This article was first published on The Croydon Citizen on 17/11/2016
On the land where Boxpark stands
It’s my own fault. ‘Let’s meet for coffee in Boxpark‘, I keep saying. Then comes guilt: I’m taking my coffee spend away from great places and great friends who’ve worked hard both to build up their businesses and to bring a quality product to Croydon. Places like Smoothbean! on Dingwall Road. And this is the reward I give for their loyalty and caffeinated love: to put on a metaphorical (or even an actual) short, tight skirt and trip across the road for foamy flirtation with a business with bigger marketing muscles. It’s hard not to feel a bit trashy.
For me, Boxpark Croydon is complicated – and isn’t that true of all the most exciting relationships? We got off on the wrong foot: it stands smack where I used to work. With five other dedicated people who became some of my closest friends over seven years, I shared laughter and tears – both quite literally – and a great deal of sweat to build up a Croydon Visitor Centre to make the town proud. And it did: a lot of people told us so when they heard in spring 2015 that we’d lost our jobs because Big Money was kicking us out.
Because, well, where’s the profit in a building full of volunteers, choirs, toddler groups, gardening clubs, carers’ networks, small businesses, eco-nappy promotions, advice for seniors, help for those with disabilities, masses of coach tickets sales because so many have been priced off the trains and a friendly welcome exactly where people need it to be? Our customers weren’t important enough: too few movers and shakers, just folk in need of a bit of support and help to live a decent life. That’s community, that is. That’s service. But where was the goddamn profit?
Now let’s look forward. The Visitor Centre is gone, Boxpark has taken its place and the C-word is useable in polite conversation. “I live in Croydon” is no longer a statement you have to explain after the inevitable questions of why – unless you hate yourself very deeply – you would live in a dump like that. Our move from pariah borough to the trendy end of this-is-a-normal-place-to-come-from will take some getting used to. Boxpark is part of the reason for this positive change, and I am grateful.
And I’m positive about Boxpark itself, ’80s-fabulous in black-and-white-with-a-bolt-of-red and Joan Collins-style diagonal stripes. I love its sound system that makes the floor shake, and its strobes like the flashing freeze-frame lights I danced under as a teenager that made us look so edgy. I love the bad-ass ceiling murals in Meat Liquor, and Boxpark gives good beverage: just check out the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs (right now, I’m even pictured on its website). A beer on a summer’s evening on that raised decking will be a fine thing indeed.
I also find the place a bit worrying. Just food – really? It’s so big – photos don’t do it justice. Not all those venues are going to make it. I know there’s a lot of entertainment planned, but right now it’s still full of day-trippers, checking out the Cool New Thing. Will our footsteps ring hollow in its hangar-ish vastness at 10am on a wet January Wednesday? More importantly: will it really work with Croydon (or for Croydon, or whatever it was they wrote on the hoarding at the front) or just for itself, holding its visitors inside and offering nothing to a central area minus Fairfield Halls for two more years (if you’re an optimist) and where the bulldozers will soon go to work on the Westfield construction? RISE Gallery, Theatre Utopia, the Oval, Matthews Yard and the rest can’t sustain an entire town centre. Boxpark won’t help if it never lets anyone leave. It feels like a destination, not like a gateway.
I have more, and deeper, misgivings too. I visited Boxpark Shoreditch one Saturday a few weeks ago, to get a sense of the brand, and the place stopped me in my tracks: pure deja-new in every last detail. It wasn’t just the vibe: the pouty young people serving you, the self-conscious quirkiness, the tyranny of cool that makes you want to replace everything you own so as to have trendier possessions and a more happening sense of personal style. It was that the actual items on sale could have been the same. It was Camden Market, circa 1985.
But this time around, fashion is darker and meaner.
Of course, the world is invented again and again; it will be as long as new eyes look on it. These days, if I criticise anything, my teenage sons tell me brutally that it’s my age: grumbling everything’s gone to the bad is what old ladies do. I’m seeing something they can’t, though: how since I was young, cool has grown crueller. The style-beast always posed with that hard, blank, cat-walking stare. But now, it has blood on its claws.
I loved the 1980s because I was young, and hated them because I was left-wing. I thought, when they were over, that the world could never be so savage again: the miners’ strike, the laying of Thatcherite waste to lives and communities with unemployment and the on-yer-bike sneers at anyone who protested this, the poll tax and loadsamoney culture; in the city, dawn of the banksters, in the Commons, the horror of Section 28.
But the 1980s were also full of hope. We believed that the battles we fought would be won, against homophobia, tuition fees, the racism of the National Front. Sometimes, we did win. In our personal lives we were free from fear: we claimed social security while we looked for work, women’s refuges weren’t having their funding taken away and the future return of malnutrition to Britain, or a million emergency food parcels (containing three days’ supplies) being given out by a charity in 2015-16, would have seemed like madness.
Things are very different now. The difference is the land.
House prices are linked to land values. In my youth, these were still connected to ordinary earnings: the full-on Foxton was a decade and a half away. I lived for £35.00 a week in Zone 2. Growing older and less groovy, my friends and I bought homes. We could progress in life: it wasn’t difficult on our middling incomes. Whilst we rented, we could save. We hadn’t graduated many thousands in debt. Around us, those who did not buy had other, affordable options. The culture of winners and losers was less ferociously entrenched; society still enabled.
In our age of pass/fail living, cool has become another form of brutality. The safety net of decency is gone. Some of this is politics: one day, it will change. But the land itself has turned against us. As the value of the earth we walk on soars, like a slope growing steeper and steeper, more and more of us lose our footing and start to fall. The common ground that should sustain us casts us out. It will cast out many Croydonians in the months and years ahead.
Croydon’s casual diners on Boxpark’s black and white decking will lead fashionable lives. They will look like winners. Lots of them, of course, won’t own their beautiful apartments. But they’ll manage the astronomical rents somehow and get everything in return except security. Meanwhile the poor are supplied with tiny pods, or privately rent unhealthy, unsafe, overcrowded accommodation, clinging on precariously until the endless upward ratcheting of prices drives them away.
Alongside East Croydon station, we celebrated community in Croydon Visitor Centre. I don’t think we quite realised that’s what we were doing, with our shelves of what’s-on leaflets and schoolchildren outside singing carols at Christmas. But the land was too perfectly located for that. It was too profitable.