If you're anything like me, you'll often find yourself approaching people in the street, saying, "Hey, you know what London needs? More cafes." Because there just really, genuinely aren't enough, are there? I mean, take supposedly gastro-friendly Spitalfields Market, for instance; there are only four Prets, three EATs and two branches of POD in a five-minute radius. And as for fusion taco stalls and Evisu stores? Don't even get me started, mate. Honestly, it's like living in Brezhnev's Russia sometimes.
Others who clearly share my opinion are the good people at The Southbank Centre, who'd apparently like for Londoners to forget about that world famous unofficial skate park next to the Royal Festival Hall and instead associate the area with places you can spend an hour's wages on a sandwich. The planning committee has announced plans to "refurbish" the area and move in high-rent retail units, shunting the skaters from the brutalist, graffiti-splattered enclave of banks, ledges and stairsets they carved out themselves, to a new council-built spot beneath nearby Hungerford Bridge.
A video shot at Southbank and other nearby spots in 1991.
It's an expensive development, coming in at a reported £120 million. There are a lot of fierce opinions flying around, as well as a petition addressed to Lambeth Council, the Southbank Centre, London Mayor Boris Johnson and the Arts Council. Naturally, the skate community and anyone who has a vested interest in London not becoming a massive shopping centre on the outskirts of Guildford are up in arms about it. We went down to Southbank to gauge what the local heads were thinking and find out what the future holds for the site, the skaters and London as a whole.
Ever since I can remember, cooler guys than me have been skating Southbank. On school trips to the Tate Modern and bunked days out in Zone 1 (unfortunately I wasn't one of those kids who went on family trips to Kurosawa seasons at the BFI), I remember thinking that the skaters seemed like visions of a different world, living some kind of outlaw existence at the fringes of society. Of course, I'm sure some of them were probably just Dutch guys who listened to Travis while filming each other's Diablo routines, but they still seemed fucking cool.
Lev Tanju, from our film Skate World: London.
Since I was too busy listening to Cypress Hill on my Discman outside Kingston's Bentall Centre to get involved in the early Southbank scene, I thought I'd speak to somebody who knew what they were talking about. Lev Tanju, founder of Palace Skateboards, is someone who's been skating Southbank for 15 years.
I asked Lev about the first time he ever skated Southbank, when he was young and "proper shit" (his words, not mine). He painted a picture of a lost time, the days before South Bank looked like a Richard Curtis set.
"It was kind of at its most legendary then, because it was before South Bank was redeveloped. There were no shops or cafes, it was like a no man's land. The only people there on the regular were homeless people and skateboarders, and the skaters there at that time policed the place and wouldn't take shit from anyone. There was a feeling that you had to know someone to skate there."
Of course, within the last five years or so, the area around the park has completed its transformation from relative wasteland to tourist spot. And while it was inevitable that the location would become commercialised – as Lev says, "everything changes" – the fact that's it been a long time coming doesn't do much to soften the blow. "The redevelopment of that place into somewhere that churns out latte money to tourists was always gonna happen," Lev continued. "Just now it seems it's going a little too far by getting the skaters to move out altogether."
While I was down at Southbank, I ran into Benny Fairfax, who skates for Palace and has made a name for himself in the American scene over the last few years. "What's happening is a real shame," Benny said. "This place is legendary and it would be nice if they gave it the support it deserves, but now everything is nice along the river, I guess they just see the park as a bit of an eyesore."
Of course, despite the fact that the sight of people rolling around in front of spray-painted walls might physically repulse the area's developers, The Southbank Centre needs to try to save some face. I mean, these are cool, creative people, right? They can't just go about dismantling institutions of street culture to make room for Carol Anne Duffy poetry installations and cello jams. To appease the national campaign against the redevelopment of the skate park, they've tried to compromise and have "made a commitment" to finding a replacement in the area – the site by Hungerford Bridge I mentioned earlier.
But Lev and his peers remain unconvinced by the plans. "Southbank isn't a skate park," Lev explained. "It wasn't built with skateboarding in mind, yet it's perfect. Trying to move something so vital and important in skateboarding just wouldn't work. There's no point in pretending it would be the same, and I think it would just end up killing the scene in the area."
There are, of course, plenty of skate parks outside of central London with better facilities – and arguably even street spots within Zone 1 with more to offer than Southbank's relatively sparse assortment of ledges – but what they're lacking is something you don't come across much in London these days: a scene with a genuine history and its own distinct culture. And now the future of that scene is on the ropes, it's bound to have a ripple-effect far beyond this concrete walkway by the Thames.
Footage from the Blueprint jam at South Bank in 2010.
Gentrification is always contentious, whether it be the Hacienda turning into flats or the war on hipsters that's going on in Berlin right now. And this is an example of gentrification in its purest form; scrapping something that retains an edge in favour of council approved arts initiatives that won't mess up the curb or drown out the sound of street magicians. After all, why skateboard when you could spend your time developing a passion for mime, or joining a "street dance" crew that could, feasibly, one day feature in an episode of Britain's Got Talent? Or, y'know, why don't you get a job? You could help raise the 25 percent youth unemployment rate by carving out a career at the Pret that'll no doubt be stood in Southbank's place soon (as long as you don't try to start a union).
More than anything, though, what it represents is a war on spontaneity. I understand that money needs to be raised for the development, and that developers are looking for contingency plans within the same area, but – as Lev said – the park's vitality stems from its totally organic, borderline illegal inception. It started off as an act of ingenuity and has grown up relatively untampered with by anyone from outside of the subculture that spawned it.
It seemed to be understood that, no matter what a couple of shops or even a museum could bring to the area, the skate park would remain untouched. Southbank is one of the few London locations that looms large in the collective imagination – it's a place people flock to from miles around (Tim, a tourist from New Zealand who I spoke to, said one of the main reasons he'd flown to London was to check out the park). Southbank might not retain the edge it once had, but what else is there? Camden Market looks like Oxford Street, Oxford Street looks like Croydon and Croydon looks like Milton Keynes. How can Boris Johnson boast of London being the world's greatest city when he seems complicit in selling off every piece of its authentic character to the highest bidder?
The skateboard graveyard under Hungerford Bridge, a couple of minutes from South Bank.
Every politician since Blair has seemed determined to turn this country into one giant branch of Bluewater; or a whole nation that resembles one of those French hypermarkets near Calais – somewhere you can buy anything you want as long as it's coffee or distressed jeans. London is famous for places like Southbank, it's what prevents the city from becoming a completely antiquated, mid-30s graveyard, like Paris or Prague. London is not famous for its cafe culture, and shouldn't try to be, no one wants to see crowds of 30-year-old philosophy post-grads gathered outside Lewisham greasy spoons lackadaisically reading Camus.
Oddly, the attitude towards the skate park seems at odds with local councils' current obsession with anything that could be construed as "pop-up". Southbank is genuinely something that "popped up", yet they seem desperate to resign it to the same bin as just about everything else that makes London an interesting place to live. In a way, it reminds me of Notting Hill Carnival – another London fixture that seems so beautifully out of place with everything else in this city that you can't help but feel the police would shut it down if they could.
It reminds me of the old lefty cliche about Tories shutting down youth clubs – something that sounds more like an accusation spouted at William Hague on Question Time than anything that has any tangible basis in reality. Well, even if some of its regulars are 40-year-old Canadians just trying to stay in shape, Southbank skate park is London's youth club, and you should do everything you can to save it before it's turned into a five-storey branch of Zizzi.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Additional interviews by William Alexander.
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