Leith DIY Skatepark and Graffiti Wall
In the early days of August 2018, Edinburgh Council began demolition of the Leith DIY skatepark in advance of the planned Newhaven tram extension, as the existing park overlapped with areas the Council intends to cover with grass. Although the extension had not yet been approved, the demolition was part of a series of actions during the summer of 2018 intended to prepare the area for development, and was a precursor to the more widely-promoted debut of the Marine Parade Graffiti Wall, which had its first ‘jam’ on September 1, 2018. Since then the skatepark and the graffiti wall have been engaged in a living performance of the tensions between a local community and the celebration of #Local #Communities by development-focused councils, leaving the sorry state of the skatepark today as a testament to the problematic effects of even the most well-meaning artistic efforts.
Before going further, I should be clear that this shouldn’t be regarded as a dig at the volunteers and community interest companies that have worked to make the graffiti wall a success with local and international artists, or an attempt to take a definitive side in the ongoing arguments regarding gentrification, artwashing, and development in Leith. It’s also not meant to pit the skatepark against the graffiti wall as if they’re inherently opposed. I’m a transplant to Leith, and make no claim to any local legitimacy or comprehensive knowledge of the myriad issues facing my adopted home. I just care about skateparks, street art, and whether or not my neighbours are being taken advantage of, so when I point out things that seems to me to be representative of disheartening trends, I do so as an interested outsider who sees the same signs of exploitation in Edinburgh that I’ve seen in Chicago, DC, and countless other cities where income inequality mixes with ‘indie’ cred to price out longtime residents in favour of a sterilised urban environment. At the very least, I’d just like the Council to clean up some of their rubbish (more on that in a bit).
The DIY skatepark began in 2015 on a derelict site,and over the subsequent three years volunteers transformed it into a clean, safe spot for residents to skate, hang out, and generally enjoy the kind of community public spaces are ostensibly supposed to foster. The group primarily responsible for the park had one of the most successful proposals during the 2018 Leith Chooses grant period, earning £9000 to continue building skateparks around town work that continues today. However, because the DIY park is technically illegal, volunteers had no formal recourse to stop the planned demolition, and at least some of the justification for the demolition was due to the park’s proximity to the power substation; as of now, the Council has only demolished those parts of the park directly adjacent to the substation, although its plan for the tram indicate that the entire park will eventually be erased.
The near-universally negative response to the demolition was immediately apparent not only in the comments on the skatepark’s Facebook page, where residents shared bittersweet memories of their time there, but also in the graffiti that came to adorn the park, including the fairly blunt ‘NO TRAMS’ tag and a slightly more stylised piece saying ‘Fuck Edinburgh Council’. However, even as local residents were making their dissatisfaction known via one of the oldest forms of public discourse, the Council-approved graffiti wall was being rolled out, which intentionally or not had the effect of literally covering up these statements in an almost too-perfect example of artwashing. Coming so soon after the demolition, the promotion of the graffiti wall couldn’t help but appear nefarious, particular when – for example – Councillor Lesley Macinnes described the wall as a way to bring ‘some much-needed life to the area’, as if the lives already there were insufficient. The best of intentions can’t erase the ominous undertones that accompany this kind of rhetoric, and it’s not an overstatement to note that this is the language of social cleansing. Even the smallest details of the graffiti wall’s promotion seemed to indicate a certain degree of class exclusion; one of the wall’s sponsors was Boardwalk, the fee-based skatepark at Ocean Terminal that would directly benefit from the destruction of the free DIY park.
Even putting aside the problematic public perception of the graffiti wall’s promotion, the most damning indictment of the Council’s actions are the assorted piles of waste and abandoned furniture that now surround the remains of the skatepark. Even as the promoters of the graffiti wall celebrated their successful clean-up of the area immediately adjacent to the wall, the Council left huge piles of concrete, brick, and rusted metal around the park, making those areas of the skatepark still standing dangerous and derelict. Now, eight months later, the area has understandably become a dumping ground, as the piles of waste metastasise because people have understandably just followed the Council’s lead. In the context of the long-term plans for the area, one can’t help but see this as a kind of strategic neglect, because by encouraging the further degradation of the area around the park through its own partial demolition and subsequent inaction, the Council is making it easier to sell its eventual total demolition of the park to make way for some generic landscaping. Put simply, where once they faced widespread opposition they can now claim to be ‘cleaning up’ a dangerous eyesore rather than demolishing a beloved landmark, even though the danger is entirely of their own making.