Five years in the life of an extraordinary borough

By - Thursday 9th November, 2017

The Citizen‘s General Manager looks back on the Croydon that the Citizen was born into, and the one that it now inhabits

Artwork by Lis Watkins for the Croydon Citizen.

What a difference half a decade makes. Five years ago, I lived in Coulsdon, was perpetually single, and the idea of Westfield coming to Croydon was little more than a pipe dream. Now, I live in Balham.

The long-awaited bulldozers might not yet have torn down the Whitgift Centre, but Croydon’s cityscape has changed a fair bit since 2012. Back then, you could still shop at Allders, take a bus down Croydon High Street, take in a show at the Fairfield Halls, and (should you so desire) vault the fence and walk your dog on the large area of waste ground next to East Croydon station.

Now Allders is long-done, with the increasingly dystopian Croydon Metro Village Outlet still in its place. The High Street is being pedestrianised. The Fairfield Halls will reopen next year, but right now it’s boarded up for major refurbishment. And if you were to try to walk your dog on the land next to East Croydon, you would find yourself treading on Boxpark’s customers or invading the homes of the residents of Ruskin Square.

Politically, 2012 was a world away from 2017

All of these things have been mourned or applauded in one way or another. If there’s been one constant in the last five years, particularly one that the Citizen has been able to shine a light on, it’s that Croydonians always have an opinion on what’s going on in their local area.

Politically, 2012 was a world away from 2017. The Citizen launched on 16th November, a few days after Barack Obama was re-elected as the US president in a decisive victory over Mitt Romney. When this goes to press, we will be approaching the anniversary of Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory, and be almost a year into the age of Trumpen politics.

Closer to home, David Cameron was prime minister of a coalition that was languishing in mid-term polling doldrums. Ed Miliband was plausibly his successor. The UK was never going to get a referendum on its membership of the European Union, much less vote to leave it. Theresa May was Home Secretary, Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, and Jeremy Corbyn was MP for Islington North.

Croydon’s parliamentary triumvirate of Wicks, Barwell, and Ottaway has become Reed, Jones, and Philp

Meanwhile, in Croydon town hall, we were two years away from the end of the last Croydon Conservative administration in the town hall, though that wasn’t certain in 2012. Local issues included the Beddington Lane incinerator (since agreed and now under construction), allocation of post-riot redevelopment money (much of it did not go to the areas where the riots took place), the controversial sell-off of the Riesco porcelain collection (it went ahead), and flytipping. Labour took over in a decisive win in 2014, and the likely issues in next year’s council election include housing provision, gentrification, and, you guessed it, flytipping. Obvious steps have been taken against this messy blight on our streets, but it’s not gone away.

None of Croydon’s current MPs were in office on the day that the Citizen launched. Labour’s Steve Reed would a few weeks later succeed the sadly missed Malcolm Wicks, who died in September 2012. Chris Philp would succeed Richard Ottaway as Conservative MP for Croydon South at the 2015 election. Sarah Jones would fail to oust Gavin Barwell from Croydon Central at that same election, but succeed in a second round in June 2017, when Labour made big unexpected gains across London. Croydon’s parliamentary triumvirate of Wicks, Barwell, and Ottaway thus became Reed, Jones, and Philp.

The Citizen launched as a website into a Croydon online sphere that was in respects more active than it is now. On the other hand, much more of that activity took the form of vicious trolling, and there were controversial blowups over the last five years which I’m that sure all involved would like to forget. Croydon’s once-toxic Twittersphere is a quieter, more contemplative place now, and it’s been joined by a growing and hugely positive Instagram community. You can find samples of their output on the East Croydon Cool-produced regular page in the Citizen.

Five years on, we’re still waiting for the Whitgift Centre to be closed

Croydon’s Instagrammers have had a lot to chronicle. You can hardly turn a corner in some parts of the town centre without seeing a mural or other piece of street art. New art galleries and theatres have opened up, sometimes replacing those we’ve lost. The Ambition Festival was born. In September of this year, Croydon hosted a celebration of Andy Warhol around the 30th anniversary of the American artist’s death. Five years ago, that would’ve been unthinkable.

A few months after the Citizen’s launch in November 2012, the Croydon Partnership was born as Westfield and Hammerson announced their new joint venture to replace the Whitgift Centre. Five years on, we’re still waiting for the Whitgift Centre to be closed in the first place, and the silence from the partnership is making people jumpy. It’s an area in which no change in the last five years is concerning.

But Westfield is neither a silver bullet, nor the only game in town for Croydon’s economy. When the Citizen launched, it was immediately the official home of Croydon Tech City news. But in 2012, Croydon Tech City was little more than a regular and enthusiastic meeting and some articles chock-full of ideas. Five years on, there are cool workspaces aplenty and major investment coming into the town’s tech companies. See June 2017′s edition of the Citizen for the full story of Croydon Tech City’s incredible first five years.

Matthews Yard is now sentenced to near-certain demolition to make way for luxury flats

In 2012, Matthews Yard was six months old, and its then-workspace served as the Citizen’s launch party location as well as our first office. In 2012, it had been bringing together more and more people thrilled that somewhere like it had an audience in Croydon, and so many projects that have enriched the borough were born there. It’s now sentenced to near-certain demolition to make way for luxury flats with a coffee shop in the basement.

Then again, Matthews Yard was lonely in 2012. Indie coffee shops were few and far between in Croydon, particularly in our run-down identikit town centre. Five years of regeneration, both organic and centrally-directed, have meant that the ethically-sourced beans are a-grindin’ like never before. We’ve got a heck of a lot of coffee shops now. To name them while adjudication is underway for the Independent Coffee Shop 2018 award (itself a popular institution that didn’t exist three, let alone five, years ago) would be inappropriate, but idly counting on my fingers led me to more then twenty, in all parts of the borough.

There’s so much that I haven’t been able to mention: great steps forward like new festivals, an explosion in community gardening, library refurbishments, new shops, and new infrastructure, but also the end of Croydon Radio, the 2016 tram disaster, and the continuing problem of knife crime, which did decline in recent years but has surged again in the last twelve months. Croydon is a complex place, and while it’s hard to argue that it’s had a bad five years, it hasn’t been plain sailing.

I hope that you’ll raise a glass (or mug) to the Citizen this month

And through it all, the Citizen and the citizens that write it have had the privilege to share this transformative time with you. I hope that you’ll raise a glass (or mug) to the Citizen this month. But you should also take a moment to look back on five years of history in our regenerating, innovating, creating, and caffeinating borough. Here’s hoping that the tenth anniversary edition of the Citizen has an unambiguously positive decade to reflect on.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Michael Swadling

    Tom – Great article and hard to believe so much has happened in five years. Would be great to read any predictions you have for the next 5!

  • Charles Barber

    Congratulations and thank you for commenting so well on the last five interesting years. I’ll certainly raise a glass or two to toast your illustrious rag.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      RAG?!?! :-D

      • Charles Barber

        T’is a term of endearment endearment, dear Liz.