Undercroft: A Victory For Us All

Words by Billie Jenkins

On Thursday afternoon the written agreement between the Southbank Centre and the Long Live Southbank group, who successfully campaigned against plans by the Centre to build over the infamous skate park beneath one of its wings, was released, saving the space from destruction. The Long Live Southbank campaign tweeted ‘After 17 months we can finally announce Southbank is officially saved – a massive thank you to all who stood with us’. In the wake of this historic event we reflect back on why these moments are so important.

The rich history of South Bank skatepark, Undercroft, is one which is not to be contested; something planners recently found out when they proposed a build over the famous site and came to blows with the communities which have gathered to skate, paint and appreciate amongst the comings and goings of serious boarders. In fact blows is being kind, resistance to the plans for a new Festival Hall wing in its place has made it the least popular planning application in history, with 27,286 written objections. It was this spirited contention, that led to Boris Johnson himself putting his foot down on plans, and the site being given its deserved status of as a part of skateboarding history in the UK and the center of a community. As a kid heading into town with mum and dad we would always stop and watch the skaters, some brilliant, some barely able to stand. When my younger brother came of age and bought his first board with pocket money it was to Undercroft the family returned to, despite leaving the city years earlier, to shape himself up against the big kids and soak up the atmosphere. It may not have a big name to show for its history, or mark the birth of a movement, but consistently it has been a place for people to come and glimpse into the scene, within a city underpopulated with these kind of spaces.

It has always seemed strange to me an area that is per metre square one of London’s most expensive, had survived so long as a place people can come and go without commercial expectations; yet that very strangeness itself is a perfect example of why this victory is an important landmark for the city. A world where we expect the oppression of subcultures, or communities born of non-commercial motives is not one I aspire live in. Although the Festival Hall, which wanted to build restaurants across the site to provide funding for expansion, may be seen as a institution which exists in the name of culture rather than commerce it is still very much an institution connected to both the government and a very different part of the community to Undercroft. And it charges; for many events at a price that is aspirational for those that live in the surrounding areas.

A meeting point for boarders over the last forty years, a history which very few other spots in the UK can boast, specifically none so high profile, makes this victory over the proposal such a success. It denotes a moment in London’s history where the voices of its inhabitants came first, regardless of the cash in their pockets or their social standing. It is also a testament to the community that now holds a real claim to Undercroft as their own, and reveals that the DIY, proactive spirit of skaters and graff artists runs deeper than the surfaces they play on. We salute you guys, you truly make things happen.

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