Artist wins rent-free gallery in street she once called home

Elizabeth James outside her rent-free gallery premises. Pic: Foster Niumata

Winning a competition to open a new shop with free rent for a year has brought Elizabeth James back to her roots.

The competition was run by Croydon Council to refurbish and fill Nos. 10, 14 and 16 Portland Road in South Norwood with budding entrepreneurs, and James was the first to open this week.

Two days after the launch which packed her self-named art gallery with family, friends and councillors, she was still buzzing.

“I lived my childhood here,” she said on Friday.

Not in No. 10 exactly, but No. 21, across the street and to the right. From her gallery, she can easily see the window of what was her bedroom in the 1980s and 90s, until she left at 21.

No. 10 was an off-licence as she grew up, then a computer repairs store, then sat empty for years. When she came to see the shops for the council competition, she said “my heart just broke.”

“Portland Road is not how it was when I was growing up. The shops were brand-new looking and cared for, and loved, and lived in. It was vibrant. Now, it’s a little sad looking.

“South Norwood has still got a heartbeat, still got a community vibe. If I can do anything to make it a little bit better then I will.”

The street where Elizabeth James grew up. Pic: Foster Niumata

Opening the gallery is a start. The shops are part of Croydon Council’s plans to regenerate and boost business in the area around South Norwood High Street.

No. 14 was won by Rob Swain, who plans to host art exhibitions and book launches, and sell art, clothing, books, records, and coffee.

Eva Cammarata, who lives only an eight-minute walk away, plans to open her first shop in No. 16 by mid January.

She produces fashion collections, mainly in knitwear. She will also offer alteration services, machine knitting, courses, sewing, haberdashery products, and coffee, too. “I’m Italian, I make the best coffee ever,” she said.

They were among more than 50 applicants in the competition, which was shortlisted to 12.

Aside from the free rent, the council will also offer business guidance. James appreciated it. She sold online, but got a taste for a shop when she had a pop-up for a month. When that finished, she felt she was going backwards.

“It’s just hard work when you can’t show your stuff, and people can’t see what you’re about,” James said.

Cammarata understands the disconnect with customers from selling online. To actually see customers’ reaction to her wares and advice, will be priceless, she said.

James has wasted little time since opening. She has already lined up live art shows with other artists, organised workshops, and had one of her art pieces reserved.

She wants to give local schoolkids a chance to exhibit, and hire out space for others to show off their talents.

That, said Croydon councillor Paul Scott, was what the competition set out to encourage.

“There are so many people living around here who are crying out for a wider selection of quality shops and businesses,” Scott said, “and this project will really help in starting to make that happen.”

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