Coming to this Square can be a disappointment. If you were
expecting a large, spacious courtyard on the Edinburgh or Dublin model
then forget it. Mount Stuart is not open. Its roadway describes a squat
rectangle. At its midpoint is the creaky five storey stone pile of the
Cardiff Coal Exchange. This place was once the centre of the city's
commercial life. There's a blue plaque, unreadably high, above the main
door to mark the fact. But there's not a gram of coal exchanged there
now. The last sack left Cardiff in the sixties. We import now. Ahead
of me are a group of shrieking Asians, headscarves, dangling gold, trainers,
screaming bright socks. They're heading for the Dowlais arcade that
leads past the massage parlour and @Yum, the upmarket sandwich bar to
the flats of West Bute Street. We are in cosmopolitan country. I round
the corner where the buildings have all gone for car parks or redevelopment
and take in the spiky frame of the Millennium Stadium on the skyline
Mount Stuart Square, named after Lord Mountstuart, the Napoleonic
period MP for Cardiff and heir to the Bute estate, was where Cardiff's
wealth once circled. You can tell by the shape and weight of the buildings.
Put up at the end of the nineteenth century when coal, iron and steel
were making the city spin, they exude power - Cambrian Buildings,
Empire House, Perch Buildings 1889, Beynon House, Crichton House -
home of the Capital and Counties Bank, Baltic House, Phoenix Buildings.
The centrepiece, the once-mighty Coal Exchange, which in 1886 had
more than 1500 members running around in hats, spats and cigars, now
moulders. A local promoter, Red Kite, puts on the occasional concert.
Van Morrison, amazingly, played here recently with Linda Gail Lewis
and a Welsh pick-up band, turning out the sort of bar room rock and
roll that Cardiffians favour. Back in the eighties I saw the Five
Blind Boys of Alabama bring the house down with contagious gospel
sung to a mainly black audience of large women in their Sunday best.
But for most of the time, until redevelopment takes hold, and smart
office refurb and ready conference facility come back on stream, the
building sleeps.The tired leviathan. Old newspapers blow across its
frontage. Rain dirt collects on its window sills. The Cardiff Bay
Development Corporation once faced here, head on from Baltic House.
The wily planners there put back some of the old power using a form
of autocratic osmosis. But they've been disbanded now, time done,
their authority transferred to the City whose first action was to
suggest renaming the whole area something like Cardiff South. Thank
the Lord and Muddy Waters that idea got shot down.
Power of the Past - Beynon House
Today the Square houses a mix of arts agencies, a few charities,
media companies, design studios, and PR manipulators. Harry Holland,
probably Cardiff's best-known painter, has a studio here and one of
the pubs has become gourmet restaurant. The Square has changed its
nature but it has not slid back.
The western edge once housed the chapel which later became the notorious
Casablanca, the first and best of the city's stoned-sixties night
clubs. You came here if you were strong. New appartments now. 2002
build. The Square, of course, is surrounded on all sides by mainstream,
classic-mode Bute Town. This is pre-Bay development Cardiff dockland,
or at least, what's left of it. To the north are the mesh of new streets
they built to replace the mesh of old streets running up to Loudon
Square. That, with its classic Victoriana, they pulled down. South
is James Street and a further slice of local housing that separates
Mount Stuart from Techniquest, Harry Ramsden's and the water beyond.
The plan for Cardiff Bay is based, largely, on Baltimore. Fleets of
councillors, developers and other local worthies were flown over year
on year to see how it was done over there. "Urban renewal equals Negro
removal", black American author James Baldwin was quoated at them,
using heavy irony. But not in Caerdydd, brother. Not yet.
Walking out of the Square at the south end I pass the tiny White
Hart and the empty shop from which, ten years back, the short-lived
Bay FM, Cardiff's only rap station ran. I turn into the thin splinter
of a recreation ground, built along the line of the old Glamorgan
Canal, that runs from the Royal Hamadryad Hospital near the waterfront,
skirting Loudon Square and central Butetown to the main London-Fishguard
railway to the north. At the James Street intersection there are some
planted shrubs and a this-wonderful-park-is-here-for-the-people-of-Butetown
artist-carved entrance gates but after that it's worn grass, smashed
divans, wrecked washing machines and litter. The blind backs of Mount
Stuart's buildings have been elaborately spray painted. "Crime Pays,
Yo!", "I wunder if Heaven got a ghetto". No question.
Bay FM on James Street
(now the Somali Advice Centre)
When I get back to the real City (the Bay will forever be another
country) I will have passed at least ten people I don't know, all
of whom will have spoken or acknowledged me in some way. Coming up
The Hayes it is again as if I don't exist. Inscrutable Cardiff. Good
to be back.
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