If you live in London for any other reason than to make money, the last ten years have seen the city redesigned around you, for people who aren't you. Of course by now we know the culprits well: London 2012, offshore property developers, a Mayor who posits the consumer industry as the solution to all the city's ills. Indicative of this New London are its two Westfield poles. The one at Shepherd's Bush in the west, and the bigger, even more popular Stratford City in the east.
The sleek interiors, mood lighting, ease of access and hundreds of boutique shopping experiences on offer attracts thousands every day. Three years after it opened, the scale of the place is still daunting. To drive round it is to be within an archetype of dystopia so overblown you almost cringe at the bare-faced nature of it. Indicatively, though there are signs directing you to places further afield – central London, Leytonstone, Leyton, Stansted airport – there are none pointing you towards the older end of Stratford, towards the old town hall or the 1970s-built Stratford Centre. It is as if turbo-charged, 21st-century London would rather not know about the old Stratford. Because it has invented an entirely new one.
Walk into the Stratford Centre and the old shopping precinct is a world apart from Westfield. People predicted that it would close as soon as the giant opened, but it has survived, and has become a 24-hour hub of the community since.
Through the evening and into the night, the Stratford Centre houses a community of skaters, dancers and body-poppers who move liberated from stereo to stereo. It's like being in an 80s version of the future.
After the kids clear out, the centre becomes an unofficial home for Stratford's homeless. It feels like a reclaimed space next to the over-managed Olympic Queen Elizabeth Park and the consumer security zone, Westfield. It tells a story of London that might not be told through the official channels, who have hyped up the new developments.
The central hub where everybody skates and dances is a folded-in microcosm of the classic British high street, complete with JD Sports, H. Samuel, Claire's Accessories, Dorothy Perkins, Thomas Cook, Carphone Warehouse, an independent jewellers, a pharmacy and a linen shop. Looking around at the livewire scene, it feels like The Warriors as imagined by JD Sports' marketing team. Whether you view it as bleak or not is a half-full/half-empty concern.
At night, the space opens up. Westfield might have its 24-hour casinos, but the two sets of late-night visitors are very different. Skaters like Isaiah have been coming to the centre for over five years. By mutual agreement they're allowed to come and go as they please, the centre being a public thoroughfare. "I heard you could skate until one in the morning," he says. "Practice new stuff, just skate. It's 24 hours. Some skaters leave at 4AM."
Isaiah and other skaters I talk to say that it's necessity that has brought them here, night after night. "Most skate parks are more designed for BMX people. It's so smooth here and you are actually allowed to skate – it's open, there's space, so it is so much easier for skaters in general to enjoy themselves."
Isaiah comes from Catford in South East London. His tall, slinky mate in a sweater with the dog from Family Guy on it and matching grey joggers comes all the way from West Wickham in Bromley, Kent. "All the skaters just come here to hang out and chill – it's the only place like it," he says. "This is nothing," he says, gesturing to the scene around him on a Monday evening. "On a Friday, there's about 60 people. Skaters, dancers, people taking pictures..."
The Stratford Centre is like no shopping centre I've ever seen, in that security generally leave you alone. I spy some skaters hanging in one of the ventricles that comes off the centre – lads called CJ, Alex and Norman, all from Russia. CJ has been coming for three years. They come for the "good atmosphere", he says. "The first time I came here I thought they were gonna kick us out straight away. But they didn't. I think security just can't because so many people [like us] come here."
They regularly stay at the centre all night. "One day, a load of skaters just came in here. Security told them to leave and they pretty much just refused," adds Alex. "They kept coming back every week and the security were like, 'Yeah, screw it.'" What's the relationship between these men and and security, though? One of quiet tolerance?
"They hate us," says CJ.
"Oh no, it differs," tempers Alex. "Some of them are cool."
When I visit, the centre is closed from around midnight until about 6AM for renovations and to put up the Christmas lights. There is a tangible fear among those that use it during the night that they may not always be able to do so. "I worry that they'll try [and close it]," says Alex. "But there are so many people who come here that I don't think they'd be able to stop them."
Such is the unexpected life of the place, the skaters regularly get people coming up to them, congratulating them, taking photos, shaking their hands. "It happens all the time," says Alex, from Romford. "The majority of them are usually drunk. People come up to us and ask us about the place, ask why we skate here. They really appreciate it; some people stand there and will watch you for a good 20 minutes."
"I've been coming for about three or four years and I hope it will still be here in five," says CJ. "It's been going for a good five years already," adds Alex. One individual, Norman, who lives with his family near Maryland station, hasn't been in the UK very long and came after a friend's recommendation, but hopes somewhere better might be built nearby. "I hope there are going to build a better place!" he says. "With mini-ramps everywhere!"
And that's just the thing. If there were a better place for these people to go and hang out, they would. This is making do, but they're still grateful. "Skating is a passion for a lot of people," says CJ, who, until recently, worked as a labourer but is now unemployed. "Here, it's covered. There's no rain. I come every day, I leave just before midnight. It's my a passion."
Their presence doesn't come without police attention, though. "During the week, Monday to Thursday, they just bowl about," says Alex. "But on Fridays there are about 20 walking up and down. There was one guy who got arrested a few weeks ago for mouthing off to them. The police kicked him to the floor because they said he had a knife. He didn't have anything on him in the end." Presumably this isn't a great thing for those that come and use the centre peacefully. "No. Because when people see that they are gonna stop us coming."
I try to speak to a policeman about what it's like to patrol the centre at night, but he shoos me away with a smile; he's got bigger fish to fry, in the form of the five-foot teenager in a puffa jacket and his mates that they're following. With his fellow officer, he stops the kid to talk. For a moment things seem tense, then PC and kids go their separate ways. I call management and email and call the PR team to ask them about their thoughts on the skaters but am met with a cold reception each time I ring. I have my own suspicions that the skaters are allowed such free reign over the place in order to keep them away from Westfield but no one, it seems, wants to comment on the way the centre is being used.
By the side of the entrance is a notice for the dispersal of groups and people under 16, reminding you that the centre is still being fought over. Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control, the 2009 book that did much to push the crisis of public space into the forefront of the discussion about London. "I went to the Stratford Centre in 2012 and you could already see stark contrasts between glossy Westfield, on a totally different level, two stories up and looking down on the centre and separated by the barrier of a massive road interchange," she says.
For Minton, Westfield represents the securitisation of land that has fast become the norm in cities over the world. "What has really characterised a city like London over the last ten years or so is that every single pocket is now up for development. It's got a very high property value. The empty spaces in the city, which are always the creative spaces, are less and less."
The existence of places like the Stratford Centre, then, is quite precarious. As Minton says, "There is so little of the city left where people can express themselves and reclaim the space."
People often lament the lack of subcultures in this country, but they never really look in depth as to why that might be. We mourn the passing of legitimate street culture and music scenes. People say: "It's gone – those days are never coming back." But what is obvious after you spend a time looking at it, is that the lack of public space or affordable property for music venues, youth clubs and the like, has been decisive – places in which young people felt safe from authority, in which community could foster, in which art is made, that encourage an organic creativity.
These days, a "creative" is ES Magazine-shorthand for a "trendy" person with a job in PR or fashion or design, not an adjective for a looser but perhaps more intellectually stimulating pursuit than is offered to us now by the dominance of retail. The ingenuity of the Stratford Centre skaters to stake a claim to this slice of identikit shopping mall is the more truly creative act – an impulse that more mourners of subculture and wallowers in nostalgia could do well to tap into.
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