North east city and town councils are wrong to demonise skateboarding as anti-social behaviour, lumped in with street drinking, loitering and begging, argues Mike Jeffries
Tyneside is a perfect urban playground. You might not notice, unless you know where to look; the city’s unloved corners, decaying wastelands, last millennium’s modernist ruins, night-time rooftops, out of public view. For the city’s skateboarders, free-runners, urban explorers and BMX kids, these are places of beauty and adventure.
However, much like the abandoned “Brasilia of the north” plazas and post-industrial waste they love, the skateboarders who colonise these spaces are viewed with civic displeasure. Skateboarding is banned under the threat of fines. In many parts of the UK, councils are toying with Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO), a sort of ASBO for anything that might offend right-thinking citizens, as a means of excluding skaters. These orders are turning skateboarding into just another anti-social behaviour, lumped in with street drinking, loitering and begging. Witness this comment from current PSPO skate-ban hotspot in Kettering” “Little scruffy, raggy panted delinquents just want to hang around causing a nuisance whilst probably smoking something illegal.” The same, dismissive sneers are commonplace around the UK.
Nor does skateboarding lend itself to the slogans of civic PR. The skaters’ affection for dingy spaces and a sketchy aesthetic are tricky to market, although NewcastleGateshead’s claims of world class culture, nightlife, heritage and architecture could all apply to the local skate scene.
All skateboarding scenes have deep roots and folk lore. Skateboarding’s origins in the UK are usually credited to the brief late 1970s fad, although I’m sure there are more ancient precedents in the home-made carts and bogies of previous generations. Hurtling down the street has always been a rite of passage. There are skaters in Newcastle who will tell you about the first skateboards, which shops sold them, the awkward public demonstrations in department stores ill-suited to shredding.
The city soon acquired favourite skate spots, usually defined by a combination of the architectural possibilities for tricks and the opportunities to just hang out with your friends. Many of these spots were part of 1960s regeneration of the city centre, such as the old library plaza or Bank of England building, both now demolished. Concrete brutalism is ideal for skating. Dobson and Grainger-listed buildings are hopeless.
Other favoured spots were more of a problem. The Haymarket war memorial was ideal, with long, low steps and, briefly, the Lego men statues and their kerb. The Metro made it the ideal spot to meet up for a day out. However a war memorial is trouble. Quite rightly, many people baulked at the implied disrespect and this was one of the first sites to see a ban and fines. The problems got tangled up with the other war memorial in Old Eldon Square and the supposed nuisance of teenagers hanging around.
I’ve never met a skateboarder who has ever set out to cause offence or trouble. They can be accused of naivety – but not malice. Over five years of working with skaters, free-runners, BMXers and urban explorers in Tyneside, I’ve never once heard any intent to cause trouble, damage, conflict or disrespect, and I have listened out for this.
Tyneside’s skate scene has a powerful sense of community and pride. Skaters organise their own games. These have included sessions in memory of “Bingo” Banks who ran Stockton’s Mischief Skate shop, showing a sentiment and solidarity not obvious if you didn’t know what they were up to. They have their own rules and etiquette for taking turns and joining in. They have built their own spots, sites they look after and nurture. Many are superb photographers and video-makers.
There are moments when the civic powers find a use for skaters and their kin, such as Newcastle’s Urban Games, or the free-runners filmed on top of the Sage for the 2013 Great North Run. But I was out with those very same free-runners on occasions when security told them to move on, unwanted.
The real problem is that they are enjoying themselves for free and that is not what the city is for. Cities are not a playground; they are a machine for consuming. Take, for example, Tyneside’s nightlife. This costs the city more than £150 million in crime, clearing up and health impacts every year, but brings in more £300 million. So that’s okay then.
Meantime, in the city’s eyesores, lost spaces and wind-blown wastes the skaters, free-runners, and BMXers will keep on building their own play-Toon.
Mike Jeffries is a teaching fellow in the geography department of Northumbria University.
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