This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen https://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/boxpark-quickie-more-meaningful/
The Croydon Citizen recently published my not-entirely-complimentary review of Meat Liquor in Boxpark. As the review states, I was conscious that I was being harsher on the place than I would have been had it been a stand-alone venture somewhere else in Croydon. Away from Boxpark, I’d probably have scored it with three or four stars. I gave some thought to my reasons for this, and found myself reflecting more generally on Boxpark and what it brings to Croydon.
Before I continue, I should state that I’m a small investor in the Street Feast group. As well as a vested interest, though, this gives me some awareness of what street markets offer and the reasons that they can work so well. The key to a great street market is that its individual outlets are not meant to be considered simply in and of themselves, but as part of a wider leisure experience. So you go to Meat Liquor Croydon not just to experience Meat Liquor, but to ‘do Boxpark’: to #eatdrinkplay, as the hashtag goes. It’s all about context: grab some wings from one place, then have a beer. Wander over and have a pizza with a glass of wine. Make your own smorgasbord with your mates so that everyone gets a taste. This is how the venue gets repeat custom: people want to go back to try new things, because the venue works as a leisure venue.
And the problem for me with Croydon’s Boxpark is that I just don’t want to stay (let alone play) after wolfing down a burger, wings or whatever. Boxpark Shoreditch does make me want to hang around: it has places to just drink, which are better insulated against the cold and have a much better variety of drinks than those that are available in Croydon.
The layout of Croydon’s Boxpark is draughty. More importantly still, it doesn’t facilitate, let alone encourage, easy moving about the site, or standing and chatting with mates over a variety of drinks, as the Street Feast portfolio does. Doing so can end up as quite an expensive experience but it’s inherently social: you feel inclined to spend time. It’s rather like a night out in Soho; get some food then drink four cocktails over a few hours chatting to mates.
In Boxpark Croydon, the booze-only options are not particularly impressive in their line-up and/or are badly placed. My beloved Cronx Bar is on the outside so that it might as well be a separate boozer, and can’t be accessed from inside Boxpark at all. And don’t get me started on how it’s clearly not designed with either child or disabled access in mind. I have two active young kids and due to sports injuries I’m on crutches for a few weeks of the year. The floors are slippery, the tables too close together, the seats are uncomfortable and the doors very heavy.
There are those draughts to contend with, and the sound of a crowd bounces off all the hard surfaces, meaning that you have to shout to be heard… and that’s before the music plays, as it continuously does. It’s like being at a stadium, but a stadium without the major attraction. Palace doesn’t play here and the gigs are irregular. Boxpark therefore is not particularly well designed for me.
Maybe it will be better in the summer when outdoor drinking on the upper deck seems appealing, but the multiple delays in opening mean that I’ve only seen it on wet, dark, cold autumn and winter evenings.
If Boxpark reminds me of anything, it’s a high quality shopping mall food court of the sort you find in the US. This isn’t a standard British dining experience. There’s lots of choice, and much of the food is high quality. But it’s been plonked on the edge of a building site, which, when combined with brand attributes such as shipping containers/steel/exposed materials that are clearly designed to make it feel ‘edgy’, create the impression of a place designed as a twenty minute wolfed-down pitstop, rather than as a 21st century leisure destination.
I’m happy to admit that I’m not its target demographic, since I both live in Sutton and have been overexposed to the brand after six years of working in Shoreditch. Still, I’ve been disappointed on my four visits since it opened. I also don’t buy into the idea that it will help to create a positive reputation for Croydon as a tourist destination, due to the core nature of the product. If I travel into Croydon, it’s for meeting mates from different parts of London and the south east: finding something not available in Sutton, or because I can’t be bothered to go (back, as I’m a city boy) to zones 1 and 2. Comfort and longevity are important. If I’m investing a fair whack of cash I want to be able to hear my mates and feel like I can sit and chat for a few hours in comfort. Boxpark doesn’t tick these boxes.
If I might end with a crude analogy; Boxpark is full of outlets that offer hot, sticky, salty fun and provide a short term high. It’s fine in short, ahem, spurts, but it’s a naughty thrill that fades from the memory. I loved that sort of thing in my twenties, but now that I’ve settled down, have kids and have moved away from Croydon, I don’t need to make long journeys for a dirty food booty call.
This is probably why everyone else in the joint was ten years younger than me and having fun. Good for them.