Don’t Fear The Yuppie – Imagined gentrification and the perils of groundless debate

By - Tuesday 8th October, 2013

Everyone in Croydon is wrong – it’s time to relax, sit back and calm down about gentrification says James Naylor

In Croydon, this is very premature.

Croydon’s entire political sphere has been, as usual, in perfect, angelic harmony. Superficially, you might think that people had been at odds over the eternally vexed issue of gentrification: The big G that conjures up gleefully rising graphs of house prices in some, fear in others and middle-class guilt in many more. You might think that it made people actually question each other’s ideas. But if you do, you’d be wrong.

Because everyone really agrees. One thought that binds them together – that most strange, groundless, and dangerous of assumptions – that gentrification in Croydon is even possible.

It seems obvious, right? Hackney had cool bars, then it had rich media people. Brixton got a gelato place in a cool market and now it’s full of yuppies. Croydon has one awesome café bar – workspace and theatre – the only way is up?

But the truth is this: the idea that Croydon is about to follow the path of so many inner city areas and gentrify out of all recognition isn’t merely misleading, it’s absurd.

How did we get here?

It all stems from a mistaken understanding of place. That much is clear from how little the debate has focused on what Croydon is like now. Instead, a strange assumption has short-cut the entire debate to a troubling and toxic mixture of unrealistic aspirations and guilty hand-wringing– the assumption that you can meaningfully compare it to any identikit mid-Victorian high street in inner London that you care to name.

It’s at this point I feel compelled to remind the reader of something: Croydon is big, really big.

Not just in population terms; that Wikipeda-sourced figures we’ve probably repeated ad nauseam to people we know. The London Borough of Croydon might just about have the London Borough of Barnet beat in that particular numbers game. But the important part has been missed altogether; how big the one hub that unites it really is. The boundaries of the actual town of Croydon may be all but imaginary now, but its concentrated mass of buildings, people and sheer human life is very real.

50,000 people travel to work here every day. Its annual shopping footfall is upwards of 20 million by the most conservative estimates and its main station (sorry West Croydon) is busier than Manchester’s. To compare this place to Dulwich, Clapham, even Shoreditch is to compare Birmingham with Bromley. We may often forget it, but there really is nowhere else quite this big in our great metropolis; nowhere that is not the heart of London itself. The London Borough of Barnet certainly has no such hub.

The sociological lessons of the gentrified high street (this is what the comparison cases have hitherto been) have nothing to offer us. The reason why they are ‘nice’ now is because their resident populations, the principle users of their high streets, have been largely replaced by people with money and distinctly middle-middle class tastes. But Croydon’s users are not its residents. The town centre’s resident population is only a few thousand. If every single one of these people were to be replaced overnight by an army of bankers, left-wing intellectuals and cigar-wielding toffs in top-hats, it would only make a small impact to an outsider’s overall impression of us as a people. It would merely serve to enhance the dominating impression that we already impart: we are one hell of a diverse bunch – in charming and less charming ways; warts and all.

Most of our sub-suburbs have no more or less chance of gentrifying than any other outer London suburb

Of course Croydon is not merely its centre, but the idea that the gentrification debate matters much beyond it, is even more absurd. The only tangible signs of its supposed gentrification are in the centre. This is where the cool establishments (still very few of these, by the way), luxury developments (most haven’t been built yet), and all-important fast transport links into London are (These were already here). But, if you still believe the whole borough is at risk of drowning under a wave of hipsters and Etonians with impossible-to-describe jobs in media, think about this: for this to happen, all the places where its users live would need to be gentrified: Thornton Heath would need to be gentrified; Beddington and Waddon would need to be gentrified; All of Broad Green would need to be gentrified; Addiscombe would need to be gentrified; New Addington would need to be gentrified. And then all of the places that aren’t even in Croydon that people come to Croydon from would need to be gentrified too.

