Growing up in an urbanized region of Germany, I eventually started skateboarding with a few friends in the early-2000’s. Magazines and skate videos allowed us to think out of the box, although media has been very focused on what was happening in the US-‘motherland’. Every now and then, a rad concrete skate spot in London appeared on a magazine’s photo or in a split-second video sequence: The ‘Undercroft’. From my callow continental perspective, it was the spot of the capital. Quite so! Soon after local skateboarders adopted the spot at the forefront of the Thames for their own means in the mid-70s, the foremost neglected ‘Undercroft’ evolved as an iconic part of London’s Southbank. Gradually, the secret birthplace of British skateboarding grew organically and generated a lively scene of like-minded. Apart from skateboarders, the concrete spot attracted generations of BMXers, photographers, directors and graffiti artists throughout its almost 40 years of existence. The Undercroft has become a symbol of a vivid cultural heritage for young people, for creative minds as well as an attraction for those, who just want to spend a minute of their time to watch and appreciate a unique part of London’s artistic diversity.
That said about history. Unfortunately, the continuity of the skate park is in limbo since March 2013: The £120m re-development plan for ‘Southbank Centre’ – so far – involves the use of the Undercroft space for shops and restaurants. Indeed, the building requires modernization and the crisis is taking its toll, with reduced public funding for all cultural institutions, but at what cost? The plan is clearly short-sighted as it underestimates the impact of the current Undercroft on recent cultural heritage and denies skateboarding as an art form. According to the initial architect’s plans, a substitute-location underneath the nearby Hungerford Bridge is provided for the skateboarders. In the true sense of the word, it is nothing more than that: a substitution. It wouldn’t be a space like Southbank. Not a grown entity, developed by its inhabitants, but an artificial place without heart and soul. History simply cannot be re-created.
The ‘Long Live Southbank’-initiative raises similar concerns and is a commendable example of civil protest to prevent the forced disappearance of London’s hub for skateboarding. Apart from raising awareness on their website, facebook, twitter and during several events, the creators of the group regularly get together for constructive meetings with the executives of Southbank Centre and the Council. When I went down to Southbank last weekend, I met a great bunch of enthusiastic people, full of energy and dedicated to spread the word to the many interested passing by. This was pure and heartfelt engagement, as much as the skateboarders of the Undercroft are a genuine part of the Southbank.
Since the project got under way, a growing public support emerged. Besides well-known figures of skateboarding, such as Andrew Reynolds or Mark ‘The Gonz’ Gonzales, the initiative is backed by the English Heritage organization, which emphasizes the importance of the historical site and urges a change of thinking. Former culture secretary MP Ben Bradshaw voiced his concerns about a lasting cultural diversity at the forefront of the Thames in an interview with the initiative’s spokesmen. Recently, Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, expressed doubts about the benefit of the restructuring plans and fears a further segmentation of the arts complex on Southbank. Of course, this is not a direct pledge to the work of the Long Live Southbank project, but it kind of serves the purpose when (rightfully) considering skateboarding as a part of London’s art spectre. Fortunately, there is another glimmer of hope on the horizon: Owing to the public debate and almost 60.000 signatures in favour of the initiative, Southbank Centre is now forced to push back its planning application until late-2013. Well, as this is just a partial success and a definite outcome is not yet in sight, further support for the cause is most welcome. Not only as a skateboarder, but as a culturally interested person, it would be a shame to forsake this historic spot that generated creativity, talent and countless friendships for almost four decades. Long Live Southbank!
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