South Norwood

March 2, 2011

London bridge was the departure point for the trip to South Norwood, the location of what is to be London’s foremost glass building (The Shard, one wonders what Wren would make of the crystal spires now adorning the London skyline) and our destination was the locality of what was the largest glass building in the world at the time, The Crystal Palace.

Upon arrival, the station was in a state of flux, paint was being thinned and stripped and the orange of the Overground was being applied. South Norwood has joined the official London transport network.

The high street was away from the station up a short street that led to a clock tower in the middle of the road between a hardware store and Somerfields. Stretching out left and right was the high street. The high street was busy. Trucks carrying building materials/debris and buses rolled by on their way to somewhere else. This did not appear to be their destination. The main bus stops were off the high street next to some high-rise housing blocks, again reflecting the lack of space or feeling of destination on the high street. The high street had a distinct feeling of a place of movement, not somewhere to loiter or unwind. Acceleration-deceleration.

The businesses that lined the road had the bare minimum pavement space to accommodate pedestrians while the traffic split the space into two streets that did not feel connected. Prominent businesses had closed, a Honda dealership was empty and the local Blockbuster was no more. Maybe the local residents have an extreme propensity for digital piracy or the brick and mortar business model for many services is being destroyed by the Internet. What will take its place? Maybe a purveyor of fried chicken, the nation’s new favorite restaurant experience ( http://bit.ly/gqQrIs ).

The high street had the usual fare of newsagents and banks but there were a considerable number of location specific services. These seemed to cater for an Afro-Caribbean community mainly in the form of food outlets and hairdressers. The walk along the high street lead to a fork, one leading to a recognisable form of residential suburbia whilst the other lead over a bridge, across the tracks. The remnants of ‘Police Crime Scene’ tape was tied to the fence. We crossed the tracks and the road winded down the hill unassumingly, except for a strange 18ft steel column besides the road side with no indication of function.

Back to the residential fork. The mixture of styles and periods of the housing was remarkable. This may have something to do with the area being in the flight path of the V2 rockets during WWII. The ones that didn’t make it to their target in the centre of London ended up here. On the horizon the crystal palace television mast stood over the landscape, visible from nearly every street. The houses were in many cases undergoing some kind of refurbishment, new drives, and new extensions. Some decaying, some preened, no coherency. A jumble sale of architectural styles and personal preferences.

Through our wondering we arrived at the Crystal Palace football ground (the new Crystal Palace) unassumingly set amongst the residential streets. The away fans ticket booths looked like gun turrets, just enough room for a hand to reach through, for home fans they were somewhat less defensive, larger windows, more welcoming.

Back to the other end of the high street. A modernist treasure awaited, the South Norwood Library. Pure function. Stained Concrete and flaking steel. Modernism has not aged well. The building literally labeled ‘LIBRARY’ in bold, black metal lettering. On the floor outside was a millennial mosaic from 2006 A.D. All the local landmarks were accounted for; the town hall, churches, boating lake, tower blocks and television mast. This library is earmarked for closure due to the cuts and the local community had organized a march. Maybe the ‘Big Society’ is not quite what they intended.

We made our way through South Norwood station to the other half of the town centre that is bisected by the train lines. Residential dominated apart from the street that led under the bridge connecting to the main high street that had numerous retail and service businesses along the road. Again this was a road-centric street, wide and busy with traffic that did not seem to be at its destination. More flow than capacity and a world passing through.

The area spoke of both place and placelessness. While there was very clearly a large residential population there did not appear to be the provision of space in the local area for the residents to congregate and share any kind meaningful collective space. This was an area that appeared at the mercy of the road, not the pavement. The notion of town centre did not seem to apply here. It was a funnel for movement and functional street side offerings. The urban buzz in South Norwood was that of the internal combustion engine.

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