It’s hard to believe that even exporting the entire blog-owning population of Hackney to replace every normal person in Croydon (and in areas beyond Croydon) could achieve such a thing. Much more importantly, it’s not likely that even London’s strange house-price economics and relentless pace of change could achieve this. The truth is that many of these places do not have the fundamental infrastructure required. New Addington’s residents, for instance, have been far better connected with the tram than before. But for those of them who work in central London, it’s still going to take a long time to get to work. Wealthier young people will want to live somewhere closer to everything than this. The older rich would rather live in the country proper. Most of our sub-suburbs have no more or less chance of gentrifying than any other outer London suburb. Only a total gentrification of every part of London itself (and probably all the places in Surrey and Sussex with ready access to Croydon) could guarantee it. This could only come about if every last square foot of Croydon’s catchment had been driven to insane prices by an economy that is both immeasurably larger than we can dream of and more distorted than our worst nightmares.

What then, will happen?

You should be very, very excited right now

The very impossibility of total gentrification could, long term, turn out to be the town’s greatest asset.

Because if total gentrification isn’t possible we have a very rare opportunity to build a community that is both more affluent than now and sustainably diverse forever. The seemingly dull economic and logisitic realities of Croydon’s place in the world can allow regeneration of the town centre (bringing jobs of all kinds to people living throughout the borough) without the knock-on consequences of inflated house prices, higher costs of living and a total ebbing away of the borough’s current residents. Swanky bars and clubs can come, but there’ll always be demand for cheap pubs.  John Lewis can pack out North End with shoppers burdened with overpriced towels, but a centrally-located pound shop will always do a roaring trade. The places we’d all like to shop and dine in when we’re treating ourselves will always be there because there are enough wealthy people to patronise them on a regular basis for them to be sustainable. The places that do interesting things, but are economic only when there are people with disposable income nearby, stay open for everyone.

Croydon doesn’t have to be monolithic working class town or a homogeneous tribal mass of middle class comfort. It can serve the needs and interests of everyone and by its very mixing become more than the sum of its parts.

But it, and perhaps only a few London towns of sufficient scale like ours, can do this. So don’t fear the yuppies – embrace them. Croydon really is big enough for all of us.

Check back tomorrow for the next view in the gentrification debate.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Brendan Walsh

    Great piece of writing. When Mark Thomas played Matthews Yard he stated “There are parts of Lambeth you just won’t gentrify. You just won’t”. Same is true of Croydon and it’s not a bad thing. I think much of the discussion is based on how the Council may be spending more time thinking about the people who don’t live here than the ones that do. Everyone loves a talking about a big plan more than dealing with the grim realities. All about getting the balance right. As usual.

    • James Naylor

      Thank you very much! I think this is very true – it most certainly isn’t. Although, of course, I think Croydon is more resistant to total gentrification – because, of course, I think- entirely unbiased – that its better in every way than everywhere else.

      Total gentrification certainly isn’t great and historically Croydon have certainly been obsessed with mighty visions of the future; leading to people who actually live in Croydon now being overlooked. But I do stand by the idea that having some people with more disposable income around is good for everyone. it makes things that are only luxuries for the majority, sustainable for everyone; precisely because their are enough people with serious money to buy them/use them regularly. Similarly, since richer people are likely to complain more about service provision, and have superior resources to lobby local authorities for things, there is a strong practical benefit in having them living in your community (as long as you don’t get priced out by them). The truth is also, unfortunately, that those people will mostly come from outside (as they have always done). Although please don’t take that as an endorsement from me of trickle-down economics – I’m not insane.

      And yes – as usual, it is all about getting the balance right. I feel like this phrase is an entirely sensible and appropriate way to sum up almost every article/comment thread on the Citizen. Well done for beating me to it.

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    The only phrase missing from the above is surely ‘intensely relaxed’?

    My concerns are of course around what gentification will do to ‘poor Croydon’. (Croydon is a big place and well-gentrified already, in parts). The well-heeled will arrive and get well-heelier, the poor will live cheek by jowl with them. What these groups emphatically will not do is mix.

    Naturally the middling kind of people will float gently upwards, buoyed by rising house prices. They’ll be thrilled to bits by this, and love popping out for a latte in that lovely new place that’s just opened round the corner (watch out, Matthew’s Yard), until a shoebox flat costs a king’s ransom and their kidult offspring have become a permanent fixture.

    Seeing an increasingly stark divide as a fascinating aspect of life in the urban melting pot is possible only from one side of it. On the other side it’s rougher and a whole lot ruder, not to mention increasingly unstable. We shouldn’t be relaxed about creating islands of wealth in a sea of deprivation both relative and actual. I call such an environment a tinderbox.

