Were we just imagining it, or was the crackling muzak in the Whitgift Centre really playing a version of Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’? Perhaps it was someone’s idea of a joke. Meanwhile, KEN TOWL has gone all Bob Cratchit on us and checked out Croydon’s venerable shopping mall to see what business there is like on what could prove to be its … last Christmas
It is a truth previously acknowledged that the high street is in a bad way. That appears only too true for the Whitgift Centre, Croydon’s 1960s-built shopping mall which might, just, be trading at Christmas for the final time this year.
I’d got off the tram in George Street and entered the shell of Allders, now a sad and partly desolate “outlet” centre where dresses are marked down to £3, and the mannequins modelling them posed in a way that did not allow for much modesty.
What was once a proud department store on four floors is now reduced to a few traders operating just on the ground level.
Wherever you look, there are empty spaces, and empty space is to the retail sector what dead air is to the radio. You could use this place as a location for a zombie movie.
Allders expired in 2012, a year after the riots that blackened Croydon’s name and put off a lot of shoppers. But the sales go on. It is a ghostly place now, where the rotting floors are patched with masking tape and displays of marked down brightly coloured plastic goods block stairways to the empty floors above and below.
In December 2018, the ghost of Christmas past haunts the Whitgift Centre.
Now that the council has served notices on landowners with compulsory purchase orders, the Westfield development is due to go ahead, with the demolition work to start in the Whitgift Centre next year. It’s been a long time coming.
The proposals are ambitious – see the Croydon Partnership’s “Vimeo” for a typically airbrushed vision of futuristic development, with crash test dummies wandering around a streamlined mall looking, no doubt, for the sort of aspirational leisure activities that we will all consider our birthright in a future best of all possible worlds.
The ghosts of Christmas yet to come.
More information about the plans is tucked away in a display on the second floor of the Whitgift Centre, at the top of the escalator, just by the toilets. Here we learn, as if we did not know, that the 1960s Whitgift Centre “no longer meets the needs and aspirations of retailers or shoppers”.
There’s been little money spent on maintenance work over the past six or seven years or so, especially since the Westfield scheme was announced. No one thought that they would keep Croydon waiting for quite this long, though.
The roof over the centre has been leaking for years and buckets and “Caution: Wet Floor” signs have become seemingly permanent features. Bored guards lean over the balconies and stare down at the occasional passerby. The overall impression is one of needs and aspirations unmet.
I cross over North End to have a look at Centrale, the slightly more upmarket (I feel I am damning with faint praise here) sister shopping centre (this owned by Hammerson, the other half of the Croydon Partnership). This is where, according to the display in the Whitgift, “many of the existing shops… can move during the redevelopment”, so I take a look to see if there is room for such a retail migration. There is room.
There are more eerily empty spaces in Centrale. The two elves employed to shepherd children into Santa’s grotto chat to each other in front of the optimistically long and totally empty queuing area.
The surreal world of the commercial estate agent is exposed in the great empty space that links Debenhams to Centrale’s main stairwell.
“The start of something beautiful”, say the signs. This space appears to have been envisaged as some kind of food hall, offering the variety of exotic fare from around the world that we of the Croydon liberal elite have come to expect. A sort of prequel to Boxpark. It did not work out that way and, instead, every single unit is covered by a board asking “See this as an attractive leisure space?”
It is apparent that for a long time no one has.
If, however, you do, perhaps you should drop Woody at Bruce Gillingham Pollard a line. I am sure he would be delighted to get a response to his enquiry. You can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a happier note, I manage to tick another present off my Christmas list in Debenhams. (all I am saying is that the range of socks is excellent).
So, enough of this humbuggery. A merry Christmas to our loyal reader. God bless us every one.
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