On the land where Boxpark stands

By - Thursday 17th November, 2016

Liz Sheppard-Jones has a difficult personal relationship with Boxpark

Photo by CDN_zine, used with permission.

It’s my own fault. ‘Let’s meet for coffee in Boxpark‘, I keep saying. Then comes guilt: I’m taking my coffee spend away from great places and great friends who’ve worked hard both to build up their businesses and to bring a quality product to Croydon. Places like Smoothbean! on Dingwall Road. And this is the reward I give for their loyalty and caffeinated love: to put on a metaphorical (or even an actual) short, tight skirt and trip across the road for foamy flirtation with a business with bigger marketing muscles. It’s hard not to feel a bit trashy.

For me, Boxpark Croydon is complicated – and isn’t that true of all the most exciting relationships? We got off on the wrong foot: it stands smack where I used to work. With five other dedicated people who became some of my closest friends over seven years, I shared laughter and tears – both quite literally – and a great deal of sweat to build up a Croydon Visitor Centre to make the town proud. And it did: a lot of people told us so when they heard in spring 2015 that we’d lost our jobs because Big Money was kicking us out.

I find Boxpark worrying. It’s so big

Because, well, where’s the profit in a building full of volunteers, choirs, toddler groups, gardening clubs, carers’ networks, small businesses, eco-nappy promotions, advice for seniors, help for those with disabilities, masses of coach tickets sales because so many have been priced off the trains and a friendly welcome exactly where people need it to be? Our customers weren’t important enough: too few movers and shakers, just folk in need of a bit of support and help to live a decent life. That’s community, that is. That’s service. But where was the goddamn profit?

Photo author’s own.

Now let’s look forward. The Visitor Centre is gone, Boxpark has taken its place and the C-word is useable in polite conversation. “I live in Croydon” is no longer a statement you have to explain after the inevitable questions of why – unless you hate yourself very deeply – you would live in a dump like that. Our move from pariah borough to the trendy end of this-is-a-normal-place-to-come-from will take some getting used to. Boxpark is part of the reason for this positive change, and I am grateful.

And I’m positive about Boxpark itself, ’80s-fabulous in black-and-white-with-a-bolt-of-red and Joan Collins-style diagonal stripes. I love its sound system that makes the floor shake, and its strobes like the flashing freeze-frame lights I danced under as a teenager that made us look so edgy. I love the bad-ass ceiling murals in Meat Liquor, and Boxpark gives good beverage: just check out the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs (right now, I’m even pictured on its website). A beer on a summer’s evening on that raised decking will be a fine thing indeed.

I also find the place a bit worrying. Just food – really? It’s so big – photos don’t do it justice. Not all those venues are going to make it. I know there’s a lot of entertainment planned, but right now it’s still full of day-trippers, checking out the Cool New Thing. Will our footsteps ring hollow in its hangar-ish vastness at 10am on a wet January Wednesday? More importantly: will it really work with Croydon (or for Croydon, or whatever it was they wrote on the hoarding at the front) or just for itself, holding its visitors inside and offering nothing to a central area minus Fairfield Halls for two more years (if you’re an optimist) and where the bulldozers will soon go to work on the Westfield construction? RISE Gallery, Theatre Utopia, the Oval, Matthews Yard and the rest can’t sustain an entire town centre. Boxpark won’t help if it never lets anyone leave. It feels like a destination, not like a gateway.

I have more, and deeper, misgivings too. I visited Boxpark Shoreditch one Saturday a few weeks ago, to get a sense of the brand, and the place stopped me in my tracks: pure deja-new in every last detail. It wasn’t just the vibe: the pouty young people serving you, the self-conscious quirkiness, the tyranny of cool that makes you want to replace everything you own so as to have trendier possessions and a more happening sense of personal style. It was that the actual items on sale could have been the same. It was Camden Market, circa 1985.

But this time around, fashion is darker and meaner.

