Battles of heritage

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It’s been the most deliciously crisp autumn weekend down here in Crystal Palace; absolutely freezing, but wonderful blue skies. Given the horror expressed by family members and their friends up North London way when we told them we were flat-hunting in this neck of the woods,  the sense of being in the countryside couldn’t be more incongruous.

I’ll openly admit: when we moved to London, I picked Crystal Palace because it was pretty. I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian conversions– drafts, water lurching between hot and cold, and random heart-stopping creaks as the house moved about overnight like it was alive (or a burglar was prowling around as I more commonly think) are, thanks to growing up in a 300 year old toll house, necessary for a home. New builds, with their insulation and perfect squareness freak me out no end. It was the wealth of old houses here that meant I dragged my fiancee into ten different estate agents until we found someone to give a viewing of a flat that afternoon, not any consideration of the history of the area. And the sheer number of drinking spots of course….

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I’d heard about the palace but never really considered it much past an observational “Ah, yes, this is where it must have been!”. The obsessive archaeologist within me however, was not entirely impressed with my energy being expended entirely on cushion arranging and after one too many times manically scrubbing the bathroom sink on yet another unemployed afternoon, strictly told me to get myself together. If I can’t be a paid researcher on an Egyptological project, there is no reason why I can’t be a volunteer researcher on a local project. 

To this aim, I have recently joined the Inspired by Crystal Palace Subway Project (http://www.inspiredbythesubway.org.uk), whose aim is to reopen the old railway subway, which closed in 1954, to the public. I will leave detailing the project’s manoeuvrings to a separate page on this blog; but as I sat in an Oral History training workshop over the weekend it was not the subway that was the main focus of debate (or the mysterious reason it is known as a subway and not its English word, an underpass) but Park Politics.

In particular, the fact that a Chinese Billionaire, Ni Zhaoxing, had purchased the plot of land upon which the original Crystal Palace had stood, and was planning to rebuild it, came under heavy fire (for more information, see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-24375547).  This would mean building right over the subway, which would not be demolished but used as an entranceway.

Protecting our heritage from non-sympathetic redevelopment is, in my opinion, absolutely vital if we are to avoid becoming a concrete, soulness nation. However, I seemed to be the only one reserving judgement about the development until more information was provided. Both my enquiries as to the intended purpose of the development and whether the Exclusivity Clause signed with Bromley council meant council-led excavations would be carried out pre-building were met with blank stares. The only thing flying freely about was rumours, although this seems to be a feature of the news coverage in general; a 6* hotel and an exhibition space are only two of the purposes being confidently asserted as definitive!

An artist's reconstruction of the proposed development (image belongs to Sky.com)

An artist’s reconstruction of the proposed development (image belongs to Sky.com)

This is not intended as a slur on the project; far from it. One of its main aims is to interview members of the public for their personal memories of the subway, bringing the community into a heritage project which could have become purely architectural all too easily. Rather, this is meant as an observation of the tension simmering beneath the surface of every archaeological and heritage find, brewing spats between the desire to protect heritage and the needs of a modern community. How are we meant to deal with both? Are they inherently antagonistic? 

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View from the West Croydon train station

Redevelopment is, in my opinion, not only a necessity for heritage sites but often a blessing. If an ancient building is sensitively redeveloped and given a new use as a town hall, it will be seen more as community heritage than if the stone skeleton was picketed off from the public and red tape made it impossible to use the area. One of the most beautiful things about British cities is how new builds have grown around old and the fascinating picture that presents on a day to day basis. On the flip side of the coin, cases such as in Sudan where future redevelopment of the Nile river is due to flood not only archaeological sites but also modern towns obviously brings no benefit to anybody. 

Nu and the Zhongrong Group have promised not only to restore the site but also to engage with community feedback, although whether they will keep this promise remains to be seen. Personally, my main concern is the loss of community green space. What do you think?

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