Roger Wade interview: Boxpark Croydon’s first year

Croydon

30 Oct 17

- This feature originally appeared in The Croydon Citizen. This is the unedited version -

If you can believe it, Boxpark Croydon is about to celebrate its first birthday. That's right, It's been 12 whole months since Boxpark launched with two major events from Eskimo Dance and NME. On the one hand, it seems crazy to think that Boxpark has already been here a year but, on the other, it's becoming a little difficult to remember a time before Boxpark. 

So, I headed back to the Boxpark office to have a sit down with creator and CEO, Roger Wade. Initially, I expected that our conversation would focus on the last twelve months of food, drinks and events, and what Croydon might have to look forward to in the future, but unlike the Boxpark aesthetic, things have never exactly been black and white. As Roger said on arrival 'don't be afraid to ask the tough questions'.

How do you feel looking back on the first year of Boxpark Croydon?

It's a work in progress. I don't think we've ever been the fully-finished article and there's been a lot of challenges; we couldn't ever just expect to come to Croydon and regenerate the entire town centre by ourselves. It's been a good start but it's certainly not perfect.

So, what have been some of the challenges you've faced and what lessons have been learnt?

One of our biggest challenges was trying to appeal to everyone within the local community, it's really difficult because Boxpark does have a Unique Selling Point (USP) - 'Eat. Drink. Play' - and that has primarily driven us towards a younger audience, who like to go out and eat, drink and play. At the same time, it's important that we also appeal to families, it's important that we appeal to local businesses and local residents. It has been challenging because it's not like we have a crystal ball; we had to come to Croydon and start over in recognising who our core customers are, because it's so different to Shoreditch. Shoreditch customers are all about that eat, drink, play lifestyle, that's just how the area has developed over the years, but people are only just starting to come back into Croydon and they're rethinking their perception of the borough.

What have been some of the standout moments at Boxpark Croydon over the last 12 months?

Bringing Stormzy back to his hometown for his album launch was incredible. People should recognise that it was a bold statement: Here we are, we're in Croydon, let's celebrate a movement that is recognised on the international stage. It has been difficult because we've been told time and again that we cannot hold a grime event in Croydon, and we're like, 'well, why not?'. The whole world is in love with grime right now, my 13 year-old son loves grime, so we can't we have these events here, in a town where so many local artists are representing the scene. Stormzy is a local artist who is at the very forefront of grime, so why can't we make allowances for that? It's a real shame when certain genres of music are pigeonholed. I experienced this growing up, I remember in the 80s when hip hop was on the rise and people were turning their noses up, but that's what music does; we've seen it with hip hop and punk and the rave scene in the 90s, and now grime. People anticipated some kind of subversive culture around drugs but the core was always about the music, and that's what Boxpark is here to do, celebrate the music. 

It was also brilliant having So Solid Crew here for the Christmas light switch-on. These guys are practically the godfathers of grime! When you listen to grime today you can absolutely backdate it to the garage movement, and garage itself has even had a massive resurgence. 

The launch weekend with Eskimo Dance was fantastic because it properly showcased our arrival in Croydon; it was great to have the likes of Section Boyz and JME take to the main stage - it was a big statement. It has been challenging trying to change people's perception of croydon but we're going at it one stage at a time.
So, has there been much pushback in terms of the kind of events that you can host at Boxpark?

Generally, and I'm not just saying this but Croydon Council, especially the leader of the council, Tony Newman, have been incredibly supportive of the work we've been doing and the music culture. They want to see people going out and having a good time in Croydon and I love that. It's been challenging in that we have had comments from local businesses about the prospect of 'urban music' attracting a sort of gang culture into the area. I think we've got to really understand what leads to social unrest amongst young people and stop blaming music for that. I think a lot of it comes down to them having nowhere to go and few options for expressing themselves, so I really don't think that boxing them into certain groups and denying them opportunities is the way to go. At Boxpark, we're here to offer a platform and encourage people of all ages to get involved creatively and make a name for themselves. We've also been fortunate to have not had any major incidents since we launched which I think has surprised some people.

How do you plan to celebrate the 1st anniversary of Boxpark Croydon?

Unfortunately, Eskimo Dance is not going to happen. It came down to licensing. It wasn't necessarily the licensing authority's fault, there were some issues at play but we're hoping to move forward. Sunday was always going to be a family focussed all-day music event and we'll be going ahead with that. There'll be a mixture of artists and performers, DJs and live music, and the massively popular Hip Hop Karaoke will be returning as well. There will even be two rising stars from Croydon's very own BRIT school performing on the day too, so, hopefully, there'll be something for everyone.

What can Boxpark Croydon look forward to in the next  12 months?

We're working on an ambitious programme of larger events, so you'll see a more progressive list of major events happening at Boxpark Croydon. Looking back, we've had to be fairly critical of our first year and recognise things we maybe could have done differently with regards to licensing and event promoters. It's definitely fair to say that we've not had as many events as we'd hoped to have in our first year in Croydon; you're going to see that rectified in 2018. We want to reach out to a variety of groups within the local community and develop new events. 

Are there any specific local groups you hope to work with in the future?

This is a general callout to all groups - come and work with us. The reality is that we are one of the major attractions in Croydon and we want Croydon to make the most of that. We have a strong community drive, we don't charge for the use of most of the space and, so, if it's a good idea, we'll put it on. This is a direct message to Croydon - speak to us, we're absolutely ready and willing to develop more local partnerships.
Were you pleased with the public response when Boxpark launched?

