Text by James Hendrix Elsey /// Images by Kashif Sharma-Patel
“… this microscopic world is cycling nutrients from the compost materials into a form that the plants in our gardens can easily assimilate, and holding them in the soil until the plants need them. Of all the soil organisms the worm is the one that we all recognise as invaluable for creating a healthy soil, and it does indeed possess almost miraculous powers – both the compost-dwelling species and the larger soil dwellers – but in fact it is the whole complex web of life in the soil that is kept vibrant by regular additions of compost.”
P15, Nicky Scott, How to Make and Use Compost. 2021, Green Books, Cambridge
If history is cyclical, then it appears we’ve been here before. Unemployment, fuel and product shortages, and cuts to local authorities presided over by a deeply conservative state mean that there is a narrow range of possibility to break out of vicious cycles of decay. But things in 2021 are unique in other ways. The death of the high street is a phrase we are all becoming used to hearing in the media and witnessing firsthand. Online shopping, pandemic closures, and economic austerity are all bearing down on the centres of our communities and leaving behind an empty husk.
Once upon a time, you could always observe a certain turnover of businesses on any street, with newer ones stepping into the gaps to replace the old. The Past and Present of London Road is a wonderfully informative blog demonstrating this phenomenon, evocatively chronicling the comings and goings along this street in West Croydon. But things began to really deteriorate in recent decades, particularly following the 2007/08 financial crisis, when the mammoth chain Woolworths went extinct. These large species of commercial retailers fell into ecosystem collapse: BHS, Debenhams, Topshop, HMV, Toys R Us were gone even before the pandemic. People were already buying more stuff online, and the threat of covid transmission accelerated this move away from in-person shopping even further.
But in Croydon the death of the high street feels like something which arrived a long time ago. This was largely due to the deep feeling of commercial uncertainty propagated by the £1.4 billion Westfield & Hammerson redevelopment project of the Centrale and Whitgift Centres, which after ten years of erring, has just this summer had the kibosh. My first job as a 16 year old was working in House of Fraser in the Centrale Shopping Centre. It helped give me enough cash to have driving lessons and turn up for sixth form in very extra suits I bought from the Menswear Department. Walking through Centrale now, it feels like a very different place more than a decade later, this once thriving department store hanging on by a thread, barely spared from the latest round of closures all round the country. The Whitgift Centre, by comparison, is a place where an actual tumbleweed rolling past wouldn’t seem out of place these days. There is a melancholy in the shadow of a place I would once spend lunchtimes in the early noughties eating M&S sandwiches on the upper tier steps with my mother, shopping as a day’s pastime. This text, however, is not a lament to the ailing retail sector, whose death I feel patent indifference towards.
What I instead want to show is the moment of opportunity that now exists, to transition from a dying model whereby the centre of our communities is organised around commerce, to something fundamentally different.
Deep-seated urban decay
In popular use, the connotations of the term urban decay are pretty negative: suggesting a deterioration in the fabric of society which our metropolitan centres are woven. But to some extent, decay is a generative process, one in which resources are made available for the new to reappropriate from the old. I like to think of cities as a social ecosystem, in which people organise and live in co-dependence much like organisms in the natural world, with flows of energy and materials moving between bodies to keep each other alive. Whilst researching the term, I noticed an annual cyclicity to interest in the term: each year, Google searches for urban decay have peaked in the fallow winter months of November and December, presumably when the ennui of living in Britain’s cities reaches its greatest sullen intensity.
The biologist Lynn Margulis advocates an understanding of adaptation leaning towards ‘symbiogenesis’, a system of serpentine, non-linear evolutionary pressures between different lifeforms based on co-dependence. In other words, lifeforms evolve to fulfill functions to one another, they can only exist in relation to others and in respect to the position they inhabit on food chains, down to the metabolic entwinement that forms our cells:
“First, a sulphur and heat-loving kind of bacterium, called a fermenting “archaebacterium (or “thermoacidophil”), merged with a swimming bacterium. Together the two components of the integrated merger became the nucleocytoplasm, the basic substance of the ancestors of animal, plant, and fungal cells.”
