Why Croydon is the new Marseille

By - Monday 13th June, 2016

Does Croydon really have anything in common with the south of France? Ian Lavis thinks it definitely does

Photo author’s own.

As I sit on a bus crawling along London Road on a rainy day it’s hard to imagine Croydon having anything in common with the south of France, or more precisely the stunning port city of Marseille, where the locals do back-flips off the rocks into the Mediterranean and go fishing for octopus after work.

Granted, Croydon doesn’t exactly serve up views of a shimmering blue sea at every turn. Nor does it have 300 days of sunshine a year, or an incredibly beautiful coastline just up the road. But let’s not worry about that for the moment.

What Croydon and Marseille have in common, apart from some classic brutalist architecture, is they are both shaking off years of bad press and negativity from outsiders and locals alike. They are simultaneously undergoing massive regeneration and, more importantly, they have passionate local people who are fighting back against the dross.

Marseille is known as a gangland battlefield. And we thought that Croydon’s reputation was bad!

If you’ve never been to Marseille, it’s a city of incredible contrasts that people love to hate, especially Parisians. Despite its location in Provence, it has long held a reputation as a gangland battleground, where Kalashnikov shootings are the norm, strikes are an everyday inconvenience and the streets are covered in grime. And we think that Croydon’s image post-riots is bad!

Having lived and worked in Marseille from 2009 to 2015 teaching English to adult professionals and editing marketing communications for international companies, I saw a different city. Yes, it has problems like most big ports, but Marseille has a lot going for it. Apart from the breathtaking setting, interesting Mediterranean and North African influences and amazing history, Marseille is a city full of life which, like Croydon, wears its heart on its sleeve. It also just happens to be undergoing one of the biggest urban regenerations in Europe, with a redeveloped port, striking new museums and cultural spaces, a Westfield-type shopping centre and new apartment and office blocks in the poorest parts of the city.

Admittedly, Marseille received huge amounts of money to fund its regeneration when it was named European Capital of Culture in 2013. As a result, the French city has some fantastic new public spaces which Croydon is sadly lacking. Imagine turning Wellesley Road into a public space with stunning architecture, exhibits and museums and you’ll get an idea of the scale of the Marseille facelift.

Local people who are tired of the city’s bad reputation have taken matters into their own hands

What’s interesting is that there is now a new start-up culture in Marseille with innovative local businesses and a thriving local music and arts scene. First came the money and grand projects. Now, local people who are tired of the city’s bad reputation and disconnected from some of the new developments are taking things into their own hands and making a difference on a more local level.

Massive urban regeneration coupled with a local community fight-back is happening in Croydon too. On a commercial level, parts of Croydon are changing beyond recognition. Stonking great residential and office blocks going up all over the place and we are promised ever more shops and places to eat and drink. Away from the bland corporate developments, a more interesting transformation is underway as local residents join together to put Croydon on the map as a place of creativity in business, art, music and culture.

This exciting new movement is being led by talented entrepreneurs such as Jonny Rose, the man behind Croydon Tech City, with his infectious enthusiasm for resident-led positive change; Saif Bonar, founder of Matthews Yard, who has developed a unique arts, culture and community hub and is fighting the corner of independent small businesses; Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, who has made Croydon exciting through contemporary and modern urban art at the ground-breaking RISE Gallery; and Alistair McKinlay, the Croydon DJ who created an extraordinary saffron farm bang in the centre of town which brought people of all ages together to fund and transform an urban space into something special. There are many more examples.

The community-led grassroots fight-back is even stronger in Croydon than in Marseille

These passionate innovators demonstrate the incredible talent that we have on our own doorstep and the realisation that we, the local residents, can make a difference. Jonny Rose’s newly launched fashion brand ‘Croydon vs The World’ exemplifies this. The brand perfectly captures the feeling that enough is enough, Croydon may not be paradise but it’s cool and we want to show what we can do.

Croydon’s new media is playing a part too. The Croydon Citizen provides a platform for local people to talk about what matters to them, while the new Croydonist online magazine showcases Croydon’s interesting and quirky culture and people.

The community-led grassroots fight-back against years of abuse and neglect seems even stronger in Croydon than in Marseille. Maybe it’s the lack of sun that drives us to be more creative. Maybe Croydon is just that bit cooler. Whatever the reason, the Croydon spirit was strong enough to persuade me to abandon the south of France and return to south London last year. Having rediscovered what’s great about Croydon and its people, including Lost Format Society’s open-air cinema and bar on the top of the NCP car park at Fairfield Halls, who needs the Mediterranean anyway!

Ian Lavis

Ian Lavis

I'm not even a proper Croydoner. I moved here 16 years ago. Then I abandoned it for Marseille but something drew me back here last year. Maybe it was the banter. I write and edit online and print communications, I teach English to non-native speakers, and I drink lots of tea. I have a thing for Croydon, Marseille, Arsenal, architecture and bears.

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  • Andrew Dickinson

    Welcome back Ian and thanks for a positive article. It often needs an external viewpoint or a returning one such as yours to appreciate what we have going on. 2016 looks to be an interesting year with more positive stuff to come

    • https://www.englishcupoftea.com Ian at English Cup of Tea

      Thanks Andrew. Hopefully, the Croydon revolution will persuade me to stay this time!