Niall Neeson sticks a boardslide at Southbank, circa Moving Units (Photo: Richard Gilligan)
Words // Niall Neeson
Skateboarding underneath the elevated first floor of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank has been a visible manifestation of what might nominally be described as British street culture for entire generations now.
A historical sweep invites a ‘since-‘ starting point, but the truth about such ‘I was there’ claims is that no-one really knows for sure. Skateboarding itself, accepted wisdom tells us, slashed out of the California surf scene in the early 1970’s, but there is anecdotal evidence of the children of Yorkshire miners using the flat undercarriage of coal carts to do something very similar as far back as the 1950’s, so let’s not get hung up on ground zero. Suffice to say, by the mid 1970’s the gloomy underpass (which it then still was) right alongside the Thames was a refuge from the weather for an early generation of London skateboarders, as well as the other flotsam and jetsam of Tory Britain: the homeless.
Since that time there has been an unbroken lineage of skateboard presence throughout the manifold changes that the space has seen. Now at this point we should really draw attention to onetime Southbank local and now successful film- maker Winstan Whitter’s exhaustively researched if injudiciously edited love letter to Southbank ‘Rollin Through The Decades’, which gathers together the most first- hand testimonial which will ever be accrued on the history and influence of the spot to global skateboard culture. It is fair to say that Southbank (as it is universally known) is among the most famous skateboarding locations in the world, appears in video games, in a million bypassing photographers’ “youth culture as social comment” assignments, and used as a backdrop in every visual media looking for a handy cypher for urban edgy chic.
In truth this is a fairly recent phenomenon, because up until the mid- 1990’s, Southbank was by no means a salubrious place to hang around. With the homeless dispersed to doorways around the capital, rudeboys from the local Peabody Estate could be relied on to episodically storm the space lifting whatever they could and attacking whatever they couldn’t. As the affluent 90’s progressed and CCTV was introduced, the incidence of trouble declined but never fully dissipated. In its place came a new kind of threat: gentrification.
Just after the turn of the millennium blueprints began to circulate envisioning a new ground floor space, replete with retail units up to the waterfront which would monetise the redevelopment of the high culture spaces upstairs. Not long after, the smaller of the two sets of paved banks were cordoned off as talk of a compromise solution were aired in liaison between the skaters and the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s directorial team.
It was at this point that something remarkable happened. A new skateshop called Cide opened in Lower Marsh Street just the other side of Waterloo station. Pro-active and more energised than Covent Garden’s then complacent, smug Slam City Skates, Cide’s team ran an event which saw several permanent concrete sculptures into the remaining space, symbolically declaring a physical and cultural line in the sand for skateboarding in the UK. Creating facts on the ground, if you will, the new additions revitalised a skateboard scene which- being London, being visible- can lapse into self-regard, as was certainly the case in previous eras there. (Cide would subsequently close, and a rejuvenated Slam would emerge under new ownership)
Several of the sculptured blocks from the Moving Units installation remain today, in a space which unfortunately the centre itself has deemed a graffiti zone in a trendy vicar attempt to create a smorgasbord of radness. The unhealthy fumes in that enclosed space and the unhealthy territoriality of people who write their names on walls for validation make the atmosphere more not less volatile however, and it only serves to identify skateboarding with graffiti in the eyes of a million passers-by every week.
For years now there has been a kind of Chicken Licken paranoia about the remaining space disappearing overnight, but with some on-going consultation between scene elders and centre management this appears unlikely. Moreover, funding shortfalls and the discovery of asbestos during work on the area where the small banks lay have both put the skids on any sudden changes to the present incarnation.
Tired though she may be looking of late, the Southbank centre and it’s skateboarding scene provide an alternative look at London expressing itself to millions of tourists and citizens alike, an attraction which both livens up the space and gives people something to enjoy watching without having to buy an overpriced cappuccino or put coins into. Where there is no victim there is no crime. It should remain a safe space for skateboarders and their ilk for generations to come. Lose the graffiti though chaps: it is lurid, narcissistic, and scruffy.