I’m in the lozenge-shaped city again. It’s the one I come from. Where I was born and where I still live. 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 already closed.
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. No schools.
Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. To Let. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. A city half-finished. For now.
Yet 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 wiped but much of Cardiff’s seventies restructuring along Bridge Street and the Hayes went 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. 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 not yet completely fulfilled.
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.
That’s why I live here. Because Cardiff is. This piece is adapted, cut, spliced and mashed from Real Cardiff Three (Seren Books) – part of my on-going obsession with the city in which I was born. Check http://www.peterfinch.co.uk/cardiff.htm for more.
Peter Finch is a poet and psychogeographer who lives in east Cardiff. His latest collection of poetry, Zen Cymru, was published by Seren this year. He runs Academi, the Literature Development Agency for Wales.
Peter was photographed in Cardiff Bay by Adam Chard
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