Of course, the world is invented again and again; it will be as long as new eyes look on it. These days, if I criticise anything, my teenage sons tell me brutally that it’s my age: grumbling everything’s gone to the bad is what old ladies do. I’m seeing something they can’t, though: how since I was young, cool has grown crueller. The style-beast always posed with that hard, blank, cat-walking stare. But now, it has blood on its claws.

In my youth, the full-on Foxton was a decade and a half away

I loved the 1980s because I was young, and hated them because I was left-wing. I thought, when they were over, that the world could never be so savage again: the miners’ strike, the laying of Thatcherite waste to lives and communities with unemployment and the on-yer-bike sneers at anyone who protested this, the poll tax and loadsamoney culture; in the city, dawn of the banksters, in the Commons, the horror of Section 28.

But the 1980s were also full of hope. We believed that the battles we fought would be won, against homophobia, tuition fees, the racism of the National Front. Sometimes, we did win. In our personal lives we were free from fear: we claimed social security while we looked for work, women’s refuges weren’t having their funding taken away and the future return of malnutrition to Britain, or a million emergency food parcels (containing three days’ supplies) being given out by a charity in 2015-16, would have seemed like madness.

Things are very different now. The difference is the land.

Photo public domain.

House prices are linked to land values. In my youth, these were still connected to ordinary earnings: the full-on Foxton was a decade and a half away. I lived for £35.00 a week in Zone 2. Growing older and less groovy, my friends and I bought homes. We could progress in life: it wasn’t difficult on our middling incomes. Whilst we rented, we could save. We hadn’t graduated many thousands in debt. Around us, those who did not buy had other, affordable options. The culture of winners and losers was less ferociously entrenched; society still enabled.

In our age of pass/fail living, cool has become another form of brutality. The safety net of decency is gone. Some of this is politics: one day, it will change. But the land itself has turned against us. As the value of the earth we walk on soars, like a slope growing steeper and steeper, more and more of us lose our footing and start to fall. The common ground that should sustain us casts us out. It will cast out many Croydonians in the months and years ahead.

Croydon’s casual diners on Boxpark’s black and white decking will lead fashionable lives. They will look like winners. Lots of them, of course, won’t own their beautiful apartments. But they’ll manage the astronomical rents somehow and get everything in return except security. Meanwhile the poor are supplied with tiny pods, or privately rent unhealthy, unsafe, overcrowded accommodation, clinging on precariously until the endless upward ratcheting of prices drives them away.

Alongside East Croydon station, we celebrated community in Croydon Visitor Centre. I don’t think we quite realised that’s what we were doing, with our shelves of what’s-on leaflets and schoolchildren outside singing carols at Christmas. But the land was too perfectly located for that. It was too profitable.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    Insanely good writing here, Liz (and I say this as a Boxpark fan!). :)

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Thanks Jonny :)

  • Janet Smith

    I wouldn’t worry about Smoothbean, I took a friend to Boxpark last Friday for coffee and couldn’t find anywhere nice to sit and have a chat so we went across the road to Smoothbean for the first time and had a great night listening to the jazz, by the time we left it was packed. Will definitely be going back, just a shame they’re only open one evening a week. We walked back through Boxpark afterwards and the noise was dreadful. Maybe because I work in the West End but I’m not impressed with what’s on offer or the prospect of sitting on cold benches trying to hear what people are saying over the cacophony.

    • Anne Giles

      My husband took a look at it the other day and decided it was a dump! One doesn’t have to be a Naysayer either. We all have different tastes and, whilst we may love some places, we are entitled to hate some too. One of my favourite cafes is Yeha Noha in South Norwood, owned by Eastern Europeans. The espressos are reasonably priced and generous and their Polish sausages are second to none!

  • Anne Giles

    One of the best articles ever. Congrats Liz! So so true. I have no desire to go to Boxpark. One look at those benches has put me right off. With my back problems I need nice comfortable seats. I don’t like noise either. I loved the Visitor Centre. It was tragic when it was knocked down. When it comes to coffee, I like small cafes.

