I'm in the lozenge-shaped city again. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid
sprawl. Where else would I be? I'm standing on the B4487 in bright
early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter.
This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west.
A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of
ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant
something. Newport Road when I was a kid. Still is. The Africans are
walking down it now. The endless displaced. Heading up beyond Roath
Court for the Refugee Council at Phoenix House. Fewer now that the
recession has hit. Polski Sklep having a hard time. The Czech shop
We always wondered why in this place there was so much new housing.
Apartments rising like corn right across the boom city. Concrete mixers.
Deliveries of brick. Tower cranes like locusts. Men in hard hats in
every bar. What drew them to this capital? What were we doing that
made them come? Nothing, it turns out. Investors are blind. Invest
where walls rise and your money will climb in step. No need to sell
what you've built. Let the vacant towers glitter. Let their apartments
stand empty, value accumulating as prices soar. Manage a let if a
visitor asks. Sell one to an executive needing a town centre toehold.
Rooms with a water view for singles. Wasp territory. Audi in the undercroft.
Wine in the rack. Families not needed. No toy cupboards. No gardens.
Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale.
To Let. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. Across the city are
half-finished metal frames, surrounded by fencing, waiting for the
interest rates to rise once again. Build has stopped, all but. Apart
from the mega projects like St David's 2, the new Ninian Park and
the scatter of enterprise across the sports village on the Ferry Road.
On the hoarding at the north end of St David's 2, our new city of
malls and inner-city accommodation, are graffitied the words More
Yuppie Flats Please. Word on the street is that the blocks inside
will stand largely empty. Shells. Unfixed, unfinished walls. A city
waiting for the bankers to take control once more.
There have been many visions for this place in which Cardiffians
live. Plans for the port to take ocean liners. For the rich to sail
for America from Tiger Bay rather than Southampton or London or Liverpool.
Passengers would arrive by Great Western. There would have been grand
hotels, piers and custom sheds and deep-water berths, but the Severn's
giant tidefall defeated them all.
When the Second World War came bombs hit the docks and there was
a dangerous scattering across the suburbs but nothing like the devastation
that visited Bristol or Swansea or London. Those flattened places
were first in line for rebuild. They got the Brutalism and the concrete
early. Cardiff, with its drab and dismal streets, slumbered on. Plans
for reconstruction, when they came, embraced the spirit of the age.
There would be city centre high rise linked by urban motorway. Roads
would dominate, flying in on elevated concrete platforms. The city
would resemble Metropolis. You wouldn't live here, you'd come here.
The centre would stretch north as far as Maindy. Cars stacked in giant
parks. Pedestrian walkways woven among them like raffia. This was
Buchanan's plan of 1964. Cardiff couldn't afford it. Only the outer
distributor roads were built along with some of the centre car parks.
Buchanan's successor was Ravenseft's Centreplan of 1970. More centre
highrise linked by first floor pedestrian decks. Conference centres,
offices, malls, concert halls, shops. Everything in the old centre
flattened to make way. The 1973 property crash saw that one off.
What Cardiff actually ended up with was piecemeal redevelopment.
Smaller scale. One block at a time. St David's Hall. The pedestrianisation
of Queen Street. The opening of the St David's Shopping Centre. The
bus station redesigned and made more welcoming. The entrance-way to
the city from Cardiff Central Rail Station cleared. Trees planted.
A new library on Bridge Street. On the site of the old open market
and the bend in the Glamorgan canal the arrival of the prestigious
Holiday Inn. The building by Brent Walker of the city's own World
Trade Centre at the back of Mary Ann Street (now known as the Cardiff
International Arena, home to trade shows and concerts by Bob Dylan
and the Manic Street Preachers).
By the time the new Cardiff unitary authority was created in 1996,
with Russell Goodway in charge, the boom was well underway. Cardiff,
the newest European Capital. Cardiff, the world's youngest city. Cardiff
reborn, rebuilt, rebranded. Come for the glass and the grass. City
of malls and parks. Cardiff with a Bay. City of opportunity and joy.
A smogless place of life and light. And come they did. The European
Summit in 1997. The Bay's Mermaid Quay in 1998. The Rugby World Cup
at the new Millennium Stadium in 1999. The National Assembly the same
year. Fireworks everywhere. The MacDonald Holland Hotel created in
the former Hodge Building, Cardiff's first high-rise, in 2004. The
Parc Plaza in 2005. The Altolusso apartments on Bute Terrace, centrepiece
of Torchwood's opening credits, in 2005. This was boosterism.
Sell the city, turn the place from manufacture to call centre, from
exporter to destination. From heavy industrial to financial screen
spinner. Come here to make your decisions. Cardiff media city. Cardiff
centre for international sports. For opera and the arts. Visit to
get pissed. More vertical drinkeries per acre than anywhere else in
the western UK.
City centre living returned in 2003 when Fanum House, the former
AA headquarters on the corner of Queen Street and Station Terrace
was renamed The Aspect and its floors sold as apartments with a view
(the railtracks and the prison actually). Immediate access to all
the shopping you could ever need. Greggs opened a sandwich shop below.
The centre flourishes. Come here on a match-day to see it at its
peak. Street theatre, music, men on tightropes playing violins, Roma
bands with clarinet and double bass, student duos with bright guitars,
the Red Choir - some of them sitting now - still ushering in freedom
outside the covered market, Chinese selling me my name bent in wire,
Ninjah in bling and Sgt Pepper Jacket beating rhythm on the street
furniture. The Big Issue seller with his dog in costume. The Coptic
Christians. The Gaza protestors. The shaved heads of the Hari Krishnas
weaving through the crowd. More vibrant life on Queen Street than
at any previous time in its history.
St David's 2 - the comprehensive redevelopment of those parts of
the centre unscathed by previous interventions - hit the concrete
mixers in 2004. Not only were the broken wrecks beyond Hills Street
and all final centre traces of Victorian Cardiff to be wiped but much
of Cardiff's seventies restructuring along Bridge Street and the Hayes
would go too. Twenty-five years was as long as Iceland and the new
library lasted. St David's, because he is our patron saint and a Welsh
symbol the world will recognise. St David's, to be filled with "garden
architecture and animated facades, storytelling public art and a 'portrait
gallery of Welsh achievement within the Mall' in an imitation of the
City Hall statuary" . Cardiff, city of new height. Capital of
Wales. Darling of the valleys. Principal shopping magnet for all of
western Britain. And in terms of the boom, opened a year too late.
Vacant lots waiting for the fall to bottom. The recession has taken
the gilt. I went through yesterday. Brave faces. Glass and just that
little bit of echo. Promise as yet unfulfilled.
Back on Newport Road it is as if the fifties are still with us. Victorian
three-storey housing still in need of a repaint. Bed and breakfast
vacancies. Hopeful signs saying that Construction Workers are Welcome.
En-suite at no extra charge. Chip shop at the end of Broadway selling
Clarks pies. Someone removing their front wall so that they can park
their car in their front garden. Couple of kids on skateboards. Nigerian
with an iPod. Man on a bike, no helmet. Cardiff as it was, still is.
The new Cardiff
Library and the John Lewis sky
Photo: Peter Finch
Real Cardiff #3: The
End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch
Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents
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