Yo Croydon! The city is yours


By - Thursday 26th February, 2015

Tom Lickley considers the meaning of Femme Fierce’s street art and the range of responses it has met


Photo by Wes Baker, used with permission.

Brutal, concrete and windswept. Through its long, chequered history, St. George’s Walk in Croydon has seldom sought to inspire those who walked through it. The original concept of a modern shopping precinct has long been wrenched from its grasp by the Whitgift Centre, Centrale and the bright lights of central London. Even the mooted regeneration as part of the doomed Park Place scheme in the early 2000s only served to drive away the few remaining businesses. A succession of local governments and private businesses have let a core pathway in the centre of the town down.

Step up the citizens, step up the artists. The re-imagination of St. George’s Walk as a hub for creativity, art and culture is not just an exciting and dynamic use of a ‘dead’ area – it is a symbol of the people of Croydon taking back the town for their own use. Street art, often maligned and derided as graffiti, has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, helped to a great extent by not only the work of Banksy, but its growing appreciation as a legitimate art form by mainstream audiences.

The emerging acceptance of street art by the mainstream should not, however, devalue its potential as an exciting and gritty art form. In a societal sense, every single person in Croydon now has the potential to make a tangible and creative impact on their home town, for little more than the cost of a few cans of spray paint and a few watts of brainpower.

Why should some have the space to create art and not others?

I wrote the above paragraphs a few days before the artwork was tagged up on Sunday evening, an event which led many on social media to proclaim the new graffiti an act of vandalism, a defacing of artwork into which many had put heart, soul and time. The words, and indeed the title, of this piece now look rather ironic, particularly considering that some would suggest no brainpower whatsoever was involved in the ‘additions.’ Certainly, on a visual level, the street art has been degraded considerably.

But one wonders why whoever it was who decided to mark up the art with their own signature felt the need. It seems unlikely, to me, to be a mindless act of vandalism. To mark up a considerable number of the artworks (thirty plus, I believe) only a few days after their appearance feels like a reaction. Maybe, just maybe, they felt that their patch had been taken over by a more authoritative figure than them. Why should some be allowed to have space to create their own art, but not others?

I’m not defending the actions at all, but I certainly believe a cold, emotionless perspective on the additions to the street art is needed. Wherever street art has cropped up, less appealing forms of graffiti often swiftly follow – for instance Moganshan Lu in Shanghai, and SoHo in New York City. An authentic art district is seldom isolated to those who create it. Given this reaction, it’s encouraging to hear that builders, fellow artists – even guerrilla gardening groups offering fix up flowerbeds adjacent to St George’s Walk – have all contacted RISE gallery offering to help repair the damaged works of Femme Fierce.

And whilst on a basic level, artwork has the potential to brighten up the walk from Wellesley Road to the High Street, it may also engender creativity in those who walk through it. For this reason, on a holistic scale the work by Femme Fierce and RISE gallery could be just as significant to Croydon’s regeneration as the billions invested by Westfield and Hammerson.

Shoreditch and Croydon have absolutely nothing in common

Photo by Wes Baker, used with permission.

A bold, surprising statement? Perhaps. Maybe also surprising from a writer who has sung the praises of the merits of property development as a catalyst for urban regeneration in the past. But there is a key factor which Croydon needs if it really is to become the capital of south-east England: balance.

Croydon does need Westfield. It needs Berkeley Homes, it needs speculative office developments, and it needs to attract wealthy individuals and corporations. Why? Because for a fully functioning city to operate, make no bones about it, a huge amount of capital is needed. Westfield provides jobs, Berkeley Homes provides tenants and professionals who will spend and big businesses provide both.

But Croydon needs culture and creativity in the town centre, and it needs the public to be an enormously significant part of that. Shoreditch and Croydon are often compared by the more enterprising sections of the Croydon public, but the reality is they have absolutely nothing in common, for a hundred reasons I won’t list here (feel free ).

But why should Croydon be like Shoreditch? In the 1980s, Shoreditch was a gritty, exciting and creative location. Now, it is becoming increasingly infamous for people wanting to be seen there and to be seen to be creative, but not providing any tangible benefit to the area. Rather than quirky, innovative pop-ups and small business concepts, there is an increasing trend for out of touch and over-priced fads which do little to benefit the area. Does Croydon need a cereal cafe? Probably not.

London and Croydon are our cities, and they are for public consumption

Photo by Wes Baker, used with permission.

We should, therefore, use the incredible potential of art and also technology as a business sector in Croydon to enhance long-term standards of living for those in the town, rather than short-term cult attractions. There is little I can say to add to the tech debate in Croydon, only that the intertwining of two creative communities in artists and start-up entrepreneurs can only be a good thing. Both communities benefit immensely from the growing power of the ‘sharing’ culture, and if the new street art allows one creative entrepreneur to be attracted to Croydon Tech City, and they in turn can fertilise an AirBnB or Uber equivalent rather than a stodgy massive social media site, we can all be proud.

Croydon has a fantastic opportunity to learn from the growing inaccessibility of not just Shoreditch, but central London as a whole. Increasingly bizarre and misguided concepts such as the ‘Sky Garden’ at the top of the gruesome ‘Walkie Talkie’ tower and the proposed ‘Garden Bridge’ are cutting off people from enjoying their theme park-esque capital city. London and Croydon are our cities, and they are for public consumption.

Maintain the people’s voice. Croydon is yours

Maintain the people’s voice, foster the spirit of creativity and innovation and use Croydon’s existing urban framework to enhance the town’s perception as an exciting and dynamic location for people to work and, most importantly, live. When the billions of real estate and infrastructure arrive, see them as a bonus, rather than rely on them as a catalyst. Croydon is yours, in a true citizen-spirited way.

Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. After three years spent working within the real estate industry, he now works in regeneration and PR following a move back to Croydon.

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  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    Tom,

    This is a fantastic article – and it’s wonderful to see you back writing at The Croydon Citizen again.

    Two things:

    Firstly, LOVED “Step up the citizens, step up the artists…the people of Croydon taking back the town for their own use.”: one thing I’ve tried to engender in locals – through Croydon Tech City – is that Croydon is *theirs* for the taking. That rather than sitting back, resolved to always be acted upon by more powerful interests, that they can indeed ‘take back the town’ and make it their own. I love that artists are doing this – I hope others will to!

    Secondly, the Croydon vs. Shoreditch binary — rather than keep it to the privacy of email debate, I’d love it if you were to consider outlining the “hundred reasons” why you think comparisons aren’t accurate (I’m v guilty of doing it & but appreciate that it’s a lazy comparison).

    • Tom Lickley

      Cheers Jonny. Happy to give a few thoughts on the Croydon/Shoreditch debate when I get some time, later today or tomorrow.