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HOME TOWN MUSINGS, THE CROYDON MALAISE AND THE HOPE OF CHANGE

28 April 2013

HOME TOWN MUSINGS, THE CROYDON MALAISE AND THE HOPE OF CHANGE

At the start of the year a friend announced “There’s a Croydon revival coming- I can feel it”.  The comment was made on Facebook and attracted the usual round of cynical pooh-poohing and the odd murmour of wistful hope.

I was firmly in the wistful hope camp – and now as Spring finally is nudging in, I share his feeling.  Croydon is changing and there is an air of revival.  Another Spring Uprising this year? Maybe, and it could be a cultural one right here in Croydon.

Croydon has been the brunt of joke for decades – Python and Terry & June being early protaganists. 

Then Channel 4’s “Peep Show” embraced Croydon for the home town of it’s dysfunctional flat mates, and just maybe that was the beginning of the change.  Rather than the butt of the joke, Croydon was now host for a cult series. 

Then the big screen beckoned.  Yes, I chuckled when Croydon Council pitched the town as a viable film location with a sky line “to rival Manhattan”.  Hard to picture anyone taking this seriously – especially after the cameo appearance in the dire adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code”. 

However, suddenly, Croydon IS making it into the movies.  Delta Point is Gotham City’s hospital in “The Dark Knight Rises”.  That “funny little bit of road that separates St Georges Walk” was used for “Made in Dagenham” (including the evocative closing scene complete with Desmond Dekker’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” on the soundtrack) – and it realy worked!  Now the talking point of Iron Man 3 is the joke about Croydon (ok another joke – but at least one with some cache this time).  Yes Croydon has gone to the movies and it looks like it might be staying there for a while.

All well and good then, Croydon (outwardly at least) is trying to shake it’s dull architecture, chav centric image as the home to riots and flaming furniture retailers.  But all these changes are a thin veneer, a bit of gloss, hell even a “Croydon facelift”. 

For my friend’s predicted “Croydon revival” to materialise, the change needs to run a bit deeper.  This needs to be a cultural change.  A change in what people are offered as choices in the town – from retail outlets to nightlife and the arts.

Croydon is London’s most populated borough yet the retail strategy is a shambles.  We have a plethora of pound shops and bookies, which are now being joined by a rapidly advancing army of major supermarkets and their convenience store drones.   However, the town centre cannot support either an HMV or a Disney Store – yet Bromley can. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the homogenous high street, far from it.  However, something must be wrong for major retaillers to be unable to continue trading in the borough.  The Westfield/Hammerson joint venture makes me shudder.  The development and cohesive retail overhaul is a good thing, but not at the cost of turning the town centre into a brand-centric mall that becomes a ghost town after the shops close for business each day. Plea to Croydon Council -  please look at developing interesting, independent retailer opportunities in the town centre.  St Georges Walk and the area around Matthews Yard would make great retail enterprise zones, low rent, rates exempt and attractive to those elusive independents.  Surely a better alternative to half empty pockets of the town with minimal footfall?

For years when I told people I live in Croydon I used to follow up with a hasty “it’s great for getting out of – fantastic transport links”.  Isn’t it time to start offering choices that KEEP people in the borough and that those excellent transport links are put to good use bringing people into the town centre and boosting the economy?

Croydon arts and night life has been running the same way as the retail offering.  The licensing policy created a run of chain bars fighting for the same demographic in a 300 yard stretch of the high street and very little else with the exception of the odd hidden gem of a “local boozer”.  The Fairfield Halls fell victim to the “Croydon malaise” – yes, I’m sure this is a diagnosable condition and I’ll come back to it later.  The funding for Croydon arts was pulled and the Clock Tower lost a great events space.  The Warehouse Theatre has drawn the final curtain on productions.  Even the popular live music festivals in Lloyds Park fell victim to the economic pressures facing the council.

