September 2015, 12 months on from the success of the Long Live the South Bank Campaign. Now that the Totally Thames festival is under way we decided it was a good time to look into one of the most iconic and memorable places on the river and the story of its salvation: London’s South Bank undercroft. Jasper; pro-skater and Gophr courier, sat down with us to tell us a bit about what made a group of skaters unite to save their space. Read on to find out what made a vacant space become one of the most recognised places in London.
How did you get involved in the LLSB?
Well, I became involved because ever since I came to London I’ve skated there. I became local there, there’s obviously a natural thing to get involved and help stop them trying to remove the space. I guess South Bank is important to me because when I came to London I didn’t know anyone and that was really the first place I went. It was about the only place I knew because it’s a famous spot for skateboarders and as soon as I went there I met loads of people and made loads of friends. It’s kind of a hub for skaters to meet people.
Where was you when you first heard about the proposal to close the undercroft?
I’m not sure how it started, I remember going to SB one day and there was a rumour going round. ‘Aww, they are going to shut it down, they are going to shut it down.’ and maybe a week later posters started to appear about the new proposal, telling us to go and read about the plans. A couple of weeks after that my friend Henry and a guy called Paul from Uprise, a children’s youth organisation, they started putting together a campaign to try and stop it. Just creating forms and petitions and protesting against the planning permissions.
What is it that makes the undercroft so special?
There is literally loads of reasons, it’s a really interesting space, I mean it all started in the 70’s when it just used to be like crackheads and junkies that would hang out there, and that was all the space was used for. It was just like completely dead. In the 70’s people started to skate there because it had the banks and people could imitate what was being done in L.A at the time with the bowls. People have just skated there since, it’s not a skate park, you’re not out in the streets either, it’s like a claimed space for skateboarders. It’s really organic the way it’s evolved and changed and that makes it really interesting. It’s a really interesting vibe when you go there, everyone knows everyone, there’s a real sense of community. if your local there then you’re all homies, kind of thing.
Did you meet anyone special or interesting or anyone that you wouldn’t otherwise have met if you weren’t at the South Bank and involved in LLSB?
I’ve met loads of pro-skaters, people I looked up to when I was a kid, just from skating there. Made a lot of connections through the industry from being there. I guess nothing like, no crazy story of meeting this super famous person or anything, but everyone that skates, when they come to London, they will go to the South Bank, people who have been travelling around they will come there, you are constantly meeting new people from around the world, in that one spot.
I’ve managed to get sponsored now, and that’s led to me going on trips, filming, working for the company I’m with. Through connections that I made skating there.
What was your role in LLSB?
I mainly just helped out on the table, explaining to people, getting them to sign the petition, getting them to understand what was happening with the space and why they should consider it important to them. Mostly we were dealing with tourists as well, which can be quite difficult when they are potentially just walking past on holiday, but actually we got a huge response from people. A lot of local people were really supportive as well.
If you were local there and you skated there you would do some time on the table, you would skate up and down when it was packed with tourists and get them to sign. It wasn’t like there is these guys that are doing something for this space, it was like we are all doing it. A community effort.
What do you think would have happened had they moved the skate area to the hungerford bridge?
I don’t know man. I didn’t really like thinking about that concept. haha I mean, I wouldn’t skate there and I know that 90% of people from the South Bank wouldn’t go there. What they had designed was terrible, even so, that’s not why we go there. You don’t just go there because it’s somewhere to skate. The city is full of things to skate. There’s loads of other skate parks if that’s what we wanted. We wanted the culture of what South Bank is.
What were the events like when you gathered together to make a stand against the South Bank centre?
We put on our own events within South Bank to raise awareness, and get more people involved. a few skate competitions. One of the things we did do, we brought in all the petitions, we had them all enveloped and boxed up at South Bank, in the tens of thousands. Boxes and boxes of them. Then we all skated from South Bank to Brixton, Lambeth council. I guess you could say it was a ride out, hundreds of skaters to take them down and make a statement, not just someone comes down and delivers the boxes, it was like a bunch of guys here is our protest and this is us, kind of thing.
What was the defining moments that made you feel that you had real support and that you could pull this off?
We got a lot of support from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects) A lot of politicians said that it is an important space and that it shouldn’t be changed. Over the couple of years we had a lot of influential people coming out and saying that that space was more important than a couple of extra cafes or shops. I think from the National Theatre, there was a lot of protests about the South Bank centre changing it, but they were not sure as they are a part of that organisation. So from local businesses we didn’t see much support. And of course from the South Bank centre there was an interesting relationship going on there…
They were really sneaky and they were trying things on that they really shouldn’t have been doing. Like making a lot of false statements about us, almost like smear campaigns about us and local skateboarders and stuff. Things like turning off all the lights so that people couldn’t skate there. Basically, what happens when everyone is skating there, you don’t really get dodgy people coming to hang around cos its like there’s too many of us there, but when half the lights aren’t on and there’s only a few skaters you get others coming in and using the space. There was a time when there was no lights for months, so at night the was all this dodgy shit happening and then the South Bank centre could paint the space into a worse light than it was.
They were kind of manipulating that for a long time. They were doing some pretty dark shit, yeh.
Do you know of any other schemes that this has been used as an example for saving and nurturing local culture?
A lot of spaces around the UK, like skate parks, since seeing the success of Save the South Bank have contacted the LLSB and asked us to give talks on how we framed our campaign and so on, to help people set up their own campaigns. There is one ongoing for the skate park in Stockwell because that’s under threat. There was another successful campaign outside of London, I think in the midlands.
Do you feel proud that you helped save a national and cultural treasure?
I guess so, I guess we don’t really see it that way, like yeah, it’s an important space. For us it’s just like our space, where we go hang and chill with our mates and do our shit. We feel proud that we have managed to defend it and not have anyone take it from us. It’s more we just wanted things to not change. Obviously that it’s a national treasure is the reason that we still exist but that’s not what we like about it. We don’t mind if there is people there watching us but it’s a bit of a paradox, we just want to chill and be left alone but we all feel proud about what we did, or else we would be gutted.
If you want to read on or are thinking about getting involved in LLSB and their ongoing campaign to free the rest of the space, that has been locked away for nearly 10 years then you should check out their blog. Also check out the Friends of Stockwell Skatepark and help save some of London’s unsung history.
All photos credit: Jasper Bainbridge