Let’s make Croydon less boring

By - Friday 27th March, 2015

What stands between Croydon and success? Simply being too dull

Croydon has changed fast, in not very long at all. In the 1980s, Croydon was seen as comfortably middle class and dull. In the 1990s, monstrously concrete and dull. In the 2000s it became dangerous and dull, and finally the dubious poster child of rioting in 2011: a risky place to be filled with bored, restless youth.

It’s that dangerousness that people are most obsessed with, nationally and locally, despite ample hard evidence that – as far as London goes – crime in Croydon is, like too many things here, very average. We’re a lot less worried about it being boring even though the dullness is its truly long-term problem.

Perhaps we think that liveliness and excitement are merely desirable attributes for a place to have, and that safety is more important. But a deficit of excitement is much more serious than that.

First there is the threat to safety from boredom itself – the riots themselves illustrated that too many young people without a stake in their society didn’t have better things to do than to smash and steal. But I will go further. Excitement may be the only thing that prevents areas with a reputation for danger from becoming even poorer and more disadvantaged.

Areas perceived as affluent can often be very boring because they’re prized for their safety and peace and quiet and, ultimately (I shiver at this being a thing) the social status that they acquire as a result. But if you don’t have this your town had better be exciting. Because, at the very least, such a place can retain or attract the people for whom interest is more important than absolute safety or quiet streets.

If you have neither, you don’t have much of a draw. And, right now, Croydon is largely regarded as having neither. There might be more going on than people realise (just look at the succession of murals created – and re-created – in St George’s walk) and much of the borough might be quiet and leafy. The important part, however, is that people don’t think of Croydon as having these qualities: especially not Croydonians themselves.

It will take years to rebuild Croydon’s reputation as a safe place to be. Partly because every stabbing, robbery or story of disorder destroys, in a moment, what it takes months of good news stories to build. Partly because the reality is that it’s not sufficiently safe – being in the middle isn’t good enough to be a desirably dull place to be.

The only practical, short-term answer is that it becomes exciting. And for that reason, I propose that this should be the decade for Croydon to stop being dull.

How can we do this? The much trumpeted Westfield won’t help us. A huge shopping centre and a cluster of towers will make things look much more presentable, but it won’t make it exciting. The coming Boxpark is at the much more edgy, interesting end of retail therapy, but there’s a limit to how interesting shopping alone can ever be.

The answer is clearly truly developing a culture.

The idea is very simple: if more people came to think of Croydon as an exciting place with things ‘going on’, they’d come here more often to enjoy what we already have. With a reputation building, their more entrepreneurial friends would want to start running more events here (plays, exhibitions, gigs, more of graffiti events already underway as part of the RISE project – it doesn’t matter what) because they know there would be an audience of like-minded folk around to enjoy them, an effect that I have already witnessed first-hand in local theatre. This in turn will only make Croydon a more compelling proposition, which means more people drawn here for that excitement: a clear and virtuous cycle at work.

The fundamental conditions are there: the transport links that the borough’s paid promoters and politicians are rather too fond of talking about and the cheap, plentiful spaces (pubs, old office spaces, part-time theatres) for the next generation of musicians, artists, actors, writers and creatives of all kinds to forge their work in.

The seeds of this are already there: an active, but still largely unknown scene of new art galleries like RISE, pub-theatres like the Spread Eagle, a strong and varied musical scene that continues to produce new, talented artists, artistic collectives like TURF, public installations and more.

The will to do this is the only thing that’s missing. The town’s leaders have always looked to massive (and often unrealised) schemes of bricks and mortar to regenerate the town, while slashing arts budgets and allowing local institutions like the Warehouse to collapse. They have been allowed to do this because, in truth, the people of Croydon have allowed them to do it – by failing to see the value in these things themselves.

But we can fix this part. That’s why I’m asking you to stick up for culture. Next time there’s a show on (whatever it is), buy a ticket and tell your friends about it. Next time you get to vote against someone who plans to slash our public arts budgets, vote against them. Next time you have your own bright idea to do something creative, just do it – and do it here.

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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  • Terry Coleman

    I don’t often come to the centre but I did today, to buy a specific from a shop in St George’s Walk. The shop was fine, service was excellent and I had what I wanted. I cast my eye around as I made my way and was struck by the dull tattiness of the whole central area. Funky Downtown I thought, but not very funky at that.
    Come on Croydon we can be better than than this. Appearances do mean something – quite a lot, I would say.

    • Stephen Giles

      Perhaps the dull tattyness of a section of the human element might have something to do with it.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Absolutely, Terry. Our town centre is an embarrassment. The ‘carry on as we are, it’s all fine’ option butters no parsnips here and isn’t really an option.

  • NeilB

    Agreed , We need a reason to visit the centre other than shopping.

  • JJ

    Croydon is a dump.

    • Stephen Giles

      Typical negative comment I’m bound to say,

  • Stephen Giles

    Let’s hope that it stays comfortably middle class.

  • Terry Coleman

    Would just like to be clear that I had no intention to cast aspersions upon the good folk of our town, regardless of perceived social strata. My comment was about the town’s infrastructure.
    A case in point for me was the lack of clear plate glass windows, I noticed that so many were totally obscured by cheap and garish flyers. Well dressed window displays, giving illuminations and reflections, would perhaps go quite a way towards brightening things up.

  • Anne Giles

    I love the town centre. We frequently go to the Grants Vue cinema, which is incredibly comfortable.

  • Croydonian

    Actually, I’m not sure Croydon was seen as comfortably middle class in the 80s. As I recall, even by then the brutal (though only in certain cases brutalist) architecture and depersonalized anonymity of the town center, together with a reputation for random fights and what we used to call ‘rough’ neighborhoods, had given Croydon a fairly far reaching reputation. I was certainly aware of it despite living nowhere near it.

    Pre-WW2 Croydon really was a very affluent and pleasant place but I think once the post-war planners got their talons in it the cause was lost pretty quickly. I don’t think making it ‘comfortably middle class’ again is realistic.

  • Bernadette Fallon

    Can’t really accept why you say it’s ‘dull’ – particularly as you’ve mentioned lots of interesting things that are happening – TURF, RISE, the Spreadeagle, varied music and arts scene. But take my advice, if you think Croydon is ‘dull’, don’t ever move to a small town in the west of Ireland …

    • James Naylor

      Hah! You have a good point! But while there are lots of exciting things going – like the things you mention – they’re not yet sufficiently well known in the town or outside of it that Croydon has a reputation for being interesting and exciting (for the right reasons). Principally because its still quite easy for most people to have no idea these things are going-on. They’re not yet so well known about, so in your face that you can’t escape from it. That’s what I want for Croydon: Somewhere you can’t help but think of as exciting!