Jonathan Schofield takes in all sides in the Lincoln Square skateboarding row and has a bit of an epiphany

Nature abhors a vacuum as do brand new squares. Nature fills the vacuum with whatever is to hand, empty squares fill with skateboarders. It’s the order of things. 

I've only ever experienced skateboarders as positive and often actually custodians of space

One of the parishioners at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church on Mulberry Street wrote to me about skateboarders a week or so ago. St Mary’s is also known as the Hidden Gem, although it’s not so hidden any more as the new office called Lincoln House has been spun back and the church is now revealed. The church looks over one part of the extensive and splendid landscaping from Altrincham company Planet-IE that also includes the Abraham Lincoln statue and the Peace Gardens. The landscaping cost, according to the City Council, £5m.

Our parishioner wrote: “(What can we do) with an issue of constant skateboarders in the Peace Garden of Lincoln Square/Mulberry Street. I am trying to find out how to disperse this group who appear daily and disrupt the Mass and other services. Just as we kept the church open safely every day from July 2020 in lockdown and have suffered the noise, dirt, dust and inconvenience of (being inside) a (being surrounded by) building site for over three years so we thought it would be peaceful now. How wrong we were. The skateboarders play out in the square and we cannot hear the Mass and other services. Do we have the law on our side?” 

Skateboarding Article April Lincoln Square 3
St Mary's Church, the not-so "Hidden Gem", is being clattered by skateboard din Image: Confidentials

Disturbed churchgoers and the byelaws

It's very hard not to have sympathy with St Mary’s folk and they are not the only ones complaining about the skateboarders. The clatter of tumbling skateboards and skaters are disturbing offices and businesses around the new square while both the noise and all the whizzing around are hardly conducive to the contemplative appreciation of the Peace Gardens. Councillors have asked questions, citizens have complained and police and council officials have moved skaters on. We have stories of one skater being handcuffed.

The latter actions answer the question from St Mary’s. The law is on side with the church. A spokesperson for Manchester City Council told Confidentials: "Ensuring that public spaces are welcoming and safe is important to the Council and its partners. There is a byelaw in place which prohibits people from skateboarding in the city centre in a manner that is dangerous or causes nuisance or annoyance for others. Officers will look to engage with the people who are skateboarding to provide information about the byelaw, with more formal intervention reserved for those committing anti-social behaviour."

Projekts Skatepark Manchester
A view into Projekts Manchester, under the Mancunian Way Image: Confidentials

Skaters have opinions, you know

There seemed a voice missing from the Lincoln Square debate. The obvious one.

“Thanks for speaking to us, it’s a first,” said Josh Bentley, a skateboarder. “You’d be surprised how we are always left out of these discussions.”

“Articles and articles have been written about us,” says Adam, “and it’s amazing how many times we have found out second-hand what we as skateboarders have been doing. Nobody asks us about our experience.”

Another skateboarder is with us too, Jamie, and we all have a chat, in situ, at Lincoln Square. The trio are pictured in the main image above. From the left, we have Jamie, Josh and Adam and they are adopting the pose of the Abraham Lincoln statue behind. During the interview when the young men say skating they are talking about skateboarding.

I ask, given they know they get people’s backs up with their movement and noise, why don’t they use dedicated skating spaces such as Projekts under the Mancunian Way at London Road?

“Three reasons,” says Jamie, “it’s expensive, predictable and not flexible. £8 for just a couple of hours and £14 for the whole day. That’s a lot. And even if you could afford that, you can’t use it every day with classes and courses. We’ve spoken to them and they’re not willing to work with us and be more flexible.”

There’s a collective laugh at the mention of Hulme Park and other city park facilities. “Hulme Park skate park, if you can call it that, is twenty years old and pathetic, you can tell no skaters were consulted about it,” says Josh. 

Projekts skate park under the Mancunian Way
Projekts skate park under the Mancunian Way Image: Confidentials

In any case, I conjecture, you probably don’t want to be fenced inside a cage under the Mancunian Way. Surely being free to skate in all manner of locations is part of the thrill?

“We look for open spaces that suit,” agrees Josh with a nod. “You want to use your city, explore it. Life is mundane when you do the same thing every day. Skating is more comparable to hill-walking, you pick new routes, see new things, it’s not a gym where you’re on a treadmill. Many skaters think a purpose-built skate park is less legit than street skating, less authentic. You want to seek out different places with different obstacles.”

Anybody who has ever been young would find it difficult to argue with those points. I grew up next to the moors in Rochdale and if there was a derelict barn to explore, an abandoned mine to delve, a tree to climb, nobody could stop me no matter the consequences.

“It’s appropriation,” expands Jamie on what is clearly a key aspect of skating. “You find your own spot, try and make things work, it’s a personal challenge. It's about finding the most interesting spots and places. You want to use the city as well, you want to explore.”

Skateboarders, it seems, know more about the hidden corners of the city centre than most residents, workers and party-goers. So many people have a very blinkered view of the city centre as they beat familiar paths rather than exploring new places.   

