Why Croydon is the perfect setting for Banksy's new installation
World-famous street artist Banksy has caused a stir in London this week after a new installation popped up in the southern borough of Croydon. A shop front on one of the town’s main thoroughfares, Church Street, now holds the name "Gross Domestic Product" and its windows display a collection of new and familiar pieces by the anonymous artist.
There’s a crib surrounded by CCTV cameras, a rug seemingly made from the body of kids' cereal character, Tony the Tiger, and a bullet-proof vest painted with a Union Jack, famously worn by Stormzy – a Croydon born-and-bred grime artist – at this year’s Glastonbury festival.
The shop will be open for a few weeks before an online auction is set to take place, where Banksy will sell off each of the pieces on display to raise money for a new migrant rescue boat to be sent to the Mediterranean.
On the surface, this is an exciting time for Croydon – it’s a town that’s perpetually been the butt of many a joke (Croydon facelift, anyone?), and has often been associated with dangerous gang violence. So having such a high-profile artist help shine a light on the area is a thrill for those of us that live here – myself included – but few of us are surprised. We’ve long known about the virtues of this dynamic south London town, and so to us it makes total sense that Banksy would want to get in on the creative action.
Street art was a "thing" here long before Banksy arrived in Croydon. We’ve already got stunning pieces by the likes of Phlegm, whose Dali-esque paintings grace the walls of many buildings across the UK, and Brighton-born Dotmasters. In 2018, there was a street art festival where creatives from across the world came to paint permanent and temporary pieces across the town’s concrete buildings, and the local Rise Gallery has long been a proponent of the local art scene.
Croydon has been flying under the radar for some time, harbouring – unbeknownst to many Londoners – a glorious creative scene, with local initiatives like the Art Club, where locals can bring their own materials and get inspired in a collaborative environment, and music collectives like the Croydon Composers. Plus, there are scores of music venues large and small. My own local pub, the homely Oval Tavern, has an incredibly varied programme of music and entertainment, and recently the old Fairfield Halls concert venue reopened after a multi-million pound renovation.
Inaugurated by the Queen Mother in 1962, Fairfield has an illustrious history. Stevie Wonder, Genesis, Pink Floyd and The Beatles were among the artists to perform here during the venue’s heyday, and live albums were recorded thanks to its exceptional acoustics. But its programming gradually declined, and the Brutalist behemoth of a building eventually closed in 2016 for a much-needed makeover. It now has more performance spaces than ever before, a piano academy and is hosting the likes of the Royal Philharmonic, Jimmy Carr and the London Mozart Players.
It’s all of this that makes us Croydonites shout so loud – there is no quiet civic pride here, we wear t-shirts that say ‘Croydon vs the world’ on them and drink from mugs that boast ‘Croydoners do it better’.
But there’s another reason Banksy’s installation is so pertinent here. Development in Croydon is spreading fast, with modern tower blocks going up full of "affordable" housing (the majority of Croydon’s residents will be priced out), and new ground being broken all the time. Plus, there’s the looming promise of a Westfield shopping mall in the town centre, which has already shut down a vast number of commercial spaces to make way for the shiny new structure.
All of this might sound like positive growth, sure to boost Croydon's own "gross domestic product", but it's also a threat to the creative institutions that have thrived here over the years. We all know the toll gentrification can take on grass-roots enterprises. Croydon’s town centre is a shadow of its former self, with boarded up shops and half-empty malls lying in wait for a developer to come along and spruce things up.
But, while Croydon’s future seems uncertain in the face of all this progress, one thing’s for sure: creativity flows through this town, and regardless of what happens with the shops and tower blocks, it will continue to thrive through the locals long after Banksy’s store has closed down.
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