Has St George’s Walk become the epicentre of Croydon’s independent arts revival?

By - Thursday 18th June, 2015

Jonny Rose looks back on the year that St George’s Walk broke

Photo by Fluid4Sight. Used with permission.

As I write this, it is almost a year ago to the day that Andrew Dickinson could be found lamenting the state of St George’s Walk in these very pages:

“This should have been Park Place, a new retail and leisure hub [...] for people to enjoy a café culture lifestyle, and here it was after that aborted project: a bleak wind tunnel [...] There are unattractive, shuttered, or boarded-up shopfronts punctuated by an occasional fascia that hints that there is life behind the shutters during the day as an independent retailer struggles in an area of poor footfall to make ends meet.”

In one fell swoop, Andrew didn’t just capture the story of St George’s Walk – it was the story of ‘old Croydon’ as a whole.

What a difference a year has made

Since then, a whole host of changes have occurred in the “bleak wind tunnel” that is situated between the political chambers of Katharine Street and the retail core of the High Street.

In October of last year, Rise Gallery opened up a double-fronted premises kicking off with a Damien Hirst exhibition; suddenly Croydon was home to original Banksy pieces and sleepwalking artists. Rise’s owner Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison has been a breath of fresh air to the borough: a Croydonian by birth, he has brought fifteen years of experience as a globetrotting art dealer back with a mission to start an arts renaissance in the area.

Soon after opening Rise, Zuchowski-Morrison secured one hundred walls across Croydon that have now been turned over to a variety world-famous artists and muralists for commissioned work. The first indication of just how powerful and striking this act would be on Croydon’s psyche was the Femme Fierce takeover of St George’s Walk in February.

Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, driving St George’s Walk’s arts scene.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

All City London is another new tenant in St George’s Walk. The graffiti shop and art gallery opened last month with an open-air DJ show and guests including X-Factor singing coach Ivy Chanel and model Luke Worral. Whilst All City is a notably less sophisticated proposition compared to the urbane airs of Rise, it represents another aspect of Croydon’s art renaissance: one that is grimy, accessible and DIY.

St George’s Walk isn’t just seeing its once-vacant shops being filled with London’s creatives – the walkway will soon be teaming with life, too. As of this month, Croydon Street Eats will be running a weekly ‘Street Food meets Urban Art’ event on Friday between 12-3pm which promises “Street food. Art. Music. Vibes”. Far from an undesirable part of town, St George’s Walk is rapidly shaping up to be the destination of choice for Croydonians who want to treat their eyes, ears and bellies.

St George’s Walk: the epicentre of a wider Croydon arts renaissance?

The recent occurrences in St George’s Walk are typical of a borough that is currently experiencing the firstfruits of an arts revival.

In under a year, Croydon has gone from having no public art galleries to having three.

Alice Cretney and the Turf Projects team (a collective of local artists, filmmakers and architects who stage free art events and exhibitions around Croydon) have, over the past two years, laid the foundations for this community-up revival. The team has created public realm interventions, crowdfunded a documentary, and organises regular sketching jaunts. The beginning of 2015 saw them put on five exhibitions in Croydon and – wonderfully – May has seen Turf Projects open up a permanent home on Keeley Road.

A new home for Turf Projects.
Photo by @DracorumOrder, used with permission.

Hale Man has been the ‘artist-in-residence’ at the Whitgift Centre for the past year and has been instrumental in making the arts accessible to children, adults and even the elderly at Whitgift House. The Croydon School of Art under the direction of Timothy Strange has gone from strength to strength. Far from an exclusive academic institute, the campus has gone to great lengths to open up its space for local artists who aren’t students to host art exhibitions, lectures and workshops.

We’re not just seeing an explosion in wannabe Warhols in Croydon: the thesps are at it, too!

In the first half of the decade, independent theatre and cinema in Croydon took a knock as arts and culture cuts from Katharine Street led to the demolition of Warehouse Theatre, closure of David Lean Cinema and Fairfield Halls go on life support. Yet again, the response from the community has been instructive.

In 2013, local patrons at Matthews Yard crowdsourced the funds to build an independent studio theatre – now you are now just as likely to catch a Pinter play there as to stumble upon a life-drawing class or a slam poetry night or an international film theatre. In the same year, The Spread Eagle Pub took a cultural leap forward with the staging of the first live production under the guise of the Spread Eagle theatre: a 50-seat studio theatre on the top floor. Now, The Barn is opening up, bringing the joys of independent theatre to West Croydon with a 220-seater arts centre, which will house a theatre, live studios and rehearsal space, and will stage drama productions, live music and educational events, and offer accredited arts courses for young people. And, let’s not forget the stoic work of the David Lean campaigners which has led to the borough’s only independent cinema reopening for business.

What next?

Thanks to the efforts of many diverse Croydonians that are not content to merely sit back and moan about the state of Croydon, the borough has an independent arts scene it can be proud of once again.

Every city ‘movement’ needs to have an psycho-geographical epicentre or it risks becoming diffuse and unfocused.

Every city ‘movement’ needs to have an psycho-geographical epicentre or it risks becoming diffuse and unfocused. As art and culture continues to boom around the borough, I suspect St George’s Walk really will become the #CroydonArtsQuarter focal point that it is being championed as by the community.

There is still work to do: a brisk walk through St George’s Walk reveals that a lot of the concerns articulated by Andrew Dickinson a year ago remain valid and unaddressed: there needs to be better signage and better lighting, there are still disused shops and evidence of petty vandalism.

However, in the space of a year, St George’s Walk has gone from a joyless thoroughfare to a blank canvas for the town’s artists to create and paint their own vision of what Croydon can be. If all this has happened in less than twelve months, just imagine what the next twelve are going to be like for Croydon!

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Bernadette Fallon

    So many exciting developments in the past year, what a great time to have moved here… Lots more to come hopefully

  • Andrew Dickinson

    Love you man! Thanks for putting such a good summary together. It’s incredibly fortunate that Rise has appeared on the scene and although a private gallery has a very much community minded outlook to the local scene. Let’s hope that the next 12 months bring as much or even more to the arts quarter and beyond to enrich and improve all our lives.Today 28th June there’s a community tidy up in SGW and I’ll be along for as many hours as I can.