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Sophie Wedgwood

Southbank's last skate

As cafe culture kills London's most crucial spot, we report on a triumphant final jam

As you may have heard by now via extensive online discussion, the London Southbank Festival Wing is set for a £100 million redevelopment, and these plans include the taking over of the Undercroft, home since the 1970s to generations of skateboarders and more recently BMXers and graffiti artists. The area was once far bigger, reaching underneath the festival hall, but the reduced current space still includes the iconic covered banks and steps that have been skated by thousands over the years and have appeared in countless videos and magazines. It’s arguably the oldest surviving skate spot in the world - If there was a World Heritage Site for skateboarding, this place would undoubtedly qualify. Under the new plans, however, the Undercroft will be turned into chain coffee shops and cafes, and a space under nearby Hungerford Bridge has been set aside for the relocation of the skaters, bikers and graffers, or the “Urban Arts” as they have been referred to by the Southbank Centre. As part of their appeal to save the space, a diverse group of regulars, including skateboard filmer Henry Edwards-Wood and documentary maker Winstan Whitter organised an extended jam over the May Bank holiday weekend as a show of numbers and protest against relocation. 

If this undefined space is redesigned out of existence, we won’t have lost a skatepark or a graffiti wall, but that rare thing in this city, a genuine shared space

Walking down the river over the weekend, everything seems clearly prescribed for the visitor - river views, shops, cafes and galleries, crappy construction service tunnels. People eat ice creams, watch street entertainers, browse at the weekly book market below Waterloo bridge, drink at the National Theatre, BFI and Royal Festival Hall bars, before reaching an area that isn’t so easily pigeon-holed - The Undercroft. Today it’s a colourful hive of activity. 90s hip-hop booms out of speakers, locals mix with first timers, a 50-year-old geezer in a Dog Town shirt is attempting a kick-turn on one the of the banks while Palace pro Chewy Cannon is holding a game of S.K.A.T.E and Rory Milanes takes to the decks. Large numbers of slightly bemused tourists file past or stop for a look. Some feel happy to simply identify the space “Oh, a skateboard park” and move on. Some are drawn to it, stopping to lean on the rail, watching, taking photos. Petitions are signed, Long Live Southbank t-shirts are bought and video interviews conducted.

But the essence of South Bank isn’t really here. In fact the very term “Southbank skatepark” is misleading. The Undercroft has never been a skatepark. Veteran pro skater Mark Gonzales probably put it best in his video message of support - a shared space. People have shared the Undercoft space since it was built, skaters shared it with BMXers, graffiti painters, families with kids, the homeless, the tourists, the curious, the bored and the lonely. It’s a leftover space without a purpose, that found one. It’s a place people feel at home where they aren’t wanted. And importantly it’s both undercover, accessible, free and open. Looking at the space now, with a commercial eye, you can certainly see how it could be quite a money-maker - cafe units could be easily slotted into the existing shell. But if this undefined space is redesigned out of existence, we won’t have lost a skatepark or a graffiti wall, but that rare thing in this city, a genuine shared space, somewhere safe for young people to meet on common ground, to make friends, a place without an agenda, without a set purpose, and without a price list.

Sign the petition to Save Southbank here.