P34-35 Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet. 1998. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Decay is an important part of these circuits of ecological codependence, whereby detritivores like fungi, worms, maggots and flies break down the chemical structures of dead flora and fauna, redispersing these nutrients to cycle back round again. Anyone with experience gardening or tending an allotment will be familiar with the multitude of benefits that a rich compost can bring to their soils: finding use for organic discards like egg-shells, coffee grinds, and potato peels to promise more bounteous crops of marrows, carrots or chard the following year. The important thing is throwing all the elements into a bin and essentially leaving them to their own devices under cover of darkness.
The idea that cities are places where these types of mutual codependence forms a large network is finding its way into our understanding of cultural production. I like Dhanveer Sing Brar’s framing in Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski: The Sonic Ecologies of Black Music in the 21st Century, exploring the networks of black culture in 21st century urban environs. In particular, Brar discusses the experimental electronic musician Actress, and how the environment of Crystal Palace finds its way into his music: Actress, he writes, “produces music through the tracking of the complex totality of people’s lives in relation to the environment in which they move.” [Dhanveer Singh Brar, Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski. 2021, London: Goldsmiths Press] However, with a blind eye to its long history of innovation, Croydon’s fertile cultural production risks being sanitised, whether through overt types of regulation like the recently defunct 696 forms (which made it extremely difficult to get a licence for a grime, bashment or garage night), or covert through corporate tastemaking of Boxpark.
The one time I tried to keep a compost heap was the one year I had a garden, in a small flat I was renting with some friends in Peckham. Thinking of such promises to come, I studiously filled a compost bin up with kitchen scraps, whilst impatiently opening the lid every few days to see if it was usable yet. It was almost as if my rush to cash in on the proceeds was informed by a nagging feeling of precarity: indeed before I could, our landlords had sold the flat and we were shunted into another rental property without a garden. I had to throw it all in the bin.
Precarity is a common affect across tenants in an overheated property market. The constant feeling that you’ll be turfed out and made to renegotiate your right to exist encourages the kind of short-term payoffs of dumping out the half-digested compost before it has had a chance to stew. This is inimical to taking cultural risks, to producing innovation and to give projects the patience they need to bear complex fruit. Feeling your own position is at risk is a mindset which fosters risk-averse behaviour: it really all boils down to rent. If your rent is high, you will take fewer risks, being forced to make decisions which reflect tried-and-tested ways of servicing your finances. For culture, this takes a subtle effect, ramifying into the types of curatorial, artistic, sonic conservatism, in imagining the audience and fulfilling their already existing desires, instead of feeling empowered to meet the audiences on a speculative basis.
I have seen first-hand whole creative swathes of London bloom and wither, as the topsoil nourishing them turned out to be thin and depleted swiftly. When I did my art foundation, I would pester friends to wander around East London with me in wide-eyed awe, on one of the monthly First Thursdays, in which a rash of gallery openings spread across the free maps, we would wander between private views seeing some very different and genuinely eclectic exhibitions. It felt that there was a sort of critical density around Vyner Street, just by the canal in Cambridge Heath, where they coalesced mere metres from each other. Since then, these have mostly vanished, scattered to the four winds to other parts of London or simply snuffed out by rising rents. It is hard sometimes to deny the more cynical viewpoint that many hold in accusations that artists are the avante-garde of gentrification, redeployed to somewhere else to help cultivate the harvests that it seems landlords solely reap, all the while displacing poorer, usually diasporic communities. Celebrity strategist Richard Florida has made a lucrative career on the speaking circuit advising municipalities of the financial advantages the so-called ‘Creative Class’ can confer [Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class became the blueprint for culture-led urban ‘regeneration’ projects throughout Europe and North America in the past two decades]. Not always so cynical, I believe that artists deserve a place in society, and helping to solidify their staying power in one place helps to challenge the repetitive cycle of this shifting border. But this requires robust planning, and policies which allow Croydon’s grassroots creative scene to have autonomy and the ability to endure where other places have failed.
