This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 13/12/2017.
What does Croydon need in 2018?
In last month’s edition of the Citizen, editor-in-chief James Naylor reflected on the publication’s first five years by assessing the progress of Croydon’s regeneration in that time. One section of his article struck a particular chord with readers, some of whom got in touch to echo this paragraph:
“In the last eighteen months, the changes have stalled. Many of Croydon’s mega building projects have been cancelled, delayed, or scaled back. Boxpark’s launch has not come without other problems, and several of those wonderful early initiatives, like Croydon Radio, are no longer with us. Looming largest behind all of this, Westfield has been delayed again.”
The Westfield retail centre project (technically managed by the Croydon Partnership), received planning permission for its revised proposal a few weeks after James’s sentiments were printed, but social media soon carried claims that the new start date in early 2019 simply constituted yet another delay. It’s against this backdrop of uncertainty that we decided on the cover story for this edition. It’s the question that everyone in Croydon should be asking. Forget what we’ve been promised, ignore what we’re told is or isn’t possible, step away from existing plans. What does our borough actually need in 2018?
We need to make people aware of what’s really going on
The Citizen is a platform for its contributors, so we decided to invite some of them to an open discussion. Drawing from different sectors, we put together a panel of six people with a stake in Croydon. Our group met on the 11th floor of One Croydon, locally known as the 50p building or the threepenny bit building (depending on how old you are). It’s home to Sussex Innovation Croydon, the centre of the Citizen‘s day-to-day operations. Setting up a table by a window with a view from East Croydon down George Street, our participants arrived and the evening began with introductions.
Andy Dickinson described himself as a ‘mushroom grower’, but he’s also the green-fingered activist behind Croydon’s urban mushroom farm and a serial festival organiser (recently culminating in Croydon’s Summer of Love). Shaniqua Benjamin is a poet who has lived in Croydon all of her life, and runs Young People Insight, described as ‘a platform that empowers the voices of young people’. Maddy Duxbury moved here eighteen months ago and works in PR and marketing. Through running East Croydon Cool, comprised of both a website and a Instagram account, Maddy promotes Croydon to newcomers and potential renters and buyers looking for options.
Rob O’Sullivan is the co-founder of Shaking Hands, a local partnership described as ‘one of the fastest-growing businesses in Croydon’. He’s also a small business commissioner, and said that his role is all about ‘identifying problems facing businesses in Croydon’, as well as promoting the Good Employer Charter, which includes the London Living Wage. Josi Kiss is chair of the Friends of Park Hill Park, has run both dance and peace festivals, and is a director of Made In Croydon, which supports local designers and makers. James Naylor, as above, is the editor-in-chief of the Croydon Citizen and still an occasional town tour guide. He served as the informal chair of the discussion.
Introductions over, James asked the key question: what does Croydon need in 2018?
“More cultural spaces”, replied Shaniqua, to immediate nods. “Matthews Yard is closing down. If we want to be London’s first borough of culture, we need to utilise more of the spaces we have and make people more aware of what’s going on.”
There’s enormous good will in Croydon
Rob agreed that Croydon has a pretty good cultural offering. “It’s about making sure that people know about it”, Josi emphasised. “There’s an ‘underground’ sense of culture for many locals, but we don’t shout about it. I’ve identified twenty relatively large spaces in central Croydon. But little is done to publicise them.”
“So is it just the case”, asked James, “that there are spaces, but the word isn’t being spread about them?”
It wasn’t quite so simple, suggested Josi. “There are so many social media platforms for promotion. A new one opens every week!” But despite projects like WhatsOnCroydon, featured as a page in the Citizen for more than six months now and viewable at tram stops, the panel agreed that there still isn’t an undisputed central information hub that everyone knows. Fixing that in 2018 was a big priority for our panel.
Rob agreed. “I don’t think good will is missing in Croydon”, he pointed out. “TURF Projects has just been given four floors of space in the Whitgift Centre, for free, for an art space.”
James had spotted something worth exploring. “If there’s this underground arts scene that’s bubbling away”, he asked, “and Stanley Halls is three minutes from Norwood Junction station – why is it empty?”. Josi responded: “People don’t know where Stanley Halls is. Anywhere else in London, that beautiful building would be a hotbed of activity.”
Central Croydon is going to be the powerhouse
Shaniqua agreed. “It’s beecause of where Stanley Halls is – it’s outlying. It’s great that we have central venues, but there’s too much focus on the town centre.”
