Saving the South Bank – 40 years of history

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Guest author and photographer Kevan James put together this insightful article about the London South Bank skate park. Read it, go to the support site for the South Bank and support your local skate parks!

The South Bank Centre in London is world famous for theatre, exhibitions and concerts. The Royal Festival Hall, the biggest of the three buildings that make up the centre, dominates the south side of the River Thames opposite Charing Cross train station on the north side, with the Queen Elizabeth Hall next to it and the Hayward Gallery behind. But the South bank is also famous for something else, something its designers never dreamed of when the centre was created way back in the 1960s.

If you’ve never been there before and only saw a blurred newspaper photograph of the lower level of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a netherworld of all you want to keep away from; graffiti-strewn walls with hooded youths lurking menacingly. The truth however, is as far from that as it could be.

When the South Bank was built, the lower level, known as the undercroft, was left open, its rough bare concrete walls a testimony to 1960s design thinking. These semi-underground spaces first became a refuge for the homeless before a growing craze amongst young people saw the space become what it is known for worldwide today; the home of British Skateboarding and more recently BMX biking. For most of the last forty years, south bank, as it is simply known to skaters, has seen the rise of some of the UK’s most well-known skaters and it is a Mecca for skaters not just from London and elsewhere in Britain but quite literally around the globe.

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The ugly concrete walls were, years ago, transformed from a bare nothing into a colourful maelstrom of graffiti, which might not be to the liking of a purist, but it’s considerably brighter and more interesting. And the long term presence of skaters and BMX riders has meant the undercroft sees no illegal activities, with drug taking for example, unknown.

One of the most enduring aspects of south bank is that it has endured; even today, forty years after it first became used by skaters, some of those who first used it are still doing so. What hair is left may be greyer and the pace a bit slower but generations of skaters still come. There is a cloud on the horizon however; The South Bank Centre is about to undergo a complete rebuild and the undercroft is to be turned into retail units, with a new entry up into the centre carving it’s way through the middle of the area used for skateboarding.

Interestingly, the Centre planners, having accepted long ago that skateboarding, BMX riding and street art was not going away, have stated that all will remain a part of the South Bank Centre’s activities, and have proposed a new site less than a hundred metres away under the rail bridge leading to Charing Cross train station.

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The plans however have met with obvious opposition from the site’s current users. The big objection is the loss of decades of history. Skateboarding is no longer a minority activity, with a few bored teenagers with nothing better to do being a nuisance. Not only that but with there being no shortage of bars, cafes and other retail units along the river side, removing what has become a huge tourist attraction in it’s own right merely to add more of what is already present seems at odds with concerns over a perceived lack of sporting participation by the young in the UK.

But it’s that history, or more accurately the potential loss of it, that is most keenly felt. Skateboarders are persistent and determined though and a campaign to save the site, and preserve it for it’s existing use is gathering momentum. The campaign launched over the public holiday weekend in the UK of May 4, 5 and 6, with a festival of skating, BMX riding, art and music. A website and petition has been set up and over the three days, hundreds of skaters and bikers turned up to take part, of all ages, from the very young, up to…any age. People like Kegan Lovely and his seven year old son, Ales, who is following in his dad’s footsteps, or on his (own) skateboard if you prefer. Kegan, now 38, has been skating since he was a boy and remembers the south bank as a hive of skating activity. “I first came here years ago and I’m happy to bring Ales along to do just what I did.”

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But it’s not just Londoners like Kegan who want to see the site remain as a skate park; one of the features of the site is the way passers-by stop passing and stay just to watch. People like Jessica from Sweden, visiting with her son, who said. “It’s completely wrong to close this, they should think again.”
Others from around the UK say the same. Wendy Palmer from Cambridge has friends in London and is a frequent visitor with her daughters, aged 7 and 8 and her 12 year old son. “It would be a real shame if this closed, my kids love coming just to watch – and it’s the only time all three are quiet…”

Whether or not the campaign is successful remains to be seen but if not it wont be for lack of effort. One of the campaign leaders is 25 year old Henry Edwards-Wood, a self-employed videographer. “I’ve been coming here since I was 12 and one of the reasons I kept coming back was the history associated with the site and the feeling of being part of a real community. People don’t come once, they keep coming.”
Edwards-Wood is now part of a group organising the campaign and the numbers of supporters keep growing. The petition had over 20,000 signatures before the weekend’s campaign launch and that number doubled over the three days with a constant queue of people adding their names, from teenagers and young people up to the more mature members of society, and given the progress made over the last few weeks, as the campaign becomes more organised those numbers look set to grow further.

If you want more information on the campaign, go to www.longlivesouthbank.com
© Kevan James 2012
Kevj1@hotmail.com

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