The response has been great from the local community. I'd say a good 99% of it has been positive but you'll always have your haters out there, the people who want to write things about us that simply aren't true, or just use social media to submit negative comments. They are always going to do that. We can't spend our time worrying about that. We are focussed on the day to day running of Boxpark and we want to ensure that everyone who comes through our doors leaves with a smile. We're not going to waste any time or energy on the haters. 

Have local businesses been as enthusiastic about Boxpark?

Unfortunately, some local companies have seen Boxpark as a threat to their business but I don't think that's the right attitude. I think we have to work together to build a bigger and better Croydon. It would be like me being negative towards the Westfield development that's coming to Croydon but its the complete reverse, I'm excited for them to come to town, I can't wait, bring it on! I wish that other local businesses took the same attitude because it's been a challenge. We've reached out to people, we've said 'look, we've got a space here, come and use it, embrace it'. 

What have been some of the most difficult comments you've faced since arriving in Croydon?

The biggest misconception about us is that we had a major payout from Croydon Council but it was a standard commercial loan and loans get repaid. As a temporary venue, we relied on the support of the Council but we've also helped to create hundreds of jobs for the people of Croydon, at least 400 jobs. There are people out there who think we've survived on a free hand out, which we haven't. Since Boxpark has arrived, more people have returned to Croydon to socialise and enjoy their town, and other new businesses have been attracted to the area. It's not all about affordable rent and good transport links, companies actually want to plant themselves in areas where their employees will want to eat, drink and play.

I am great believer in trying to improve an area. I'm not about protectionism. When people say they're worried about local businesses, we're not, we want to see a bigger and brighter Croydon. So, it's frustrating when local organisations are worried about Boxpark's affect on surrounding businesses, that would be like the retail tenants of the Whitgift Centre complaining about the new Croydon Partnership; we can't be stuck in the old ways, we've got to embrace change and not be frightened of it. You shouldn't complain about your lot - step up, make your place of business bigger and better. For example, our BoxBar is only open until midnight, but where are the other places people can go on to for the night? Boxpark can only host a dozen major events each year, so where are the other major events in Croydon? We need to do things collectively to improve our situation. 

Initially, we were told that Boxpark would be in Croydon for at least 5 years. Is that still the case now?

We hope to be here for  as long as the people of Croydon want us. We certainly don't have any plans to close the doors after the next 4 years. We want to be here for 10 years at least.

Croydon is the current frontrunner for London Borough of Culture 2019. Do you think Boxpark has helped to play a part in that?

I think we've certainly helped to change people's view of Croydon. I meet people now and they say, 'I hear that Croydon is the next happening borough', and I don't think that kind of talk was really happening before Boxpark arrived. We've seen papers like the Evening Standard make a bigger feature of Croydon as a place to be and Boxpark has been widely publicised but, overall, I think we're just a part of that. All of the venues of culture within Croydon play their part and we all need to work together. 

What is your favourite thing about Croydon?

I'm a big fan of the people of Croydon. The majority of the people in Croydon are looking for change and they see it as a positive thing. Croydon is one of the largest boroughs in in London and it has some really diverse areas, you've got lots of different demographics, great schools and a thriving music scene. The people here are very understated, they've had a rough ride over the last couple of decades, I mean, it was David Bowie who said the worst thing you can say about something is 'it's so f*cking Croydon'. I loved his music but I can't say I agree with that statement.  Croydon is on the up and Boxpark is really just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2017, Boxpark Shoreditch had a summer makeover and was granted its drinking license. How has that affected business? 

Boxpark Shoreditch has enjoyed a major resurgence since the refit in June, it's gone from strength to strength. The ability for us to run the license there has given us the control to keep the drinking and dining all under one roof. It's doing extremely well at the moment. Shoreditch is king right now, in terms of area, but I remember when there were prostitutes stood out on Commercial Street and there were only a handful of bars and restaurants. The reality is that things change really quickly and we hope to see the same kind of success in Croydon.

Can you talk a bit about Boxpark Wembley?

What you're witnessing right now with Boxpark is the evolution of an idea. We built the world's first pop-up mall in Shoreditch in 2011 with a focus on retail and high street fashion, and then the first food and beverage only concept arrived in Croydon, where we set out to create a hub of entertainment, all under one roof. I think Wembley will ultimately combine those two projects and take it to the next level. It will be the first Boxpark that is fully enclosed. It's on an iconic site, at Wembley Way, and we hope it will become a major fan zone for people visiting the stadium and arena.

Finally, what was the last song you listened to?

The Fureys - When You Were Sweet 16. It was my grandfather's favourite song and he's Irish. That is mad...I've just realised, you're a Furey! Are you related? 

Sadly, I'm not.

However you feel about Boxpark, it's here to stay, for a while at least. It will stand firm next to East Croydon station as the rest of the town centre continues to develop and evolve around it. It's hard to really imagine how Croydon might look in the coming years but with pioneering minds, like Roger, flooding into the borough with big businesses and fresh ideas, it's an exciting prospect too. I'd like to think that Croydon will eventually reclaim Bowie's famous derogatory quote and re-appropriate it as a positive statement - yeah, it's so f*cking Croydon.