“It sounds like there’s also no central co-ordination point for the community”, James remarked. “Do you think there’s a problem with Croydon being politically divided, so that focus on one part of the borough makes people in another part upset?”
Rob was unsure. “I think that having a lot of voices means having a good cultural offering. But the eight districts need to be united in their delivery. You can’t that deny central Croydon will be the powerhouse.”
“Anyway”, James pointed out, “isn’t there a paradox here? We’re saying there’s a lot of cultural activity but nobody hears about it – and yet if cultural activity increases in the district centres even more, won’t that make it more diffuse?”.
“I don’t think that it would diffuse it”, countered Maddy. “There just needs to be one cohesive message across it all, to put everything under the umbrella of ‘Croydon’.”
Can a coherent message about ‘Croydon culture’ actually work?
James considered this point in relation to London’s other boroughs. “Some were absorbed into London whole, and others were artificial creations, such as Hackney. And if you think about ‘the culture of Hackney’ – well, does anyone actually think that? Surely it’s ‘the culture of Stoke Newington’ or ‘the culture of Shoreditch’? Isn’t Croydon like that too? Can the concept of Croydon’s culture and a coherent message actually work?”
Josi shared an experience which seemed to underline this. “Looking for artists to join Made In Croydon, we found people who had to be convinced that they even lived here. ‘No, no’, they’d say, ‘we’re in Crystal Palace…’.”
Maddy argued that were Croydon to win the title of London’s first Borough of Culture (we’ll know the results in February) the creation of a sense of ‘Croydon-wide culture’ would be boosted. She believed that it’s already partially there, and the group agreed.
“Croydon’s in the Evening Standard for the wrong reasons – property, new-builds and conversions”, Rob pointed out, “not the ‘greenest borough’ reputation that it should have”. Shaniqua also criticised the constant ‘property’ message. “You see so many spaces that are run down. Why hasn’t more love been given to these things? Open another new restaurant? Really? How much can we actually eat?!”
Croydon needs two different kinds of PR, one within the borough and one for the rest of London
Josi tackled the issue of negative perception head on. “Some people are terrified of coming into the centre of Croydon, because they have a perception of crime and gang violence.” Shaniqua had experienced the same. “My friends say ‘oh, Croydon’s a ghetto’, but talking to friends who’ve gone to live in Leeds, I hear of worse stuff happening there. But it’s Croydon that gets the reputation.”
“It sounds like we need two kinds of PR”, said Maddy. “A lot more internal PR within the borough, but also external PR to tell the rest of London that Croydon’s great.”
Josi raised the much-publicised issue of knife crime.”There’s a fear of this among people who don’t live here. But it’s primarily about gang problems.”
“Surely”, countered James, “if that’s true, parents will still worry about their children getting pulled into that world and into harm’s way?”. There is some evidence that those instrumental in changing the town centre are aware of the complexity of such issues. Rob pointed out that Westfield has hired an adviser who studied gang crime in South America.
“It comes back to young people having nothing to do”, said Josi. Shaniqua’s work setting up Young People Insight is all about tackling this.
If you don’t operate sustainably, how much good will you ever do?
James had noticed a theme emerging. “A concrete thing that we’re agreeing Croydon needs in 2018 is improved perception. Shaniqua, you mentioned more spaces for young people. Is that the only fix?”
“No. Giving them a youth centre wouldn’t fix it all. But it would be a step towards making them think that the place they live has something to offer them.”
Rob had a simple message for social enterprises wishing to stay the course. “Rather than relying on funding, build longevity into your model from the start. If you aren’t operating sustainably, there’s a limit on how much good you’ll ever do.” Andy also raised the lack of direction and sustainability as a further case for a central platform for publicity.
“We need the kind of co-ordination would prevent a food festival in South Croydon and another in West Croydon on the same day”, he said. (This is something that actually happened a couple of years ago.) Josi insisted that if certain big organisations got on board with a single promotional platform, others would follow. RISE Gallery was named as one such organisation. Maddy stressed that “to work, it has to be huge, and it has to involve everyone in Croydon”. Perhaps a community radio station could fill that role – the now-defunct Croydon Radio was praised for its news and events listings. Andy pointed out that we might soon get a new service with Croydon FM.
Grime culture is problematic in a discussion about role models
Shaniqua threw the panel a curveball: “We go on about stars who’ve come from Croydon (such as Stormzy), but what are we and they doing to help new people coming up?”. Maddy agreed. “What about leveraging their success to help new artists?”
