One year on from the riots in Croydon, London Road is a very different place. Of the shops that were damaged, half have been demolished and not replaced with anything as yet. Of the other half, most of those are now being run by new owners or are vacant and for lease. Very few old faces still remain.
Those still there are long-term small business owners, in the same premises they have operated from for many years. They speak of friendly locals and being part of the community, serving the community and even providing a community service. But they also speak of what they believe to be the inevitability of more anti-social behaviour in the area.
Bharat Shah is co-owner of Jays Electrical Wholesalers at 357 London Road. He has run this business from the same premises for 28 years.
Shah said: “Crime has increased since the riots occurred last year. It has been increasing for the last few years. Croydon’s name has been tarnished and it will take at 4- 5 years I think for it to improve. When people think of Croydon, that’s what they think of.”
“People are staying away from this area and it has definitely affected business. Business was a bit slow for the first two or three months after the riots, but things are pretty much back to normal now.”
Shah said he was quite lucky that his store was not severely destroyed during the riots. His stock, which is often bought by local tradesman, was not that desirable for thieves so not a lot was taken; but broken glass and other damage did cost the business £11,000 in claims.
When asked about how quickly the business was able to get running again, Shah said it was running from the day that damage occurred.
“We made a good effort to get back into line quickly, in fact we traded on the day it happened, and probably the day after we were trading reasonably well. By the second or third day our glass was fixed and after a week or 10 days were were going alright. Our insurance people were very good and our claim was settled in two weeks.”
“We are well known in the area, especially me personally because I have been here so long. If old ladies in the community might want batteries changed in their radio, they bring their radio in. People come for empty boxes if they are moving, any little things. We always help them. I think Croydon Council don’t realise that shops like us are still required in local areas and just how vital these local businesses are in providing these social services.”
Shah said matter-of-factly: “This whole street is made up of small businesses owned and run by immigrants. We generally are very good and hard workers. The day after the riots happened I told myself, ‘no I’m not going to let them win and will therefore work even harder’ – and everyone here did the same.”
Shah’s neighbour at 359 London Road was Vino Vita convenience store. While the store has had the front glass repaired and the store restocked, the day before I spoke to Puventhisan Chelliah, 21, employee for 6 years of Vino Vita Croydon, new owners had taken over the business and the store had a new name.
Though this can be seen as a positive outcome for all businesses in the area, Chelliah said there were a number of potential new owners that were deterred from taking over the store. The new owners visited the new store every evening for six months before going ahead with the sale.
Like Jays Electrical, Vino Vita saw a big downturn in trade in the first few months after the riots occurred, but since then things have picked up and returned to comparatively normal trade.
Chelliah said: “Very friendly people here. Of course not all are good, but 90% are good. The new owners got to know these people who come regularly to the store over time and it’s for this reason they decided to go ahead with the purchase.”
Things are not all back to normal even though, from the outside, the store looks fresh, clean and well stocked. Chelliah said: “When we came the next day after the riots we were crying, we were sad because it was all empty. All of the expensive stuff was gone.” They now only stock much cheaper lines of alcohol and the £150 bottles of Cristal no longer sit on the top shelf.
“The store was completely emptied. Everything was taken except for some laundry products. There was mess everywhere. The front windows broken. We did not want to take a loan or lose our customers so we fixed things up as we could afford to do with our own money. Insurance did pay, but not the full amount to cover the £40,000 of damage to the store.”
Chelliah said he will miss the customers he knows so well, but even though he has been asked to stay on permanently by the new owners, after the two-month transition period he will most likely apply for a job at Tesco or Sainburys.
Chelliah said he hopes, in the future, to open his own store but in somewhere other than London. He spoke enthusiastically of some cities in UK where stores do not have heavy shutters protecting their shopfronts because they don’t require them. He would like to live and run a store in a town like that.
Tesco Supermarket at 369-373 London Road, is only a few doors up from both Jays Electrical and the former Vino Vita. Its windows were smashed during the riots and goods stolen. Shah from Jays Electrical said: “only a few months ago it was robbed late at night at gun-point.” The casual way he tells it suggests this has happened many times before.
For many people, the image of London Road that was most recognisable during the riots was the burnt out shell of numbers 258 and 256, formerly Greyhound Motors, and a three-story building including Crystal Clean launderette. One year on the site has been cleared and a cheery mural painted on the timber boards that hem in the area. Large information boards inform that the council is working with the owners to decide what to do with the site, but this is still undecided.
A few doors down, the property that housed Barnes, Harrild & Dyer is still a work in progress. A large skip sits out the front 76 London Road and the building is empty and free of signage.
The building on the corner of London and Oakfield Roads was a Albemarle Bond pawnbroker and had a number of safes full of gold and valuables buried under tonnes of rubble when damage caused by riotors caused the building to collapse. The valuables were not able to be recovered until months after the riots. The store moved close by and the building has been left vacant, still requiring repair. The Age UK charity shop at 158 London Road, is vacant and signed to let.
Carl Nielsen, 60, co-director of music store Rockbottom, has operated his business from the same 68-70 London Road premises for over 36 years. His premises was so badly damaged that it took until April this year to get the business up and running again. The recession has only compounded problems and Nielsen foresees further anti-social behaviour in Croydon, though he would prefer this wasn’t the case.
Also a resident above his store until a few years ago, Nielsen said the riots that occurred last year was not a surprise for him. So confident Nielsen was of something of this nature happening, he contacted his insurance broker 6 months before the August 8 riot to make sure he was covered in the event of a riot.
He said: “My insurance guy asked me if I was joking but I told him I was serious and to make sure I was completely covered for everything because I could feel the tension in the air. When you have been in this area for as long as I have, you just know.”
“It was only a matter of time and it will happen again. Youth unemployment continues to rise, gangs operate in this area and there are a lot of illegal immigrants who are involved with the drug trade. There were two murders just up the road this past week but you wouldn’t have read about them in the papers. They want to keep them out of the media during the Olympics.”
“On August 8, I might close up the shop and go home early. It wouldn’t take much to ignite tensions and riots will happen again, it’s just when.”