Saturday, 14 November 2009

Real As It Can Get

I’m in the real 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. New arrivals 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. The Polish Shop is having a hard time. The Czech version has already closed.

We always wondered why in Cardiff there was so much new housing. Apartments rising like wheat 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 the 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. No schools.

Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. 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. 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 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. 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. Now the city has changed again. Enormously. You can see what I’ve made of it in Real Cardiff – The Changing City, out from Seren on the 26th November, 2009.

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A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 14th November, 2009

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