Should we pity London Road?

By - Wednesday 30th July, 2014

Accused of giving the West Croydon Carnival of Cultures a ‘pity review’ in an article about festivals, Broad Green resident Liz Sheppard-Jones pleads guilty as charged

1:30pm, Sunday 20th July.
Photo author’s own.

These are the words which led me to be accused on social media of writing ‘a pity review’ of the West Croydon Carnival of Cultures.

So – do I pity London Road?

Yes, I do. But first, let’s agree on what that means.

Pity is one of the four highest attributes of human nature

The origin of ‘pity’ is the Latin word ‘pietas’, meaning ‘duty’ or ‘devotion’, and through it ‘pite’, in Old French, which is ‘clemency’ or ‘mildness’. Aristotle argued that to feel pity for another, a person must have experienced similar suffering. No condescension there – just empathy and compassion. For poet William Blake, pity was one of the four highest attributes of human and divine nature: ‘the human form divine – love, mercy, pity, peace’.

So far, I’m OK with pity.

Given its much-touted sponsorship by the Croydon Partnership (the Westfield group with Hammerson plc, responsible for the planned £1 billion redevelopment of Croydon town centre), I was excited about the second West Croydon Carnival of Cultures on Sunday 20th July 2014. I stayed there a while and talked to people.

I left feeling pity for London Road. Our festival is lame, while other places have cool ones.

I saw some roughshod riding over diversity

My first problem was that despite press releases exhorting us to celebrate ‘the many diversities’, the West Croydon Carnival of Cultures, organised by Symposium Events, was a food and fun party in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. It’s a big deal on London Road – so as my children would say: ‘D’uuh’. Some roughshod riding over ‘diversities’ here.

Support local businesses – or can I?
Photo author’s own.

Press releases also instructed us to attend the carnival to ‘support local businesses’. There were five food stalls in the LIDL carpark on Sunday, two hired in from Brixton, one from Norbury, one from the Whitgift Centre and the fifth a cake stall run by the Cornerstone House community resource. Quite a few local businesses were closed – not a good look on carnival day.

I’m not surprised that attendance was thin – there was no signposting to the event and I saw not a solitary leafletter in bustling North End just half a mile away. A banner at East Croydon station scarcely targets locals. Members of the community who would have liked to be involved in the event were not aware of it until planning was advanced. Worst of all, the carnival clashed directly with the hugely successful annual South Croydon Food Festival, which attracted 11,000 visitors.

Bu these problems can be ironed out for the future. My pity for London Road is more serious.

Marilyn Monroe was right – humans are all need, all wound

Disgracefully, this community still bears the physical scars of riots which tore it apart three years ago – riots which I witnessed on a night when Debenhams was kept safe for democracy whilst homes and livelihoods were left to burn a hundred and fifty yards away. What I saw was the clearest imaginable demonstration of the pitiless contempt in which London Road is held.

I also pity the vulnerable who live here. West Croydon contains them in sufficient numbers to be immediately noticeable: the profoundly poor, the marginalised, the mentally ill, the addicted. Playwright Arthur Miller said of his wife, Marilyn Monroe: “To her, humans were all need, all wound”, and walking up London Road I know what she meant. As wealthier, more camera-friendly residents move in – where are these people supposed to go?

There’s more to West Croydon than victimhood

There are many businesses on London Road – and too many closures on carnival day.
Photo author’s own.

I’ll doubtless be accused of going off-message here, and being insufficiently positive – which will make a nice change. I am, of course, positive about West Croydon.

I know there’s more to it than victimhood and I also see its many workers every day. Shops trade from 5.30am until after midnight, and early buses are full of people heading for the office – to clean the office, that is, not sit behind a desk in it. Powerful people work this hard too – and are well-rewarded, which makes a lot of difference. But unless you have suffered the same… Just consider the words of Boris Johnson. Aristotle understood Johnson’s lack of pity for the low-paid two and a half millennia ago.

