This is Croydon

By - Wednesday 30th August, 2017

Posts on Instagram using #croydonis are being featured as part of an exhibition called ‘What is Croydon?’ at the Museum of Croydon

Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

A while ago I was sat in my classroom in Italy, telling my tutor about where I was born, Croydon. I told him that it was the biggest borough in London by population, that the town is one of the mostly highly sought after office areas in Greater London, and that it is currently undergoing huge regeneration. I told him about the architecture, social problems such as crime (common to all London boroughs), the population statistics and showed him pictures of the town. I continued by saying that I wanted to do a project to look at culture and identity within the borough and how outsiders’ perceptions conflict with these. After some thought and consideration, he turned to me and said: “do you really live here?”.

I live in Caterham, just outside the borough, but I was born in Croydon and lived here as a child. I come here often to meet up with friends. I’ve always felt at home in the town, and feel proud to come from Croydon. But there seemed to be a difference between how I felt about Croydon and how other people perceived it. Stereotypes about the town perpetuated an image that didn’t match with my experiences.

Street art is transforming Croydon.
Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

I am a masters student of cultural projects for development, specialising in place branding. This theory looks at what is unique about a place and whether perceptions match up to the reality. Image is key: the ‘projected’ image (what people say about a place) and ‘perceived’ image (how people feel about a place) have an effect on each other. The idea is to ‘create’ an image of a place that is unique and true to the identity of a place. Ensuring a strong ‘place brand’ can help foster social integration, encourage investment, and ensure effective regeneration.

This idea really struck me when thinking about Croydon. I read a quote from the former MP for Croydon back in 2010, in which he said that Croydon suffered from an “image problem”. For such a high profile figure to say this seemed significant. But the question is, which image is really at fault: the projected image or the perceived image?

Since then, the focus has been on tackling this ‘image problem’. The skyline is no longer only 1960s space age concrete. New buildings like Saffron Square and Bernard Weatherill House have modernised it. Public art has improved the existing architecture and brightened the town centre. Culture is now at the centre of regeneration, and time and time again this has proved to be successful. Doubters need only look at places like Bristol and Brighton, whose reputations are founded on their cultural offer and creative, open environment. Now Croydon is one of the most in-demand property spots in the UK. It seems that finally Croydon might be having its day.

Some of the comments already received highlight residents’ worries about regeneration.
Photo author’s own.

However, when it comes to regeneration, a simple copy and paste won’t do. Boxpark originated in Shoreditch. Westfield Croydon will be one branch among many, adding to its other sites in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush. Independent organisations are likely to be displaced by new investors. These are not entirely negative things, but we must be wary. As with marketing, a ‘product’ has to have its unique selling point. If regeneration continues to the point where Croydon looks like any other major town, the USP is lost. How can we combine outside influence with Croydon’s existing identity, without diminishing either?

This question of identity is the main focus of my master’s project: to ask people what is unique about Croydon, and what it means to live here. Currently I am putting on an exhibition at the Museum of Croydon called “What is Croydon?” which looks at culture and identity. The exhibition is run partly via Instagram. People can upload photos about what they think Croydon is, and have the chance to be a part of the exhibition.

Before we started I worried that there might be a sense of apathy. This was my worst nightmare. I asked myself, does anyone even care? Fortunately, I have been proven wrong. Many have already taken the chance to express their feelings about Croydon, and we have received a number of comments both online and via comment cards. Some celebrate the diversity and richness of Croydon’s community, and how much the town has changed. Others fear for the future and see the current change as a bad omen. More than anything, beyond good and bad, positive and negative, the comments have shown me how proud people are of where they come from and where they live.

My hope for the exhibition is that we can use the debate to assess how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to perceive us in the future. A strong identity will enable Croydon to accept change whilst retaining its ‘sense of place’. There certainly won’t be one prevailing idea, and I sincerely hope there is not. As one visitor commented: ”Variety is richness. Continue that way, Croydon”.

Sam Harper-Booth

Sam Harper-Booth

Sam is a 24 year old Masters student of World Heritage and Cultural Projects for Development at the Turin School of Development in Italy. He is currently working on a project about Place Branding in Croydon, and is interested in cultural affairs and identity. He was born in Croydon and has lived nearby throughout his life.

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