Heritage is one of those processes that is normally top-down. In other words, what “the heritage” is often comes from the social, cultural, or political elite who prescribe what is/is not worthy of protection, conservation, funding. However, in the past generation or so, there have been wider forms of representation of heritage – some of which have come from oppositional groups. In other words, heritage can be a process by which meaning can be enforced on a group, but heritage can also be used as a form of resistance to these meanings. Sometimes this binary exists – the elite forcing their views on the masses, and the masses resisting by creating and enshrining their own heritage – though, recently, it seems how (and who) uses heritage and for what ends doesn’t necessarily follow this script.
Which leads me to the curious case of the Southbank Skatepark. If you have every visited (or live) in London, you know that the skatepark is a rather noticeable section of the arts and entertainment district on the south bank of the Thames. From what I understand, the area was rather derelict until the last twenty years or so, which is probably part of the reason that skaters were attracted (or, at least, were not chased away) from the area. Now, that space has been termed, essentially, the home of British skateboarding and has created its own culture, art, and heritage. From personal experience, it is a vibrant space that interacts well with the surrounding “high culture” of theatre, dance, and visual arts. One need not be a skater to realize the cultural value of the skatepark. If you haven’t seen the skatepark before, this gallery shows the space, the activity, and the people who use it.
Now, however, it appears that the space where the skatepark exists is under threat for redevelopment. The Southbank Centre, one of the performing arts buildings on South Bank, wants to develop the area both for retail and for a performing arts space. They have proposed moving the skatepark approximately 200 metres from its current location. This proposal has created more than a little controversy, and has paired together some very strange bedfellows.
We could perhaps rightly consider that skateboarding as having something of a rebel culture, and not normally linked with something as stuffy and conservative as heritage. However, in their bid to save the skatepark, skatepark supporter groups have formed a village green preservation society, arguing that it is an important sporting space worthy of conservation. Similarly, such high art/heritage groups such as the English Heritage and the National Theatre have added their support for saving the skatepark, arguing both that the Southbank Centre’s redevelopment is inappropriate for the location and that it would destroy an important heritage location.
On the other side, Billy Bragg – a loud and proud left-wing folk singer and political activist – supports the skatepark redevelopment, arguing that the needs of the community outweigh the conservation of the skatepark and its users.
I am just learning about this case so I am likely missing some of the nuances, and I will admit to not knowing the space beyond the few times I’ve visited there, but I do have some initial thoughts. First, this case does challenge some of the heritage binaries we hold dear, such as left/right, elite/common, high/low culture – at least in terms of advocacy. They have been thrown together and mixed around in this case. Secondly, it does seem inappropriate that the skateboard park and its users be relocated. It is not as though this is a derelict space – it is seemingly an important pilgrimage point for skaters, and certainly reflects the culture and heritage diversity of twenty-first century London. I think moving the skatepark changes its meaning – and while I don’t think that heritage are “things” as much as the meanings we put into “things” and spaces – I can imagine that a new skatepark would lack something of the authenticity of the current park. Indeed, the new park may be seen in the same way that we now view memorials, and maybe it just wouldn’t be used, at least as a source of pilgrimage. Finally, this is challenging what we view as heritage and why. I can’t actually imagine that, twenty years ago, English Heritage would view a skateboarding park as heritage. We have come a long ways, indeed. However, some of the inherent elements of heritage remain. In some ways, this does still reflect a certain amount of cultural dissonance – in terms of my culture (art/retail/performance) is more important than your culture (skateboarding, etc.) – at least in the way Bragg positions it. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, and whether there are still some twists going forward.