Right now things, unfortunately, are precarious for most creative organisations. ‘Meanwhile spaces’ exemplify this existential fear, that their future in the ecosystem is contingent on the tolerance of apex predators like property developers and corporate property holders who see a temporary value in their ability to lend cultural capital to areas they hope to raise the profile of. Meanwhile spaces, to give a potted definition, are ‘temporary contracts that allow community groups, small businesses or individuals to move into these vacant spaces and set up shop, on the understanding that they will leave within an allotted time’. But this insecurity means that the certain options available to these inhabitants are reduced. The effects of this fear of being shunted out is expressed by a participant in the More than Meanwhile Spaces Report by Newcastle University and the NewBridge Project: “moving every four, five years, doesn’t really give us time to make any progress on the things we’re supposed to be doing as artists”[P12]. The hopes of cultural spaces to enjoy long-term or permanent homes usually comes into direct conflict with the interests of landlords to retain the ability to liquidate their property portfolio.
My first times going out dancing were in Black Sheep Bar. A wonderful and weird place with a mutant combination of subcultural hybrids: a pantheistic assembly of subcultures would coalesce in this dark and smelly club. I took it for granted at the time, assuming this unlikely confluence of peoples was the norm elsewhere. It was seedy, queer, where merry bands of outlaws could swill their snakebites, and the antithesis of TigerTiger’s anodyne dominance. It was the tail end of the dubstep years, when many of Croydon’s producers and DJs would peddle their homegrown sound just down the road from Surrey Street Market. Amongst the piles of fruit and veg, this fecund ground birthed an internationally savoured musical genre. The seeds were sowed just nearby, Big Apple records was a record shop back in the early noughties that provided the catalyst for the formation of the dubstep sound. Fermenting the earlier innovations of existing dub, garage and grime into something unmistakably south London was a process of digestive alchemy.
We are all growing old, always in a constant state of decay. All the cosmic wisdom of becoming long in the tooth is just something to get over and accept. When sheep closed about eight years ago, it dawned on me that my adolescent cultural experience was inexorably falling into the past tense, just as my parents tales from a bygone era. The normal consolation of reminding oneself of the exciting innovations of the next generation, the spring shoots and saplings poking out the muck. But in all honesty, there is little room for subcultures in Croydon nowadays. The informal, whimsical, and grassroots of years gone by is stifled by rising rent prices and a treadmill of cultural funding applications that require the recognition of bureaucratic elders for the right to exist.
Croydon council’s bankruptcy is a fact that must be acknowledged in this situation. Whilst advocating for de-commercialising city space, it seems a hard sell to ask the council to choose other options than to reintensify its bid to attract retailers to the area. But, just to reiterate, they aren’t coming back! Berlin, too, is a city whose past is marred with bankruptcy, facing a historical budgetary abyss following the reunification of Germany. They, too, had a huge surplus of derelict spaces which central authorities had no idea how to utilise. Over the past decades, a thriving DIY scene has reimagined these decaying places and positioned it as a central hub in art, music, and dance scenes. Nowadays, the city gains enormously from this influx of international visitors. None of this would be possible by prohibiting people the means of self-organising their creative production. This process of composting the city was not a short-term project, and requires a commitment to delayed gratification.
There is little metaphor needed for some of the ways that Croydon’s grassroots initiatives have reimagined spaces for collective good. Indeed, some of the most successful have been based around actual cultivation of the land. The Sensible Garden in South Norwood was formed by a community-led effort to reimagine a derelict and rubbish-strewn strip of land verging on some train tracks, into a local garden. Croydon’s etymological roots lie the Anglo-Saxon reference to its former landscape: ‘Croh Denu‘, meaning ‘crocus valley’. Taking cues from Croydon’s premodern economy, a pop-up crocus farm appeared in 2015, where volunteers helped with the first mass saffron harvest in the area since Roman times. The significance of this project’s success might lie in the fact that its funding was obtained by crowdsourcing – increasingly a powerful tool for grassroots agency.
