says

“Skateboarders, like all good urban explorers, will always find the gaps in the city, transforming edgelands and planning anomalies into dynamic, creative places. The undercroft at the Southbank, where I spent countless weekends as a teenage skateboarder, long before it was an officially sanctioned skatespot, is just such a nexus; a hub for young people, and a stepping stone into an exciting and subversive community.”

That is what the petition against the Southbank Centre’s proposed “Festival Wing” is seeking to protect.

But the issue is, of course, even wider than this. Several years ago I wrote a piece for the Urban Studies journal xcp:streetnotes in which I looked at, among other things, the way urban planning seeks to create cities of chiaroscuro, sharply delineated blocks of this lumped up against blocks of that, edges and walls and closed doors seeing off the possibility of penumbra, sealing off the round edges and open alleys and semi-seen spaces (bringing me back again to Furlong’s superb poetical analysis of the alternative city that embodies the female and the nurturing through such spaces) where life breeds in fertile primordial pools before its blossoming surfaces burst gloriously into the “public”, whatever that is.

This particular liminal space is a shoreline battered by waves from either side, where the planned and the unplanned meet, and the spontaneous and the organised do battle for the shape of urban culture’s future. It is also a singularly beautiful space where life, creativity, and voice burst out in tiny moments of surprise and hope and leave you, London, and everyone who passes through changed.

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10 Responses to Save Southbank Skatepark

  1. Tom Chivers says:

    So seeing as I said I was in two minds, my other mind is this – skateboarding doesn’t need officially authorised skatespots, especially ones that are increasingly squeezed out by the brutalist hulk of SBC. I mean let’s face it, that little sanitised nub of what was once a much more interesting and expansive concrete wasteland is little more than a miniature stadium for passing tourists now. Skateboarders will, and should, seek out new spaces, be constantly on the move, exploring where others wouldn’t, suspicious of the performance of their culture, of its cultivation by the organs of officialdom.

    As I said, I’m in two minds.

    • danholloway says:

      Ah, yeah, I absolutely understand the need to stay fluid and never get fixed in a place or a position. I think I square that circle by saying the choice to move on is one you need to take not have taken for you

  2. Zane says:

    An excellent article, Dan. I couldn’t agree more.
    I went to the Duchamp exhibition at The Barbican last weekend, and in chatting about it, I made this comment, which is along similar lines:

    I do love the Barbican as an art object. It’s really powerful and forces you to either reject it completely, or engage completely. There’s no middle ground.
    The problem is that while such a relationship is fine for an art object, people actually have to live in and with the Barbican, and while it may succeed for those who live IN it, it’s not really possible to live WITH it. Like much of the architecture of the City of London, it is fortress-like, monumental, and enacts exclusionary practices on the public.
    Strangely, in the building’s mania for control, it becomes even more dependent on nature to animate and enliven it. When the sun was out, it was lovely. People were happy, the ducks were happy, even the tiny creatures which live off the algae in the fountains were happy. But as soon as a cloud covered the sun, then all those relentlessly hard surfaces amplified the chill in the air, and people moved away.
    It was exactly the same in the exhibition itself. With the living presence of the dancers, it was magnificent. But after 5 when they stopped, it became a rather desiccated space.
    A perfect enactment of the pathological psychogeography of the City.
    And the new glass and steel structures that are going up all over the West End are similarly exclusionary, if more superficially beautiful. As with the City and the Barbican, at night the streets die. It’s as if they are castles which have pulled up the drawbridge over the moat, and won’t answer your call when you shout.
    It’s such a profoundly different experience to the fantastically vigorous public spaces of Islington, Hackney, all those.
    Capital can’t pour money into fascist architecture like that, and then complain when the public turns against them. The Barbican is getting desperate, with such low attendance, but it’s its own fault. And while the Southbank may be thriving at the moment, hubris and overreach has entered the picture with their proposed upgrade, and they might go the same way. The symbol of this is their intent to destroy the undercroft skate park. That attitude of combined cultural ignorance and arrogance, a top-down rather than an organic approach to culture and cultural creation, is what has sucked the life out of the City and the Barbican, and will do the same to the Southbank if they continue on this road.

    (And I’ll be at the park from around 2)

  3. Zane says:

    One more thing before heading out:
    Apropos Tom’s comments, in my late night wanderings around London, I am always so inspired by the way that ‘private’ dead commercial spaces are claimed and made public and vital by skaters. Two immediate examples are the steps leading from St. Paul’s down to the Millennium Bridge, which is always lively, and Paternoster Square, which had a particularly large gathering of skaters late last Saturday night.
    I agree with the concern about officially sanctioned cultural performance leading to mere cultural tourism, thereby sapping the subversively creative energy from skating, but I also agree that the choice to move on should be organic, rather than forced.
    Besides, even if the undercroft has now become more of an institution than the authentically liminal space it was when it began, that’s okay. Sure, the real creative energy is happening in all those other spaces that skaters claim late at night, but the undercroft has the weight of history behind it. It is a site of (sub)cultural communal memory, and purely as such it should be protected as a way of honouring that shared memory.
    Beyond this, my concern is also something I referred to in my earlier comment, that, by doing this, the Southbank Centre will be setting itself up to go the way of the Barbican, thereby committing slow suicide. To appeal to exclusivity and align with cultural gentrification, is to murder the creative spirit. To do this with real estate, with mere property, is understandable, but to do this with a place whose very reason for being is the creative life is insane.
    The Barbican seems to have slowly come to realise that in going for exclusivity and the notion of culture as only High Culture, it has ended up turning the creative spirit into an outcast. The centre is dying, and they are now belatedly seeking to re-energise it through attempts to re-engage the community beyond its battlements, such as through its Create program. It may be too late, I fear.
    I am deeply concerned that the Southbank, through sheer hubris and short-sightedness, is about to make the same mistake. This is another reason to save the skate park, and one which I think even non-skaters and lovers of only high culture should understand and get behind.

    • danholloway says:

      It’s incredibly sad how arid everything around the City becomes at night and at the weekend. Pulling up the drawbridge is a great metaphor. It’s like what happens inside the buildings exerts its control on the spaces outside through cameras, through the hosing don of doorways, spikes, non-climb paint so that rather than acting like a wreck that becomes a reef flooded with new life, they become like a quarantined-off toxic wasteland.

      • Zane says:

        Love that reef image.
        Along those same lines, and also at the Southbank, the rooftop garden created by the Grounded ecotherapy project. Projects like this are what is needed to pour life back into the brutalist architecture, yet this garden would be removed when building begins. The centre has indicated that it is possible the garden would return, but they haven’t promised it would happen. So this is another community-connected venture that could be ejected from the site in its impulse towards gentrification.

  4. Zane says:

    Have a look at this:
    In a submission to the London Borough of Lambeth, English Heritage argues that the South Bank’s plans are flawed. “We note the volume of representations from the skateboard community in regards to this application, who value the Undercroft and feel it is part of their cultural identity,” it states. “English Heritage’s primary role is to assess the physical effects of proposed development on the historic environment, but we feel further analysis of the communal value of the Undercroft is necessary to ascertain the impact on recent cultural heritage.”

    The submission by Simon Hickman, English Heritage’s Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas, complains of “insufficient understanding of the communal value of the Undercroft area”. It states that skaters “draw their identity from…and have emotional links to” the site.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/south-bank-plans-thrown-into-chaos-by-unlikely-alliance-8686108.html

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