  • Hannah Thomas

    I bought a flat in Croydon 8 years ago when I was single because of the fast trains to Central London and to work. I am still living in that same 1-bed flat with my partner and our now 3 children, wondering how we will be able to afford to move to a 3-bed house! This article is so bloody spot on. Soon Croydon will be unaffordable for people like me.

  • Hannah Thomas

    By the way, I love the new Boxpark though!

  • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

    Wonderful article, which poses really important questions. When Croydon once again has a Visitor Centre, as well as a Boxpark, I’ll start believing again that Croydon Council does sometimes value ‘community’ as much as the next big investor. Wealth creation doesn’t seem quite so noble if it just get shared around by those that are already relatively loaded.

  • Omar AS

    This is so, so good. I find having an opinion akin to that expressed in the article means it is difficult to get people to engage with you. A lot of it is because any discussion means forcing both the rich and the cool to confront the elephant in the room, and admit that projects like Boxpark are for no one but them.

    When conversing with said cohorts, the topic must be approached lightly for fear of being labeled a harbinger of doom, a fully paid member of Naysayer Gang. It is easier for those benefiting from an up-and-coming area to look like they care than to actually do anything. Far easier to only pay lip service and engage in online virtual signalling, than to ensure representation of less powerful groups and to tackle the tentacles of economic, social, and often racial exclusion.

    It says a says a lot about those who fall on a certain side.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Thanks for your response. I believe that the precariousness of so many people’s present lives (the housing crisis, the growth of very insecure employment and so on) was planned a long time ago. Distracted by insecurity and fear and overwhelmed by a barrage of propaganda masquerading as ‘news’ and ‘a free press’, marginalised groups have no way to defend themselves.

      I don’t want to be a naysayer either: I don’t like grime but I do love a great coffee :) But I want to be part of a diverse and supportive community as well.

  • Shaking Hands

    The start of a Croydon Dystopian Novella.

  • Paddy Blewer

    I (sort of) write for a living. Reading this makes me jealous of Liz’s talent to tell a story that is deeply personal, but draws us to empathise with her feelings and would create a level of understanding with even the most rabid free markets right winger.


    I agree with a lot of the sentiments expressed. I worked next to the Shoreditch Boxpark and was never a true fan, because it is the physical manifestation of the tyranny of cool that has taken over much of that part of the world. I’m a City person, I wear suits. I was hissed at and patronised in an area that’s a molotv cocktail toss away from the Square Mile because I didn’t rock their look.

    It’s not that I’m anti profit, or anti fashion. But as the onetime only Trotskyite foreign exchange trader in the City (Roubles, obvs) , one of the things that I loved about my decade as a Croydonite was its diversity and its post riot burgeoning sense of community.

    I could walk into Weatherspoons on a Friday night in a double breasted pinstripe and no one would give me a second look. I could eat very well in a malcolm john restaurant wearing jeans and a t-shirt and I was just another punter. I was one of the many that followed the team from Green Dragon the the Oval. Finally Waddon Leisure centre gave my boy his first chance to play Rugby, which he loves. I still occaisionally write for the Citizen despite having returned to Sutton because I think Croydon has a great sense of community that I want to be a part of, even if it is as a middle class restaurant critic that wants to be Jay Rayner.

    Look at what’s happened to Balham. Not much more than a decade ago, it was genuinely diverse. It was interesting. There as a true socio-economic mix with residential and leisure activities for most sections of society. I got a kicking in a boozer for being too snotty. I probably deserved it.

    Now if I ever go out for a drink I feel alienated from my fellow punters not because they’re 10 years older than me (although they might well be) but because they’re all very similar and not like me. A few years ago, me and a mate (who happens to be a bond trader at a well known investment bank) realised that we would have been seen as the working class element in a pub in Balham. Anyone that isn’t a Cityboy/girl that has massive support from parents can’t rent there, let alone buy, which means Balham today looks like Chelsea 20 years ago.

    I hope Croydon doesn’t go the same way and that there’s room left for profitable businesses and organisations that foster a sense of community as well as creating investor returns.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      High praise indeed, and much appreciated :) L