Croydon x London Borough of Culture


28 Feb 18

So, Croydon did not win the title of London’s first Borough of Culture. But we can most definitely hold our heads high with the sense of pride and honour that comes from having fought the good fight.

Croydon has changed dramatically in recent years. In fact, it’s the reason that Croydon made a bid for London Borough of Culture in the first place. When I caught up with Croydon Council’s cultural director, Paula Murray, she was enthusiastic about Croydon’s chances. “We had all of these ideas and strategies that we wanted to implement in Croydon, and competing for London Borough of Culture gave us the vehicle to pull a plan together.” Paula felt the competition was fierce because the people of Croydon are engaged and proud of their borough.We knew we had to raise our game and we feel like the people of Croydon really get it. It’s also about reputational change – what can we do to overcome this negative stereotype of Croydon as an area that is unsafe.”

So, what was it about Croydon that made us such a strong contender?

“There has been an extraordinary number of grassroots projects popping up in the town centre.” Oval Tavern landlady and Green Party heroine, Esther Sutton, believes that the ingenuity and passion that’s coursing its way through Croydon’s veins is rooted deep within its residents. “We have a wealth of talent and creativity in the borough. We have demonstrated an edginess, fearlessness and experimental verve which has seen ground-breaking work here. The Borough of Culture is about helping to realise potential, and Croydon has tons of amazing people working on fantastic projects.”

Social spaces and creative hubs like Matthews Yard and TMRW, alongside local arts establishments like TURF and the RISE Gallery, give thinkers and dreamers and entrepreneurs the space to create and explore through live theatre, life drawing, spoken word and more. The will-they-won’t-they of Westfield coming to Croydon swiftly became we-don’t-even-care-anymore.

Proprietor and creator of Matthews Yard, Saif Bonar, says that Croydon is so much more than a shiny new shopping centre. “I am hopeful that Croydon will continue to thrive regardless of the big ticket regeneration initiatives. Thousands of people here are passionate about its cultural scene and offering. They will prevail.”

When it comes to creative expression, Croydon pretty much has all bases covered, in one way or another; however, a town’s cultural offering cannot overlook the importance of its night time economy. It’s no secret that the ongoing closures of Croydon’s late night venues have left a hole. It also begs the question of whether it’s even on the agenda for Croydon’s future.

BRGR&BEER’s Adam Jackowski says, “one reason people leave Croydon is its lack of nightlife. How about more clubs showcasing underground music?’ And he’s right. Isn’t underground music embedded in Croydon’s culture?

Croydon’s Big Apple Records was the birthplace of dubstep. In fact, this week, producer, DJ and one third of Magnetic Man, Artwork, is hosting a Big Apple Records reunion; all the old pioneers together again bringing back the tracks that birthed an entire musical movement. But this event is not taking place in Croydon; it’s being held in east London’s XOYO.

Why? Croydon does not have the events spaces that other parts of London do. Imagine what a venue like Brixton’s Jamm or Peckham’s CLF Arts Café could do for the late night scene here, or how it might give a platform to the town’s next generation of rising stars.

The arrival of Boxpark cemented a wave of change in terms of Croydon’s events calendar and has given opportunities to many up and coming artists. “The big events have brought in people from far and wide who have never been to Croydon before. Boxpark alone can’t do or offer everything Croydon needs, though”, says its creator and CEO Roger Wade. He points out that “Boxpark Croydon can only hold twelve major events per year outside of the weekly events calendar, so where are the other events in Croydon? You’ve got artists like Stormzy and Krept and Konan coming out of Croydon – you need to embrace that”.

It’s generally agreed that Croydon Council is not doing enough to support the night time economy. “They should be doing more to entice people to set up businesses and improve the night time offering”, suggests Adam. “I’d love to see our town centre night time economy become vibrant again”, adds Esther, ”but this can only be achieved through diverse offerings supported by the licensing authorities”.

When I put this to Paula Murray, she is already aware of the concerns and believes that the council has good intentions. “Croydon’s night time economy has suffered and that is something we want to improve. It’s about offering a variety of opportunities for people of different ages.”

Saif points out that “there seems to be too much emphasis on pop-up and one-off events and not enough focus on long-term, sustainable initiatives. I would favour funding being spent nurturing grass roots talent and independents. Not enough is done to help incubate and support the next Stormzy, David Bowie or David Lean”.

It’s watch-this-space in terms of what Croydon’s nightlife might look like in the future. But ignoring it is not an option. Maybe the future does lie in the hands of the next generation.

Croydon is the most densely populated borough in London in terms of young people”, says Paula. “We want to motivate them through internships, volunteer work, and arts programmes. Winning the bid would certainly have been a massive boost for Croydon. There are other boroughs in London that have already had funding opportunities that Croydon hasn’t.”

But should Croydon be looking over the fence to spy on the neighbours? Should we not rather be embracing what makes us special and celebrating it, creating platforms to encourage us to engage with and support our cultural community?

Paula and the team behind the Croydon bid absolutely have their hearts in the right place. They want to see Croydon thrive during a time of rapid change and they want us to be proud of our home. No, we didn’t win London Borough of Culture for 2019, but the campaign to boost Croydon’s cultural development has been bolstered by local pride and determination.

“The future is bright”, beams Esther. “The process of putting together the bid has brought those of us in creative endeavours together, and forged partnerships and networks. There’s political will to see creativity across the borough supported, and Fairfield is set to once more be a world-class venue. And, hey, we got sass! Croydon vs. the world!”

Saif adds that it’s Croydon’s selection of local projects that’s helping to put it on the map. “There’s so much variety on offer, in and beyond the town centre, from open mic to board games, poetry nights to literary festivals, street parties to art galleries – not just for residents but people who travel here from far and wide.”

Croydon is on the up. We’re pulling in the right direction and we’re learning as we go. It might be a while before we have things exactly as we hope they’ll be, but the wheels are in motion. We could have sat by and waited for the redevelopment of Fairfield Halls, or the slow, clunking ambitions of Westfield and Hammerson, but we didn’t. We saw an opportunity and we seized it. We set up arts spaces, creative hubs, charities, festivals, workshops, and an independent newspaper. We do what Croydon does best – we hold onto hope and we keep pushing forward.

Croydon’s strength is in its differences. “I’ve never known anywhere like it”, says Paula. “It’s in everything, even the architecture. Where else can you attend Diwali celebrations and a Pride festival in one day?”

We’re not perfect but we’re self-aware. And just like before, we’re going to keep fighting the good fight, because if anyone can do it, Croydon can.

This feature was first published in The Croydon Citizen on 28 February 2018. Congratulations to Waltham Forest and Brent, the London Borough of Culture winners for 2019 and 2020, respectively.