SKATEBOARDING, COMMERCIALISATION AND THE PRIVATISATION OF THE CITY
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist, as posited in The Usual Suspects, but luring us to blame each other for the bad decisions we make when navigating His system. Global finance goes tits up in 2007, and it’s just a few bad bankers to blame and us, for expecting public services. Pupils are tested at age six and teachers are punished with never-ending inspection, but it’s the children and staff who lack ‘resilience’ as mental distress spreads like wild-fire.
Popular culture – the entertainment, advertising and commentary enforcing the tacit ‘rules’ we live by – clearly delineates good and evil, ‘core’ and corny, and instructs us to find easy scapegoats, usually other schmoes trapped in the system. Skateboarders, rather than blaming the commercialisation of leisure time and mainstream assimilation of niche sub-cultures, blame individual pros, trying to feed their kids and pay rent when they finally sign up to the swoosh or the three stripes. The system carries on unseen and unassailable. We’re each surviving a game in which the rules are unknowable whilst an unseen hand swaps our carefully painted dwarf warrior for a dried hunk of shit. Rather than blaming the idiotic game and going outside, you yell at Nigel the Mage, I kick Sarah the Dark Elf in the shin, and Geoff over there blames you and I equally and puts your new D10 up his arse.
Let’s take the big, interwoven challenges facing skateboarding today: commercialisation that squeezes core brands and local shops; gentrification and the loss of public space; and, of course, how the commodification of sub-culture enlists us as agents of gentrification. Having assimilated most of the earth, capital has run out of new markets to exploit. So, the cultural realm is commodified and used in a “kind of real estate scam” (David Harvey) to repackage and sell off great lumps of the city. Skating (and ordinary skateboarders), along with graffiti, DIY music scenes and other grassroots culture, help make neighbourhoods desirable to developers more interested in street art than fine art, after which the new owners prevent us from doing the very thing that originally gave the space value.
Steve Berra’s recent Jenkem interview reveals a skateboarder who feels little loyalty to the soul of the thing and willingly accepts capital’s terms (in contrast to Philly’s Sabotage crew in the final days of Love Park, stubbornly refusing to bend the knee as the king’s horses overrun their barricades). Berra appoints himself the adult in the room, throwing shade on those who fail to see ‘how things are’ in corporate bro speak that sounds not unlike Jake Gyllenhaal’s manipulator-savant Lou in Nightcrawler. The Berrics is a business, but the culture of skateboarding? He has uncritically adopted what Mark Fisher called a ‘business ontology’: everything boils down to the profit motive. The moral or aesthetic are irrelevant to Steve Berra. It is simply ‘business’, an abstract phenomenon assumed to surround all of us, like air, or the ghosts of our ancestors.
Berra’s worldview shines through his last two video parts. His stealth installation of prefabricated skatepark obstacles make the streets efficient, predictable. He joylessly annexes public space with nascent, temporary Berricses, for his private use only – unlike the democratising generosity of DIY and in harmony with the neoliberal belief that public space should bend to market forces. All human endeavour is not analogous to business and the ‘market’ is simply the aggregation of millions of human decisions, both sensible and silly: it is no more able to effectively govern our actions than any other network of fallible humans doing and saying dumb shit.
We, the common man or woman, need freely accessible spaces to meet, to be entertained, to sell our wares, and to share rituals of community cohesion: expressions of grief, celebration or protest. The downgrading or total abandonment of these civic purposes – these ‘public goods’ – occurred at the very time skateboarders started using such spaces (the sidewalk, municipal plazas, rather than the private space of backyard swimming pools). In ‘The Poetics of Security’, Ocean Howell shows that the kind of skateboarding most loathed by town planners and local politicians directly grew from the “barren, defensive spaces” associated with triumphant Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Hard, sharp ledges in open, windswept plazas replaced more intimate, humane spaces that encourage the ‘chance encounters’ and unhurried meanderings beloved of utopian urbanists. The architectural cattle prods that herd us from office, to shopping centre, to restaurant or bar, gave form and vocabulary to modern street skating. For ageing British skaters, spaces made otherwise empty by Thatcher’s 11 year war on society are synonymous with Panic/Blueprint, Viewfinder or Video Log, in which Baines, Shier and Selley, the Shipman brothers, Rowley and John Dalton rattle through foreclosure-scarred high streets and dilapidated bus stations. The death of a truly ‘public’ realm enabled the golden era of street skating.