    • James Naylor

      Haha. Thank you Liz!

      I am slightly less pessimistic about the mixing part.

      While we do live in surprising bubble-like and insular social networks, the chance of interacting with people who are not like yourself is zero in a gentrified ghetto. At least in Croydon – whatever happens – people from all walks of life will share the same physical space. This isn’t just better than nothing, its a very practical way to keep the wealthy grounded. Even for (especially for) the well-meaning plutocracy, the poor are often only a concept. At least if they live in Croydon, they’re different lives are palpabe, real; possible to experience. I am great believer in this generating empathy (as much as it can also generate opposite emotions) – I believe that this is an inherent, and much undersung, benefit of public transport too. And just at the edges, those worlds will touch – even if it is only a few conversations here and there most of the time, some real bonds will be created. Call me an impossibly lefty softie, but that does matter and it does make a difference.

    • Nigel Dias

      Can I ask which parts of Croydon are considered well-gentrified already?

      • Liz Sheppard-Jones

        Shirley, Purley and Coulsdon, off the top of my head. There’s some intriguing discussion on Twitter about ‘gentrification markers’ – suggestions include the proliferation of joggers (happening already in West Croydon – it’ll be like Clapham Common before we know it ), Ocado delivery vans on patrol, branches of certain shops, window-boxes…… Anywhere you have to move to in order to get your kids into particular school catchment areas is gentrified or well on the way to it.

        Sociologically this is all very fascinating of course, but I’ve expressed my concerns about some of its consequences already.

        • Nigel Dias

          My local history knowledge isn’t fantastic but I would have assumed that these areas have always contained significant levels of “middle class” people? Therefore you cannot label them “gentrified” by the strictest definition of the term, especially if we are talking about recent history.

          I can’t help but feel like this whole so-called debate isn’t about gentrification at all, but more a reaction to changes which people associate with the contemporary “gentrification” (which I am not sure they are anyway).

  • Jamie

    Agree with several points in this article. I don’t find any comparison between Saffron Square going up in Croydon, and the gentrification of Brixton. In fact recently when I’ve read about the gentrification of Croydon I’ve been wondering what people are talking about.

    Brixton felt so, so different circa 2000 to now. The character of the area has been changed beyond recognition. As you rightly say, Croydon is far too large and diverse to be seen as a ghetto and likewise to become the new Clapham or Brixton just because some overpriced apartment blocks have gone up.

    Let’s be honest, the people who fill up areas like Brixton nowadays are not interested in moving to Croydon. They don’t even view Croydon as part of London. Maybe they’re sort of right in that respect. We’ve got a town here that’s big enough to be analysed in its own context, rather than seen as some sort of slummy suburb, subject to the whims of the London locust class.

    Like you say, we’ve got plenty of diversity, not just between districts (comparing Thornton Heath with Purley) but within each district also. Norbury, central Croydon, etc – they’re not exclusively home to the desperately impoverished or the upwardly mobile middle class. As I read somewhere once, Croydon is all of England in one town,

  • George Harfleet

    Croydon was my ‘home town’ from 1935 thru to the late 1960s. My four brothers were all born in St. James’s Road Maternity Hospital (now extinct). We all went to Elmwood Road school. We had a hard but happy kidulthood, despite the war. It was a good town then.
    However, so much ‘progress’ started to happen in the 1950s. Legal vandalism. Everything started to go downhill as the ugly tower blocks began growing like Topsy. The end finally came, for me, when KENNARDS was no more.
    The dear old Croydon I once loved has become ugly in so many respects. That’s progress in some people’s view; not in mine. Gentrify if you will, (or can); try to bring back Broad Green as a ‘village’, (bet you can’t).
    Croydon RIP.

    • trypewriter

      Interesting in reference to the numbers who come into Croydon to work. It is that element that is vital to keep a mix. A dormitory town will not succeed in respect of gentrification, because footfall needs to be constant, not just at weekends. Jobs for Croydon is key. I love the tech city initiatives and coding clubs etc. and wish them all the best. It’s bigger than just the jobs that they may bring though. The jobs to service the tech industry are equally important, simply because not everyone can be a ‘techy’.

