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Photographer enters hidden world of East London skate culture

Is public space actually public?

That was the question on photographer Carla da Silva‘s mind one night in East London when she met a group of skaters and walked right into the center of an ongoing debate.

Silva, who is based in Geneva, was living in London for graduate school when she encountered the group skating at Stratford Centre, a 24-hour open-air development in East London whith smooth floors and open space ideal for skating. The skaters told Silva that they had trouble finding space where they could practice the activity that was, for many of them, the center of their lives.

“They told me that they had nowhere else to go because there was no proper space for skating,” she said.

For them, the opportunity to gather and have fun with friends is of as much importance as the practice of the activities itself. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

For this group of young skaters, the opportunity to gather and have fun with friends is of as much importance as the practice of the activities itself. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

Skateboarding spaces are increasingly rare in London, where planned redevelopment of skating centers has resulted in heated legal battles. In one case seen as a victory for London’s skaters, the Southbank Centre’s Undercroft Skatepark — a well-known skating center and hub for the city’s skate culture — was granted protection by the city, halting plans to redevelop the site. For some, this was a harbinger of a renewed relationship between London and the skating community.

But this group told Silva that they still had few options, and that the skating parks that they could access were not well-lit at night, making for dangerous skating conditions. “Usually they couldn’t use them at night because there was no light,” she said. So they chose the Stratford Centre.

"This is a place to relax, to forget about everyday problems and express after fourteen hours of work. I come to enjoy a moment of freedom before going to sleep." Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

“This is a place to relax, to forget about everyday problems and express after fourteen hours of work. I come to enjoy a moment of freedom before going to sleep,” one skater told me. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

From October 2014 to last June, Silva photographed the group and interviewed them about what skating meant to their lives. “When they were talking about their activities — it could be skating, rollerblading or even dancing — most of them were saying, ‘That’s my life. That’s all I do. That’s what I like to do. Even if I go to school or if I go to work, I’m always waiting for the moment I’m going to take my skates and go to this space,'” she said.

The group and its relationship to Stratford Centre is just one microcosm of a larger conversation about the changing definition of what public space means in London, Silva said. In several highly-touted developments in the past few years, land that was previously public has changed ownership to private companies, giving them control over what happens there. Jeevan Vasagar, a journalist for The Guardian, wrote:

Over the past decade, large parts of Britain’s cities have been redeveloped as privately-owned estates, extending corporate control over some of the country’s busiest squares and thoroughfares. These developments are no longer simply enclosed malls like Westfield in White City or business districts like Broadgate in the City of London — they are spaces open to the sky which appear to be entirely public to casual passers-by.

Bradley Garrett, a visiting research associate at the University of Oxford, wrote for The Guardian that “all these developments seem to contradict stated city authority goals to increase public space that is actually publicly owned.”

Even land that is public can be governed by Public Spaces Protection Orders, a set of laws that came into effect in 2014. Using those laws, local officials can forbid activities that are otherwise not illegal, but that they determine have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life” for locals. In at least one city, officials have proposed restrictions on skateboarding under that law.

Dancers also use this space. They complain that London has shut down all suitable "dance squares" the restrict the opening hours of many dancing halls. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

Dancers also use the space at Stratford Centre. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

For a group like the Stratford Centre skaters, these developments mean being pushed to the side along with the spaces where they can develop a community, Silva said. “They were trying to say, we don’t want to be in the margins of society,” she said. “I think it was also about being part of this community being in the city and looking for some recognition.”

See more of Silva’s photos below.

Some of the skaters told Silva that Stratford Centre was where they came to relax and unwind with friends. Photo by Carla da Silva

Some of the skaters told Silva that Stratford Centre was where they came to relax and unwind with friends. Photo by Carla da Silva

A regular skateboarder said he would never have met his girlfriend if he had not started coming to the center a year ago. Photo by Carla da Silva

A regular skateboarder told me he would never have met his girlfriend if he had not started coming to the center a year ago. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

A young rollerblader slaloming with speed and agility between the pedestrians. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

A young roller skater glides with speed and agility between the pedestrians. Photo and caption by Carla da Silva

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