Why It’s Worth Re-Visiting the Outskirts, London, England

September 5, 2017

A reportage of a voyage of discovery through a southern part of London.

This is not my first time visiting Crystal Palace. Two years ago I explored the little suburb of London the first time. Back then I was a student at Central Saint Martins in 2015 working on a project about identity.

I thought coming back to this place is a good start to kick off this series of portraits of places I encounter. The project is an experiment working with cultural geography. The discipline aims to deconstruct how places function. It investigates the traces that exist or are left at a certain spot and puts them in relation to each other. For my journey to Crystal Palace, this means I am trying to read its signs, symbols, and observe which people live there and what they do. It is somehow a semiotic approach that I have been curious about for quite a while.

As I am leaving the Crystal Palace overground station I instantly have that strange feeling of revisiting an old idea. I have to smile. Today the place greets me like the last time. The weather is cold. It is rainy and my shoes are already soaked with water. As I walk towards the area of the old Crystal Palace World Fair I pass a football stadium. It is small, blue and old and feels pretty unagitated. I wonder if this is the stadium the Premier League club Crystal Palace F. C. plays in usually. The stadium I see here is built in a hollow. This allows visitors to see the pitch without being on the stadium’s tier. I immediately have to think about how intense football games would have to feel in such a place. I can imagine it would be pretty difficult for foreign clubs to beat the home team in such an intimate environment. Later I will learn that the very stadium the Premier League games are played in is placed two kilometres northeast.

Howsoever, as I cross over to the Crystal Palace World Fair premises a plain and open area evolves. Here monumentality has survived in a wide expanse. Nothing seems to be left of the main building that once was a huge metal and glass construction designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. In 1936 a fire tore down the whole structure.

The only thing that survived seems to be a wall that still separates the upper level of the terrain from the parts further down. But as I walk up further two monumental Sphinxes greet me. One having its face scratched they both seem to be misplaced. Like guardians of a falling kingdom, they look like sleeping beasts that are still waiting for their king’s return. I have to think about the Never Ending Story by Michael Ende and the guardians that shoot laser beams at Atreyu. As I pass the monsters I try to escape their glance anxiously.

While the area of the World Fair is still defining for Crystal Palace’s landscape there are several other landmarks worth mentioning. Two masts rise up high into the air. Like very small and white Eiffel Towers they sit enthroned on the hilly area. The elevation of the area itself would allow pleasant views of the London city. Although for me today it is a rather greyish experience. As I get closer to the high road I pass an area of the park with sculptures of dinosaurs. Again misplaced they lounge somehow incurious under the trees. I do like this place more and more.

A little later I find myself at Crystal Palace triangle. This is the place’s traffic hotspot. To my left and to my right the road layout follows four lines. Two of them lead into the heart of the suburb. The others connect the suburb to Upper Sydenham and North Norwood. The roads are busy yet only one-way streets. Its shops are local, although well branded and designed. As are the restaurants and pubs. It is interesting how well the sense of design and branding seems to be established. Compared to other places I have explored in rural areas of cities Crystal Place shows a rather elaborated image. Later I will learn that 12.000 people live in the residential area. Most of them with a white and British origin (about 67%). The place is described as little linguistically diverse. The shops seem to cater to this audience. Their services and offerings seem to be directed towards people’s daily life. Yet, several galleries and second-hand shops give the triangle an arty touch with some handy craft shops still around.

Residential housing is structured in long alleyways that are arranged in a star-shaped design around the main roads. The architectural style of the buildings follows a British residential housing design. Small two to three-floor estates with two close entrances placed above a small staircase dominate the design. But, a few 70ties developments are squeezed in-between. As I walk further I encounter a Christian church. Later I will learn that about 50% of the people that live in Crystal Palace are Christians and about 30% are with no religion. This more or less mirrors statistics that apply to Greater London.

As it is becoming afternoon and after an another torrential rain I decide to start the writing of my notes. Looking for some silence I order a Stella Artois in one of the pubs close to the triangle. The place is thoroughly designed and so I am not the only guest. Having not noticed the buggy chair at the entrance I find myself in a room with four kids and two mums. About 25% of people in Crystal Palace are married whilst over 40% are single or have never married. I guess the odds were not in my favour. I swallow my beer and decide to record my notes on my way back to the overground station.

As I leave the triangle I pass the second-hand shop Crazy Man Crazy. I decide to enter and look for some used records to buy for my girlfriend. The heavy bearded shop owner is a guy with curly locks who smiles at me. We talk a little. He is curious about what an Austrian searches for at Crystal Palace. I tell him the story of a man that loves to visit places that are commonly not focused on. And also, that I have been looking for the very Elton John record I am holding in my hand for a long time.