      • Jamie

        Yeah, I wish there were more big firms moving into Croydon, across a variety of industries. Would love to stop commuting and start walking to work!

    • Anne Giles

      Whereas I much prefer Croydon to what it used to be in the 70s, when I first came to live here. (See all my articles in the Citizen).

  • Christian Wilcox

    The City Centre needs a clean out as it is dominated by low-spending violent kids at night. It’s a tip.


    Replace it with big-spenders from uptown and, well, it may go too far the other way.

    You need a City Centre that works for everyone. Too much Yuppie and it’s bye-bye fairness & affordable prices. These kids need encouraging to play a batter game, not being locked out completely.

    Lock out the bad eggs by all means, but not all of them.

  • manabana

    Being a fairly recent (7 years) resident in Croydon I get the impression this used to be a pleasantly quiet town with a settled population. Since I’ve been here the town centre has lost shops with any character like Allders and Turtles amongst others thus exposing the true horror that is a sorry naff high street which is becoming more intimidating by the day, a muggers paradise of unlit dark corners and subways surrounded by ugly concrete vacant office buildings. The roads around Croydon are the worst in the country, the number 8 round about that makes you giddy the 50p building which you go around almost counter clockwise, the stupid roundabout at the even stupider named thornton heath pond which isnt even a pond but a pointless park in a roundabout with its lanes with arrows that send you in directions differet to the ones they indicate. Miles of grubby flats, crappy terraced houses without charm edging miles of busy congested main roads, the decimation of West Croydon, the impossibility of parking for 5 minutes without risking a tickets. The layout of Croydon is truly horrible like a car crash. I tried cycling around a few times but gave up because the roads were so bad and inhospitable to anything except 4×4′s or HGV’s, a friend of mine cycled to East Croydon one time and had his bike nicked on his return from work. I stumbled on a drug deal in the nearby carpark and ran for my life, it was broad daylight. The crime and recent immigration has led me to believe that Croydon is Londons dumping ground for other areas which are rinsing themselves of their own homegrown scum. The recent London riots confirmed what Croydon is, a problem town with never ending police sirens and a population that are there because frankly they got no other choice but to be there.

  • manabana

    Sorry, my rant was interrupted by some idiots letting of fireworks (guy fawkes was 12 days ago morons). But thats what i mean, thats Croydon, I was woken up one time by some blokes racing remote control cars in a car park at 1am. Theres nothing nice about Croydon, nothing! I’ve tried really hard to think about something, but I believe the people here are so used to the mediocre, they get excited when a Nandos opens or a new KFC. The drunks that hang around the town centre are always worth a look, did they all wash up in Croydon by accident or is it because there is nowhere else to go, like a gutter the crap flows towards it and stinks the place out thats Croydon for you. Its a pitiless place that can never be gentrified, the best solution would be to bulldoze he whole lot and turn it into a landfill at least that way it would have some use. Ask yourself once you end up in a 2 bed terrace in West Croydon on the main road choking on car fumes, with feral kids rioting outside your front door, can you get any worse, or is that it, rock bottom next stop sleeping in the bus station. BTW Ever caught a bus in Croydon, good luck with that, if you get on in the scrum that is the queue then avoid the top deck or at least avoid eye contact, even when you get an elbow in the ribs. The services are rubbish, every place you go even the big chains are staffed by indifferent idiots its like Croydon is the place bad employees are sent as a punishment rather than making them redundent in the hope they’ll be so depressed they will quit their jobs instead. Ah…the roadworks thank you council for what must be by now the Worlds best gas infrastrucure, given the non stop digging and road closures it must now be a perfect gas delivery system, never have I seen a place that has permanent roadworks in so many places but at the same time such crappy roads

    • Tom Lickley

      I strongly urge you to take a look around this website if this is truly how you feel – it is clear there are plenty of positives going on and if anything the town is in the ascendancy.

      I do believe your comments could be relevant to an awful lot of towns and cities in both the UK and the rest of the world; particularly comments about buses, Nandos, ‘big chains’ etc – even beautiful British cities have these problems – it’s called ‘the 21st century.’

      However, what I believe the worst thing about this or any other town is the people who sit comfortably in their houses, complaining about what goes on outside without lifting a finger or proposing intelligent and sensible thought about how it can be changed.