It was Rob who raised the elephant in the room regarding the most in-vogue genre performed by Croydon’s musicians at the moment – grime. The panel was delicate about it, but nobody denied that a lot – though not all – of grime is problematic in a conversation about role models. The backdrop to the discussion is a wish to reduce gang crime and also the global #MeToo movement, in which women who have experienced sexual harassment speak out using that hashtag. This turns out to be an awful lot of women. Moreover, James spotted a potential contradiction in messaging. “If your music is about coming through difficult times and leaving a bad place behind, is that really compatible with giving back?”
Stormzy, for example, recently gained many plaudits for paying for a young person to attend Harvard. It was pointed out that that sort of money would build a recording studio in Croydon and kit it out. James ran with this idea. “A multimedia arts centre? Some people who are in a very positive financial position could be associated with it, and make a huge impact on lots of people.” Andy proposed the former Blue Orchid venue on Park Lane as its location.
Gentrification isn’t all bad – it brings in new talents and fresh perspectives
It was time to talk numbers, money, and economics. What does Croydon’s economy need in 2018? “Confidence”, said Rob straight away. “We need to have confidence in the changes that are happening, and that will make them work. Gentrification is natural in any London borough, but I think that it’s going to be hugely accelerated in Croydon.”
The G-word had been mentioned, and discussion of housing stock then became lively. Croydon’s new office-conversion apartments are popular with many, but they just aren’t big enough to raise children in. What about accommodation for families? Maddy argued that apartments are still vital to bring in new blood to the town centre. “Gentrification isn’t always bad – it brings new people in with new perspectives, skills and talents.”
So, speaking of the project most symbolic of the gentrification of Croydon – what does the town need from the Croydon Partnership in 2018?
Rob reminded the group of the scale of the transformation currently underway: “Who here realises that thirty-nine other projects have to happen at the same time as Westfield?”. Josi is still worried about what she calls “the Bradford nightmare, where work began on a new development, but having demolished buildings and created a hole in the middle of the city, Westfield walked away“. Rob isn’t so concerned about this, thanks to the level of commitment thus far and the huge scale of the undertaking.
Shopping has always sustained Croydon and still does
James, however, pointed out that the delays here have also been huge. “And more and more shopping is moving online. As the opening date for Westfield gets further away, isn’t there a real question of how many mega shopping centres people will need by 2021 or 2022? Isn’t this a ticking time bomb under the project?”
“But what’s interesting”, countered Rob, “is how big a draw IKEA is”. Shopping, he argued, sustains Croydon today just as much as it did in the hey-day of Allders and Grants.
And what about Croydon’s oft-discussed ‘great transport links’? A Croydon tram connection isn’t considered the equivalent of a (much-valued) tube connection in north London. Rob was upbeat about overcoming that mindset, and changing the message. “Get people to think that Croydon is worth that twenty minute connection.”
Andy raised the importance of encouraging more walking from transport hubs, triggering a discussion of another major need: to get Croydonians more active in order to address issues such as strain on the local NHS, levels of diabetes and incidence of childhood obesity. He also had an idea to embrace Croydon’s most famous natural export – the crocus – as a more explicit symbol of our town. “What if you could buy a crocus badge to wear? It represents Croydon, and the money could go to designated charities.” The idea met with approval from the table for its dual appeal – both to promote a Croydonian identity, and to do financial good for the community.
Westfield’s long silence in 2017 can’t be repeated
To sum up, our panel had concluded that Croydon needs a number of different, yet inter-connected things.
- a central events platform that everyone actually uses
- support for people getting more active
- a permanent presence for a Made In Croydon-style shop selling locally-made goods
- more cultural spaces, particularly large ones
- a multimedia studio with specific outreach to young people
- social enterprises geared towards the ‘enterprise’ part of their business, lest they stop functioning and therefore end up doing no social good at all.
Perhaps most importantly, everyone agreed that Westfield needs to stay on course and the Croydon Partnership needs to keep talking to the people of Croydon. The long silence of 2017 can’t be repeated. But if it’s replaced with regular updates and a growing sense of progress, “that will build confidence internally in Croydon for everything”.
James thanked our participants and all went their separate ways. It was the first time that the Citizenhad attempted a discussion like this, but we’d like it not to be the last. Keeping an eye on Croydon’s progress in an open discussion format seems like a good approach. If you’d like to be involved, get in touch.