So here’s the issue with the Croydon malaise – every now and then a project begins, early signs are  promising, but then the Croydon malaise kicks in. “Oh well it’s Croydon. It won’t last” or “Yeah I used to go, but haven’t bothered for a while” and the killer that is “I heard it used to be really good there but I never really got round to going”.  And so, my friend, begins the decline that saw the end of venues, restaurants and amenties  that we should still have in the borough and be proud of today.  There is another niggly little symptom of the Croydon malaise which is much akin to the phantom limb pain felt by amputees.  Suddenly as the closure or loss of a piece of local history is announced (theatre, restaurant, pub or even Europe’s largets second hand record store) then the pain kicks in – only briefly mind, but you hear it.  Calls of outrage, yelps of disbelief, shouts for support and panic fundraising, yet all too late and after the terminal diagnosis has been delivered.  Maybe that pain doesn’t have to be felt.  Maybe some of these businesses and venues didn’t need to close.  Maybe we can cure the malaise.

You want a better borough?  You want more choice? You want more to do?

Good! Now support what is happening in your town.  Don’t wait to be told what you’ve missed. Explore new things.  Go to new places. Listen to new music.  It might not be what you know – but it might at least be interesting.  It might even be very good.  Lord above! You might even like it!  And remind yourself – do this in your home town, do this in Croydon. 

(Note to self – must take a dose of my own medicine and GO and check out the new African restaurant on Lower Addiscombe Road, instead of just meaning too, see how dangerous that Croydon malaise can be!)

And the best news in all this is that there ARE lots of things starting to happen right here in Croydon.

Croxjam (Croydon’s take on the OXFAM music fund raisers) managed to stage genuine multi venue participation in a long weekend of live music last year (no mean feet given the fragmented nature of the town and the poitics involved) and are set to do so again in October 2013.

CRONX Brewery is a genuine phoenix from the flames project.  A success story hard on the heels of the riots of 2011.  Croydon now has it’s own micro brewery, and they brew good beers.

Croydon Radio is broadcasting online and it’s a good local station – it gives the borough a voice and platform it’s not had before. 

Talking of Croydon Radio, they are based in Matthews Yard.  A truly visionary transformation of a dead space.  Once storage beneath a butchers shop in Surrey Street market this is now home to a business centre, coffee shop and bar and a developing  space for performing arts and music.

The Fairfield Halls is marching forward.  More contemporary programming and creative use of it’s available space are showing that under the right management change can be made.  The joint development of the STAND! brand, branching away from the seated concert hall venue approach is pulling new audiences and so are some of the shows being staged.  February saw Bellowhead perform to a packed house in the Concert Hall and a beer festival featuring free live music in the Grand Foyer during the afternoon before the show was huge success.  An event scheduled for later in the year features a unique orchestral collaboration with dance music innovator Squarepusher. Throw in comedy headliners of real stature, some interesting new theatre pieces and the continued developments being made to the music offering and the Fairfield’s listings are now worth checking – regularly!

Some of the older beacons of hope continue to shine – Scream Lounge is still putting on great live music, The Green Dragon continues a fine jazz programme and more (in fact Esther Sutton at the Green Dragon has just been included on the Independents Happy List for 2013) and there are some interesting nights from time to time at The Edge and the Half and Half.  Timebomb shows how an independent retail outlet can engage with it’s customer base and develop accordingly, even to the extent of being a driving force behind the innaugral Croydon Tattoo Convention.

There are the signs that a revival is coming to the town.  There are people that care and are working hard to make things happen – including  a project to start a Tech City in Croydon to nurture new business ideas and creativity.  There are (and always have been) an amazing number of creative people in Croydon.  The change now is that more and more are working together.  They are more visible and they are starting to get things happening.

Maybe this is symptomatic that the council has failed, that they haven’t led the way and shown that Croydon can do more than build  wind tunnels out of office blocks.  Maybe. 

People are driving the changes in the borough now, hopefully the council will listen and they’ll start to play their part.

So before you decide that next weekend your going to be heading “up London” or “down to Brighton”, stop and check out what is going on in YOUR town, in Croydon.  Pop out and support some of the creative people right here on your doorstep.  Don’t let the malaise take a hold – don’t wait to find out what you missed.

Bohemia within the year? Who knows, I doubt it.  But there are signs that Cro-hemia is on the way and as for me – I’m pleased to be a part!