Lincoln Square skateboarders
An empty Lincoln Square with the only occupants, skateboarders Image: Confidentials

Yet skaters annoy people: do they care?

That's great, I say, about discovering the city, but skaters really annoy people, chase other users away and damage property. Expensive property. Lincoln Square's landscaping cost £5m. I point at the slide marks on the recently installed granite kerb bordering a flower and shrub bed in the Peace Gardens. 

Jamie says, “Maybe designers should design public spaces with skateboarders in mind. Why install the anti-skating caps (the metal studs to prevent skateboarding) after the fact rather than designing in a surface layer that would be skateboard proof from the beginning. The slide marks here don’t make it unusable as seating. Nor do we cause the biggest damage.”

Adam continues with: “Think about Urbis [Cathedral Gardens]. The paving there is dangerous for everybody now and we didn’t smash the stones. That comes from all the lorries and trucks driving over them installing Christmas Markets and other events. Who will pay for that?”

This is a half point from the skateboarders. As my old mum used to say, two wrongs don’t make a right. Damage will cost, damage will be a burden on the city, damage is unsightly, it ruins things whoever or whatever causes it. 

So what happens, I ask, if this square gets busy in summer and there are little kids running around, mums with prams and maybe people in wheelchairs? You flying past on skateboards and falling over is not right, surely? You then monopolise the square and prevent other people using it. 

“We wouldn’t use it if little kids were running around, or there were prams or wheelchairs,” says Josh. “If this were a place that became packed with families then we’d find somewhere else. No one wants to fight against another group of people. If a square is quiet that’s when we use it. We know this is the Peace Gardens but I don’t feel we disturb the peace, plenty of people walk through here and don’t seem bothered.”

Of course, this ignores the fact that a couple of strolling individuals who want to read the plaques on the Lincoln statue or in the Peace Gardens will definitely feel a little anxious about fifteen whizzing skaters. The couple will move off quickly. I have witnessed this in Lincoln Square. 

We expand the conversation. I tell the young men of my own experience and that of others in St Peter’s Square which has had problems with skateboarders and is a very busy square, unlike largely undiscovered Lincoln Square.  

Skateboarding Article April Lincoln Square
Skater damage in a brand new beautifully designed square Image: Confidentials

This is a statement from Councillor Joan Davies, Labour, of Deansgate Ward. “Unfortunately, the adoption by skateboarders doesn’t bring diversity: it drives others away, as well as damaging the fabric of the square. Some skateboarders in St Peter’s Square ask people sitting on benches how long they’ll be there. Some even behave in an intimidating fashion towards people sitting on the benches.

“This is not benign adoption, or even co-operative space sharing and particularly difficult for many people with health or disability issues. Of course, we do need to provide better skateboarding provision.”

More about that provision later. Councillor Davies said she’s had complaints about skateboarders from both Deansgate Ward residents and businesses, and the complaints include both St Peter’s Square and Lincoln Square.

Adam says, “That’s not something we would do, ask people how long they are going to be on a bench so we can skate it. I think if someone in our group was genuinely doing something out of order, acting dangerously, or obnoxiously, we would tell them. There’s a respect element.”

The skateboarders refer to a hierarchy in skaters and how there seems to be a “younger crowd” in St Peter’s Square who aren't behaving as they might but they also say the “younger kids look up to us and what we say carries some weight.” 

Jamie says, “We let it be known that we shouldn't get in people’s way and bother anyone. The chances are then we will be able to stay longer. It's all about co-existing and being respectful. No-one wants to skate something to break something.”

Blessed are the peacemaking skaters, however the complaints of skater behaviour seems to indicate many people have had a different experience.

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A woman stoops to read the Lincoln statue plaque while skaters bomb a round her Image: Confidentials

Back to St Marys’ Church and the office staff and the noise. The young men have to admit they make a proper racket, a machine gun effect of clattering skateboards flying every which way?

“We’re hardly unique in that are we?” says Josh. “If I was to say something about the noise aspect it would be that it’s the centre of the city. it’s vibrant, and has lots of people doing things that make noise. It’s a busy area that has numerous bars on Deansgate that create as much noise if not more than the skateboards do which no one seems to have any problem with. On Saturday night it's mad.

“So why have a problem with people using the space to do something creative and active? I would also like to add the idea that the city centre should be tranquil and quiet is almost ridiculous and seems to be something people are starting to expect. You are in a city centre, surely there is going to be noise.”

Jamie also mentions, how noisy and wild nearby Deansgate is on a weekend evening and how this is tolerated. "Compare that to the noise we make," he says. "There simply is no comparison." 

Skateboarders are a positive for city life?

Not everybody is against the skateboarders.

Urbanist and Liverpool University academic, Morag Rose, who lives in Manchester, offers support.

“(The negativity) doesn't resonate at all for me. For many years, I've only ever experienced skateboarders as positive and often actually custodians of space,” she says. “As a disabled person I can confidently say skateboarders are not high on my list of disabling factors in Manchester. Designers should understand the environment and all the communities they need to serve.

