Boris Johnson just donated city hall funds to 20 London crowdfunding projects

A map of the planned Peckham Coal Line. Image: Peckham Coal Line.

Boris Johnson, love him or hate him, is spending the last year of his mayoralty doling out funds to local, grassroots infrastructure projects in London. This week, he signed over £285,000 of his £9m High Street Fund, created in March, to projects which will "re-energise the capital's high streets". 

So far, so predictable. But there's a twist: the mayor's office is donating to these projects through Spacehive, a civic crowdfunding website through which campaigners can raise money from the public to fund their community schemes. Hopeful London crowdfunders can submit their schemes to the mayor's page, where he promises to "pledge up to £20,000 directly to the best projects, like other crowdfunders". 

This all means that the mayor's endorsement doesn't constitute a go-ahead – but it does mean the projects are that much more likely to reach their funding targets.

Here are a few of the most interesting ones: 

The Peckham Coal Line – £10,000

We've written about Peckham's take on the New York High Line before, and it seems to be a favourite in the mayor's office: yesterday, Johnson sent the Chairman of the Mayor's Advisory Group, Daniel Moylan, to tour the Coal Line and announce the other groups who would receive funding.

If it goes ahead, the 900m-long grassy route will stretch along disused coal sidings through Peckham, and will provide a link between Queens Road and Rye Lane for pedestrians and cyclists. In a statement, Johnson called it a "fantastic example of how we can harness the enthusiasm of civic crowdfunding and work more directly with Londoners to improve their neighbourhoods".

Good Food Catford, Lewisham – £14,000

The Good Food Catford group want to renovate an empty high street shop and sell vegetables grown in community gardens and allotments there. 

Literalley, Tower Hamlets – £15,000

This group hopes to transform a disused alleyway off Whitechapel High Street into a free public library, featuring a long bookshelf, seating and planters. 

Wanstead Playground, Redbridge – £11,000

Parents in the area plan to renovate a dilapidated playground off Wanstead High Street so their kids can play there. Thanks (in part) to the mayor's donation, they seem to have hit their funding goal.


Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.

The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.