Since this time, skateboarding performs the shifting role of sworn protector and unwitting agent in the erosion of public space. If 90s street skating revealed then re-purposed hollowed-out spaces, giving deliberately meaning-free public realm new subjectivity and vibrancy, by the 2000s we were contributing to a new wave of commodification: bundled within the older term ‘gentrification’. Once the deliberate clearing, re-development and re-selling of residential space in densely populated cities like Paris, it now refers to a more organic process; a decentralised urge that needs no civil servant’s urban masterplan; a contagion that town planners are powerless to resist even if they wanted to. It transforms space and culture, and recruits well-meaning artists, community workers and (potentially) skateboarders to be its unwitting landing party. Whole towns and neighbourhoods are tentatively colonised by art studios and cafes, and then wholly transformed by the alien invasion force: the developers and investors who assimilate the very soul of the community into a brochure-ready, homogenous aesthetic that appeals exclusively to middle class tastes and budgets.
But imagine you care not for the dispersal and disenfranchisement of working class communities, that the searing injustice of Grenfell leaves you unmoved, and you care only for how this affects your ability to skate the streets. How and why is skateboarding both coalmine canary and unwitting collaborator in subsequent waves of gentrification? And, more importantly, what might the options be for non-cooperation, resistance and roll-back?
Thanks to the person who left this outside our office this weekend…
Skateboarding is perfectly legal across most of the UK. Unless there’s a specific By Law or PSPO in operation, you have every right to skate a public area. But gentrification has created areas that look public in every discernible way.. but aren’t. The Guardian newspaper have chilled out on misconstruing and sneering at the young and/or the working class, as if recalling a day out at the zoo to people who have never visited, and have done something useful for once. They’ve mapped the spread of ‘pseudo’ or ‘Privately Owned Public Spaces’ (POPS) across London. These spaces, although designed to resemble municipal plazas, are owned and controlled by private firms (often investment companies) who draw up (but don’t necessarily publish) restrictions covering their use. Cue the overweight private security guard, permanently at the mercy of violent urges, whose job it is to kick you off – along with rough sleepers, groups of young people just hanging out, even families consuming food and drink not purchased from particular premises. When combined with the ‘defensive architecture’ on which Howell and Iain Borden write widely – the anti-homeless spikes and skate stoppers that pock-mark such spaces – they explicitly signal who can and can’t be there, degrading the principles of our democracy and social fabric.
If capital is no longer just in the business of appropriating housing estates, flats and small business premises, but the very streets and squares we walk and skate across, how on earth could you and I be its agents? Howell argues our activities ironically make these spaces more marketable. By skating previously uninteresting, uninviting spaces, we help make them youthful, ‘edgy’, ‘urban’. Think of all the destination marketing, aimed at attracting foreign investors and tourists (including to cities hostile to skateboarding) that use images of skating. Howell’s depiction of Love Park is an example we’ve cited before. Originally designed as a space for passers-by to tarry, eat lunch, Reaganomics saw an end to that. Increasingly destitute homeless people, many of whom were drug dependent and deprived of welfare support, colonised the space. But with Ricky Oyola’s generation of East Coast street pioneers, followed by the second generation of technical ledge skaters led by a young Fred Gall, Love Park became a magnet for a different kind of user, hardier than easily startled office drones. To paraphrase Oyola, if skinny teenagers weren’t afraid of no crack head, why should a grown-ass executive? So skateboarders made Love Park usable for everyone else. This made it valuable to developers, so the skaters, like the rough sleepers, had to go. And then, without the everyday presence of skaters (with Brian Panebianco’s younger generation getting their sessions when they could, often at night), Love Park as we knew it lost its value to the City of Philadelphia… and the rest is history and rubble.
Did generations of skateboarders intend to be agents of their own exile? Of course they didn’t, and the stubborn efforts of the Sabotage crew to fend off both municipal and skate industry capital earned their right to inhabit the space several times over. Howell’s term “footsoldiers’ of gentrification” is deliberately provocative: it illustrates how skaters’ ability to make a city unique and attractive gets co-opted. That value, created through random moments of weird risk taking, is then commodified and transformed into something else. The authentic and anarchic becomes something symbolic and safe: from the Haçienda of gurning, mad-for-it ravers to the Haçienda of high-value real estate. Your and my use of a space makes it valuable in a way that it wasn’t previously, but the outcome of time and love freely given is frustratingly unrealised profits for the kind of vampires that think only in the short term. It doesn’t matter to them that no skating will eventually mean no plaza – by then they’ve extracted their return and moved onto the next thing.