Some cities are tabling options to literally compost their old shopping centres. Right now, the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham is in the process of being demolished. Like the Whitgift, it was built during the height of post-war retail utopianism, but has similarly been in a long running state of decline. Amongst the competing plans to reimagine the space is a radical plan with much public support to rewild the centrally located part of the city. There’s definitely a set of prospective benefits for creating a new public greenspace, but let’s go with the likely premise that this isn’t going to happen in Croydon anytime soon, and consider how we can rethink what goes on inside.
If it’s more the indoor spaces that are of relevance to this discussion, what is to become of the great whale carcasses of the shopping centres in Croydon? When a whale dies, its body creates a unique ecosystem of decay, with certain feeding species specially adapted to only those conditions. This gastronomic festival progresses through four stages, in which different lifeforms come to harvest the nutrients down to the bones lying on the seafloor. If you only cared about whales, this scene would be melancholy, but broadening your horizons to include the host of eelpouts, octupi, polychaete worms, hagfish, sleeper sharks, crustaceans, anthropods, and chemosynthesising bacteria, this event is truly an explosion of imaginative possibility.
Some possibilities for new species of inhabitant could hail from the collective economy. Lewisham Shopping Centre is host to this type of organisation, with Lewisham Toy Library providing children in the area with the ability to borrow toys in the way one might do a book. This model especially benefits the area’s residents on lower incomes who can’t necessarily afford to purchase lots of different toys according to their children’s whims, but also creates a network of goodwill and spirit of cooperation. This sharing economy is something which is often discussed in reference to online spaces, but really possesses no particular qualities to exclude it from bricks-and-mortar spaces. Seeing things from a purely commercial perspective, it would benefit existing businesses and the owners of shopping centres to increase footfall in the Whitgift centre by allowing some of the many, many empty units to be occupied by nonprofit community initiatives, regardless of whether they are paying rent to be there. As much as it goes against some of my sensibilities, there’s a case to be made that commercial interests in the Whitgift Centre and non-profit cultural spaces might find each other’s presence and success mutually advantageous, acting as symbiotes. Anything is better than all these vacant premises.
Up in Southwark, one community-led creative project is in it for the long-haul. Livesey Exchange is a project space founded by Nicholas Okwulu, with a new premises opening next year on a piece of ex-industrial land just off the Old Kent Road. Hoping to strike the balance between community fundraising and support from larger organisations, they are being proactive in staking a claim amongst the seemingly unstoppable tide of change in the area. With its planned “mix of accessible social, cultural and community space, it will serve to support the local community as the neighbourhood undergoes major regeneration”. The weekend I’m writing this, they’re holding an offsite exhibition, Permanent Temporary, which aims to engage with the ‘permanent state of temporariness, as rapid regeneration shifts the ground beneath our feet and spaces for making are taken away.’ Carefully leveraging a mix of sponsorship, public and crowd funding can provide a pathway for local creative communities to carve a permanent home for themselves, by mobilising enough financial resources to escape the meanwhile space cycle.
Out of sight
One of the big conundrums in all this is how with such a surfeit of free space, these subcultures in Croydon that were once thriving, still seem like they have nowhere to go. In fact many of Croydon’s cultural spaces have their niches becoming more inhospitable over time. We can talk about the necessity of being recognised as providing tangible benefits to the community, and how this value is in tension with the ability to not be recognised. Queer spaces embody this contradiction, and particularly their importance in historically providing a haven to those who were persecuted by the state. To claim we live in more enlightened times is also to ignore the erasure of queer subcultures in the borough – despite being London’s largest borough, there are no dedicated spaces, instead a fleeting, peripatetic circuit of bookings in pub function rooms is all on offer. A glimmer of Croydon’s 1993 Pride history reveals none of the mentioned venues still operate. In Gentrification of the Mind [Schulman, Sarah. 2012. The gentrification of the mind: witness to a lost imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press], writer Sarah Schulman chronicles the absence of memory of what a city can be. Writing about the amnesia relating to radical queer politics in American cities, the lack of this cultural memory narrows the window of what is deemed possible and acceptable in the present. It is clear that in the absence of any robust collective memory, Croydon risks forgetting more generally its unruly and culturally radical past.
It’s frustrating how much depends on the whims of those in power. Like me, nervously opening the lid of the compost bin, these gatekeepers have a similar impatience towards the culture they allocate resources to. Constantly looking in, demanding everything inside makes itself intelligible, is a disruption to the generative behaviour of people organising themselves into ways they themselves sometimes might not understand. Croydon’s stagnation is being perpetuated due to the developers’ monopoly on its central core, and is especially in thrall to these organisations. For grassroots community creative initiatives to be allowed to exist is, unfortunately, a matter of persuading these people to give them a chance. The White Pube propose a kind of decentralised, community-led system of organisation for arts funding and space provision: something which can help to remediate some of the stark differences that prevent people along axes of race, class and gender from access to a sustainable chance at art practice. Suggesting these aims are leveraged towards providing rent-free spaces is certainly advantageous to residents nearby to the Whitgift centre, who live on average, in some of the most deprived cohorts in the UK. Charging more than a peppercorn rent for creative space will invariably disadvantage local people in favour of those from elsewhere. Furthermore, the suggestion that removing the economic factor could fertilise the crop of creative production seems very plausible: “what it would do is free up valuable time & resources for the actual hard graft art’s meant to be doing.”
The radical proposition that culture should not have to be so answerable to the local authority, corporate chains, national gatekeepers of funding or least of all, building developers, and instead have the ability to lurk in the darkness of a compost heap is admittedly a radical one. But it’s a privilege we have only lost in recent decades as capitalisation of the property market, culture and our social lives turns the screws on its existence. But the crisis moment we live in provides glimmers of hope that things can be reimagined anew, with a view to both the past and the future, and I hope people feel empowered to organise things without permission, to set up spaces and projects that feel confusing, don’t make sense according to logics of financial accumulation or social status, that we can share in the collective joy of naive experimentation. Regeneration is the top-down micromanagement of cities and overdetermined placemaking that rarely lives up to contrived expectations; composting is our grassroots alternative – give communities the nutrients and they’ll reformat their own environment.
Philosopher Donna Haraway presents this idea of composting as a type of survival strategy for the time of collective crisis… “They are a buzzing, stinging, sucking swarm now, and human beings are not in a separate compost pile. We are humus, not Homo, not anthropos; we are compost, not posthuman.” … imploring us to collect trash of our present time, to start “chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”
You’re most likely accessing this text via Turf Projects, who are an artist-run space occupying one of the units in the Whitgift Centre, proving that this model is and can be successful. Allowing grassroots organisations to propagate, and be guaranteed a sustainable, assured future, will benefit Croydon for decades to come. Imagine a whole ecosystem of galleries, dance studios, live venues, theatres and affordable housing, radio stations, right in the centre of town. It would make Croydon the cultural centre of the country. If retail is dying, then what is there to lose? Let’s throw the scraps on the heap.
Many of the things now synonymous with Croydon, like shop closures, crime, and poverty are the visible outcomes of a failing model, where a certain type of retail ecosystem has gradually withered. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of central government, whose austerity policies mean that there is a fraction of the funding available to Croydon council to run statutory services like social housing, rubbish collection and caring for vulnerable members of the area. Being forced into tough decisions means there is a greater burden on the council to fund these services through attracting business to the area and doubling-down on the retail model. But there is still a longer-term trend to contend with, the fact that on an international level, retail is experiencing this seismic shift away from shop premises. Croydon council should instead seek to promote longer term, more sustainable types of activity in the area, which will anticipate trends of the 21st century, rather than attempting to keep things that worked in the 20th century on life-support. There is great value in allowing people the ability to self-organise their communities, away from the logics of top-down surveillance and funding applications, in that it, given time, produces genuinely innovative cultural forms.
This text was written as part of collaborative experimental project Propagate This.