The next few years represent real business opportunity for London Road

But let’s look forward now. The next few years represent opportunity. While Westfield Croydon is under construction, a left turn from West Croydon station will take you slap bang into a building site, so right you will have to go. The first of the area’s new coffee shopsbeauty parlours and food outlets are already waiting, and I hope local businesses boom.

I’m glad we have a carnival now too, but to talk up London Road 2014 as party time in Rio is as cartoonish as I find the Eeyores of Croydon – local commentators bent on perceiving only vacuity and wasted cash in any and every spark of creative effort and glimpse of fun. An encouraging start is what this is.

If pity ruled the world, there would be no abandoned places

In recent years we’ve seen what corporate irresponsibility can do – now let’s welcome its opposite. So far, those making money from the property/retail bonanza haven’t been the residents of West Croydon, so it’s time the developers gave something back. Thank you for your sponsorship, Croydon Partnership – now let’s go further. Let’s see investment that makes a difference to lives at a local level – new businesses, new jobs, a better environment and improved resources for the community. Don’t just tell us to be positive about change – make us feel that way.

But let’s ask too how London Road became so neglected that in August 2011, the place and its people could be utterly abandoned to anarchy and destruction. It could happen because those who could have prevented it did not care, and those who live and work here were poor and powerless.

Let’s remember that and take pity at the right time, in the right way. If pity ruled the world, there would be no abandoned places.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

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

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  • Gordon Richard Bull

    A very interesting article thank you Liz. Initial thoughts, from a position of ignorance is to wonder if the whole event was foisted on the community rather than put together in consultation to agree what was needed and appropriate. What/where is the London Rd Community represented?

  • bieneosa

    I stand by my comments about your preview of the West Croydon Carnival of Cultures. A preview (unlike the other festivals featured in the piece) that did little to
    promote the event in a way that inspired one to attend. It was, in my view, summed up as a pity festival (Oxford English Dictionary version).

    I attended the festival on the day and it was disappointing to see a lack of attendees.
    There were also a number of outdoor events taking place in Croydon on the same
    day, but ultimately I put the failure of the event to deliver down to the organisers.

    It is interesting that you have gone from feeling pity for the festival to a wider sense of pity for London Road. You have then stated that there is ‘more to London Road than victimhood’, yet your article seems to spend a lot of time reinforcing this notion of victimhood. There is certainly plenty of content for Eeyore to work with.

    As a resident of Croydon North, I’m in no way blind to the issues in the area. I spend a lot of time raising these issues on air and elsewhere. However, what strikes me about your approach is that it does nothing to empower people. Instead, we should all feel pitied, so that the powers on high, like Westfield and Hammerson, can join the pity party and throw a few pennies at us to, as you say, ‘make us feel’ positive about change.

    Whilst the Westfield and Hammerson development will bring some positive things to Croydon including the regeneration of the town centre, a shopping centre is not a panacea for solving our issues. How about instead of pity or relying on corporate responsibility we focus on empowering local residents to be part of the decision-making process, we empower them so that their voices are heard – whether it’s communicating with developers or the council – so that pity is not our bartering system for equality. As a resident in Croydon North, I don’t want to be pitied. I want to empower residents to be drivers of change rather than passengers who are ‘made to feel’ a certain way.

    As an aside, I think the Citizen needs to ramp up its editorial content for and about Croydon North. The paucity of diverse content is not reflective of the area, its people or its potential.

    • Stephen Giles

      Excellent article Liz – Croydon Calling has totally hit the nail on the head – “As for empowering the local residents, it’s obvious a lot of them dont care/ understand / are transient / have their own problems.”
      As with any other area in Croydon, residents of Croydon North always have a choice available to them – they can move, as indeed residents of New Addington have been doing in recent years into Selsdon and even into Sanderstead.
      I’m not sure that constantly beefing about equality and diversity is likely to solve anything.

