Was an American really conned into buying the wrong London bridge?

London Bridge at home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Image: Ken Lund/Flickr.

How did London Bridge come to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Arizona, second only to the Grand Canyon? Was it an error on the part of the purchaser? Or was it a clever way to dispose of a decrepit structure, making way for progress, while making a profit in the bargain?

London Bridge is where London started: the relative narrowness of the River Thames at that point is what led the Romans to found a city on the site in the first place. Over the centuries, various bridges occupied this site, linking the City to Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames. Each in turn was lost – to fire, or storm, or Vikings. The longest lived seems to have been the 12th century “Old London Bridge”, whose arches supported not just a road across the Thames, but as many as 200 buildings, of anything up to seven storeys high.

In the early 19th century, the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie won a competition to design a replacement. The new London Bridge was 100 feet west of the previous bridge: 928 feet long, 49 feet wide, and supported by five stone arches, it lasted for over a century. By the 1960s, though, the city’s population had more than quadrupled, and London Bridge was supporting cars and buses rather than horse-drawn carriages. To make matters worse, it was said to be sinking at the rate of an inch per eight years; although technically not “falling down”, it was still enough to give London’s authorities cause for concern. 


In 1967, the Greater London Council had decided that a new bridge would have to be constructed and the old one torn down. Usually, under the circumstances abandoned structures would be simply abandoned or destroyed. (Euston Arch, for example, ended up in the River Lea.) But then, Ivan Luckin, a former journalist and PR man serving on the committee working on the scheme, came up with a better idea: why not flog the bridge off to some rich eccentric? Never mind that it was only 130 years old: pitch it right, and you could sell it as an important historic artifact, and improving the state of London’s coffers into the bargain.

This was not as crazy a scheme as it may now sound. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst – whose life inspired Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane – used to buy old European buildings, then ship them back in piles to be reassembled on his California estate. After some initial cynicism, Luckin’s colleagues embraced the idea, and the bridge was placed on the market. In order to sell the idea, Luckin himself visited New York to address the British-American Chamber of Commerce. 

At around the same time  Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri-born oil and aviation entrepreneur and chainsaw tycoon (!), was facing his own problems. He’d founded Lake Havasu City on 16,000 acres of western Arizona land in 1963. But the eponymous lake, an arm of the Colorado River which he’d thought would make the new city an attractive resort, was in serious danger of going stagant. 

To prevent that, his engineers created a new channel, turning a peninsula into an island. That, though created a need for a new bridge. What better way to solve the problem, and to put his new city onto the map, than by buying the historic London Bridge

So in April 1968, McCulloch agreed to pay just under $2.5m for the bridge on April 18, 1968. (He was so keen to get hold of it that, despite the lack of competition, he paid twice the value the London authorities had expected.) He then spent $7m more, to have the granite blocks numbered, dismantled, trimmed to size and lugged across to the US. The reconstructed bridge, bridging the channel between Thompson Bay and Lake Havasu, opened to the public in 1971.

Some have come to believe that McCulloch had bought the wrong bridge: that he had meant to buy the far more striking Tower Bridge, but was somehow conned into buying London Bridge. There's no evidence, though, that this is true – and a fair amount that it isn't. The chainsaw entrepreneur got himself photographed on the London Bridge, with the Tower Bridge clearly visible behind him. For his part, Luckin always insisted on the honesty of the deal.

So, yes, a rich American did once agree to buy London Bridge – but no, he wasn’t conned. It’s still there, giving its name to a local resort:

If you want to find out more about this story, why not check out Travis Elborough's book, "London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing".

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.