After visiting Lincoln Square she told Confidentials, “I was singularly unbothered by the skateboarders; whilst I was there they were being very careful not to get in anyone's way. I think skateboarders and young people generally are too often scapegoated or seen as a threat in the city centre. It's their city too and I am glad to see them enjoying the space and having fun.”

Morag Rose is not alone in her sympathy with the skateboarders and their supposed reputation, although one might argue she doesn’t work in an office bordering Lincoln Square or worship in St Mary’s. 

Dympna Gould, who has worked in tourism for more than twenty years, reinforces the point made by Morag Rose. "I worked at the Cathedral in a past life and used to walk through Cathedral Gardens. The skateboarders were a tonic there and I also found them courteous. When the city goes quiet I love how they bring energy and youth to the city. It sometimes feels the city centre is unwelcoming for young people, the skateboarders bring life to what is, after all, their city centre as well." 

Skateboarders And A Lifeless Empty Lincoln Square
A lifeless Lincoln Square, peaceful yet empty Image: Confidentials

Manchester is a skateboarding relegation candidate

So, what about better skateboarding provision, as Councillor Joan Davies mentioned?

“Manchester is the bottom of the list for skaters,” says Jamie, who is doing a project on public spaces and skating. “So many cities are adopting skateboard culture. Nottingham for instance with Sneinton Square is made of good skateboard materials but it’s still for everybody, not just skaters, and is really busy. Liverpool is better than Manchester and open to skaters on the Pierhead, outside the Liver Building. Planners in other cities seem to be getting it. Kids get criminalised or viewed with suspicion from just being outside frequently which is wrong but skaters are actually doing something, an activity.”

Nottingham seemed a little surprised by its reputation. A press officer comment from their city council was: “(We weren’t) aware that Nottingham had such an accolade regarding its approach to skateboarders, and having checked with a colleague in charge of regulations in the city, he’s confirmed there’s no formal policy here, we simply deal with skateboarders if and when they are causing problems, but there’s no particular drive to encourage them to use our public squares.”

Perception is everything though and skateboarders are a group of people who keep in touch with each other. Amongst their loose community Nottingham and other cities have a far better reputation than Manchester. Certainly local media, such as the Nottingham Post, seem to support the city's reputation as skateboarder friendly. 

Skateboarding Is Now An Official Olympic Sport
Skateboarding is now an official Olympic sport Image: Japan Times

It's good to talk: an opinion shift

The more I talked to both sides over this skateboarding question the more it seems opinions separate and solidify. The divide in opinion is chasm-like, unbridgeable. It's also clearly a generational battle.

Yet, as a person at the older end of the generational split I find my opinions have shifted by talking to skateboarders rather than simply dismissing them. There is no doubt their adoption of the freshly minted and rather lovely Lincoln Square has left it scarred while, at the same time, they have been making a racket and discombobulating the mind with their hither and thither rushing. I was all for condemning them out of hand. That changed by listening to them.

Then I thought about other aspects of city centre life which create far more disturbance than skateboarders. Let’s take how we tolerate on weekend nights semi-riotous drunkenness with gangs of men bawling and fighting and hordes of squealing hen parties carrying grotesque inflatable cocks. Recently, at 8am on a Sunday, I walked down a skateboarder-free, very quiet Lincoln Square and encountered three piles of vomit, one in the Peace Gardens. Lovely. Ah those gentle, gracious late-night revellers eh? 

Of course, the crazy Saturday night scenes are largely tolerable to the city because they bring in cash. Skateboarders generate hardly any cash, the odd coffee or snack here and there, and are an easy and obvious target. Yet, there’s probably more damage and trouble caused on one of those rowdy weekend nights, more injuries and NHS hours used up, than in ten years of skateboarding in the city centre in public spaces. 

Skateboarders Visit Manchester
Crazy Saturday nights in the city centre Image: Visit Manchester

Here’s a plan:

Let the skateboarders live up to what they say in this article about “co-existing and being respectful”. Let them prove that point in Lincoln Square by skateboarding only if it is very quiet and only after 6pm on weekdays (which they already seem to do) and on weekends. Let them check the times of Mass and of services at St Mary’s Church and not skateboard during those times which would be simply good manners. If the square becomes busier and more food and drink outlets open then they’ll have to give up the space which our skaters seemed to acknowledge.

Meanwhile the rest of us should tolerate skateboarders and let them get on with their pastime, sorry sport (it’s an Olympic sport now), until we start to use the square more frequently and thus skateboarding becomes naturally excluded.

I know, I know. Cloud-cuckoo land. As stated above the chasm is so deep, the generational divide so profound that it seems unlikely peace will breakout soon and that opinions will change. Some skaters will be too hard-nosed to care about other users of public spaces and many non-skaters will see them as an irritant akin to vandals. 

For me though, a chat to these articulate skateboarders has pulled me to the centre of the issue away from that extreme, judgemental shake of the head from a member of an older generation.  

My mum used to say "two wrongs don't make a right" but she also used to say "live and let live."  

Follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @jonathschofield

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