  • CroydonCalling

    There is a need to attract some higher quality ethnic foods merchant, 2 big proper stores will do a lot better then half a dozen small ones . More of London road should be converted into houses and shops upgraded with proper modern retail fronts.

    The whole thing is a right mess at the moment. Pavements too narrow, road leading to nowhere, hardly any easy parking.

    If some people had their way, they would demolish all of west croydon all the way to Norbury and replace it with a open forest.

    As for empowering the local residents, it’s obvious a lot of them dont care/ understand / are transient / have their own problems

  • Rosie E

    Interesting articles and discussion.

    Though caring deeply about West Croydon I didn’t attend the carnival of cultures as the publicity I saw said “support local businesses” which to my mind signals a pretty mundane ‘come and spend your money in our shops’ afternoon rather than ‘watch cultural dancing displays with gorgeous costumes and appreciate world muslc like at the Melas in Lloyd park’ real festival… reinforced by my memory of the disparate community groups’ struggles to organise successful events together in the past.

    But that’s OK.. the fact that a festival there wasn’t well attended (in stark contrast to the successful South Croydon festival of food) doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for London Road in business terms. Yes the pavement is narrow but that doesn’t stop Brixton flourishing. Yes the street parking is limited, but there’s always Lidl’s car-park.

    Yes it could do with its fair share of investment, better rubbish collections and of course for the shamefully still outstanding post-riot insurance claims to be settled but it’s never going to become South Croydon and what a blow for choice and variety if it did! Yes there many businesses run by people for whom English is a second language but I’m not aware that impedes their ability to find a market and successfully sell stuff.

    I find references to the desirability of completely demolishing West Croydon utterly baffling and dismissively sweeping phrases like “as for empowering the local residents, it’s obvious a lot of them don’t care/ understand / are transient / have their own problems.” deeply offensive on a number of levels.

    The fact that Croydon North inevitably has more social issues than wealthier parts of the borough is undeniable but that’s a more complex matter than business investment (whether or not motivated by pity) can solve.

  • Charlotte Davies

    London Road does face hugely complex issues. Probably the saddest thing I have seen in my time in Croydon is the CVA itself undermine the West Croydon Community Forum to the point it folded. Communities need time and space and opportunities to grow and develop in confidence – it is very delicate, no more so than in London Road where many cultures have to come together to find solutions and to develop their own leaders. The community is trying its best against a backdrop of betting shops, money lenders, poor urban planning, lack of adequate housing, a tendency to concentrate all social projects into a few areas which attracts in the gangs and the drug dealers.
    I am not sure that publicly vilifying those members of the London Road community who work tirelessly and voluntarily to build up their community is a helpful strategy.

  • lizsheppardjourno

    Thanks to everyone who’s commented on this piece – it’s good to see discussion on such an important topic.

    Rosie E in particular, along with Charlotte Davies, hits the nail on the head in stating that business and investment – or indeed festivals – cannot solve the socio-economic difficulties of some sections of the community in West Croydon. (We should bear in mind that whilst containing pockets of deprivation, it’s actually a mixed area). I’m a supporter of Croydon Westfield, on balance, but increasing economic disparities, as regeneration will inevitably do, risks further destabilising communities like mine. ‘Business’ is not only not the answer to some problems – business doesn’t understand the question.

    I’m not convinced by ‘empowerment’ talk: it’s a fine thing, of course, and no-one could oppose it, but things need to happen to individuals and groups before they can exercise personal and collective power: the provision of decent housing, decent education, decent healthcare, decent nutrition and decent employment opportunities, for a start. I regard those things as human rights, which we should provide for everyone – help people to a certain point, and empowerment follows. Seeing that people need to be helped is not at all the same as labelling them victims.

    Lastly, I don’t consider it ‘vilification’ to say that well-intentioned, hard-working individuals can make mistakes. Feedback allows things to be done differently next time.

  • Adam KM

    why cant people get the reality that London road has been surrendered to islam and this causes economic failure, what is more the working class who suffer every day with the consequences of this sick experiment bear the brunt