Sometimes skateboarders can hold the line and fight the invaders off. But when they do, the battle is never wholly won, and in moments of victory, it’s important to remember that not everyone fought on the same side – some danced to the speculators’ tune. Take the successful campaign to save the Southbank Undercroft from redevelopment into retail space. The younger generation, skating the space daily, understood what it meant (because they were creating and maintaining its value). Some members of the older generation, particularly former Kingpin editor Niall Neeson, fell quickly into Berra’s ‘business ontology’, siding with the so-called adults and plumping for the Southbank Centre’s Hungerford Bridge alternative. Neeson wrote an article for Huck, (since removed), dripping in condescension, in which he railed against the naivety of the skaters who used and loved the Undercroft. You can’t fight the market, kids. But history, and the hard graft of LLSB and their supporters, proved that you can.
But the story doesn’t end there. LLSB’s campaign to restore and re-open the lost ‘small banks’ started quite recently. The irony is that the brilliance and authenticity of their original campaign (far outmatching the Southbank Centre in its reach and intellectual and aesthetic sophistication), in charging the space with even more cultural value and international profile, captured the attention of capital like the burning eye of Sauron. In order to fund the £790,000 needed, in comes Adidas with a generous contribution.
Adidas are not Costa or Prêt, but tales of Red Bull cutting and running when the DIY builds they fund provoke the ire of the authorities, or Adidas’ own abortive (but initially well publicised) ‘saving’ of the historic skatepark in Kennington, do not bode well for the long-term trustworthiness of skateboarding’s mega-corporate benefactors. One of the greatest ironies of the diffuse, decentralised nature of late capitalism is that, rather than bringing about greater accountability, it concentrates power and isolates it from ordinary people. But how else do LLSB get anywhere near their target? This is all part of the impossibility of navigating a system loaded against us. In the case of Southbank, the rules of the system – in requiring users to pay for a publicly owned, taxpayer-funded space that attracts visitors to London – go unquestioned in 2017’s Great Britain. We’re back in a business ontology, where the ‘customer’ pays. Could Real – of all current skate companies, surely the most consistent in their stance against the ills of modern politics (against Trump, against racism, against aspects of neo-liberal capitalism) – have held onto the two best skateboarders of their respective generations (Busenitz and Ishod) without the sneaker cheques that flow from Adidas and Nike? The insatiable rise of the sportswear giants threaten organisations like Real/Deluxe as it sucks money out of the skateshops they rely upon to stock their kit. And Real surely know this, yet have little choice but to support teamriders who sign up to the Swoosh.
I remain an optimist, and a strong supporter of LLSB – particularly as they invest in something many a government-funded, multi-million-pound regeneration project ignores: the actual human beings in their community, rather than ‘just’ the space. But the story shows that even doggedly manning a stand for actual years, rain or shine – one of the few acts on earth that owes little to the capitalist superstructure – can potentially be re-used in someone else’s marketing strategy. To avoid difficult choices in which there is no definitively ‘right’ option, and always an unknowable future cost, the system around us has to change more radically. A strong focus on rethinking regeneration (severing the link between improving the environment for communities and destroying those communities) in the Labour leader’s party conference speech is welcome and shifts the debate whatever the outcome of a future election. In the here and now, other lessons can be gleaned. The work of the skaters of Gillet Square – an autonomous space managed in cooperation with the community and the borough authority (with group learning facilitated by personnel shared with the LLSB campaign) – to oppose threatened redevelopment could be instructional for the rest of us.
Even more optimistic in scope, is when inclusivity is designed into new spaces from their very inception – creating physical enclaves that are potentially post-neoliberal. In this, the Nordic countries lead, as they do in many other respects. I recommend two interviews, both by Daryl Mersom, with Søren Enevoldsen, the architect and skater responsible for incredible public plazas in Denmark, in which school kids play, office workers shoot hoops, couples play ping pong, hipsters buy local produce, and skaters perfect ledge tricks or schralp deliberately accidental transition. There is commerce in these spaces, but it does not overwhelm other uses. Enevoldsen describes “active urban spaces” in contrast to spaces where “you are always told what to do. Everything is organized and targeted towards certain behavioral patterns and you become inactive and zombie-like. I want to create places… where a greater variety of people can co-exist. If you see a tree in nature it can be used in so many different ways… You have to become “active” in your approach the tree. Just like a skater is “active” when he searches the city for new possibilities.”
Skateboarding has created value by activating the inactive – value that can, has been, and will continue to be exploited. We should continue to fight to save the spaces we have transformed, for ourselves and others that use them, but we should also work harder, through activism, lobbying, entrepreneurialism and our own education, to achieve more spaces that have radical potential from the very start.
Skateboarders are equipped to think in radically different ways as future planners, architects, urbanists, who can then redesign physical spaces that are resistant to gentrification. Think on that if you can’t think of ‘owt interesting to study at college.
If you would like to write articles for Crossfire then get in touch.
Anti Hero end this with their own insights of the above from SF: