Paradise lost: 12 hours in the Elephant’s shopping centre

15 Mins read

Elephant and Castle has always had an uneasy history, what wasn’t bombed in World War Two was torn down and rebuilt as an experiment in post war urban planning.

The iconic shopping centre stands as a test of endurance in the centre of the dramatically-changing local landscape as regeneration signals the end of one era for the area and the beginning of the next.

Voted as Time Out’s Ugliest Structure in 2005, the building suffers with a serious image problem, a far cry from when it was predicted to be as influential as The Galleria in Milan in 1960.

The chipped blue, red and pink exterior houses what for many is the last remaining community hub of the Elephant and Castle as we know it.

In 1965 when it first opened, this landmark was supposed to be the future, but the future’s here and no-one wants it.

Standing as a concrete time capsule on a roundabout that’s not even a roundabout anymore, the once revolutionary centre now faces demolition in 2018; as Councillor and Southwark Council cabinet member for regeneration Fiona Colley puts it:

“The final piece in the jigsaw for regeneration is the shopping centre. As the options for refurbishment were developed further we were less and less happy with how the scheme would fit in with the rest of the area’s high quality designs. The council has now rejected the earlier options to retain some parts of the original building and insist on full demolition.”

10am start

My 12 hours in the shopping centre begins.

Quite a change from local rag The Borough‘s coverage in 1966: “The eyes of the world are upon this unique public service, seeking to learn from this enterprise of comfort with a bonus of interest and entertainment.”

Although today it may not be the shining example of modern urban planning it was conceived as, many people feel that it is a defining part of the identity of Elephant & Castle.

It appears that the voices of the local community continue to go unheard as planning goes ahead. It seems too easy to wave one’s hand and accept the closure as just another part of daily life in London.

So, to honour Ernö Goldfinger’s modernist beast I set out to celebrate it and explore the thoughts of those who depend on it by experiencing it as it was originally intended: as a full day out, or in my case, 12 hours into the belly of the Elephant.

The first hour – 10:00amsundial breakfast

I begin at Sundial Cafe, sitting amongst a sea of florescent yellow builders high-vis jackets and regulars who shake hands with the cafe staff.

Classical music plays over the morning chatter. There is an apparent twisted irony as the majority of customers are workers from the nearby LendLease construction site, a major player in the Elephant and Castle’s facelift.

It’s difficult to imagine a small greasy spoon cafe like this existing as part of the new ‘vision for the future’ that these patrons are helping to build.

The second hour – 11:00am

“The lowest of the three floors will open onto a wide piazza or courtyard which will surround the shopping centre on three sides. This courtyard will be planted and colourful with flowers, shrubs and trees and will be provided with seating to form a delightful garden and fine weather meeting place.” – South London Press, January 8th 1965

marketplace e&c

As I take a post-breakfast walk around the edges of the centre I can understand that these early concepts were idealised, showing a continual hope for progression. Where this foliage-filled piazza was expected, a mismatch of shipping containers and stalls now stands.

The articles and images of a flourishing shopping centre once imagined today remain in the drawers of the Southwark Local History library alongside many other examples of forgotten modernist utopian visions.

There is little more telling of the demise of the centre than looking at it now with those images in mind.

The third hour – 12:00pm

Whilst looking for a business owner to talk to, one finds me for a chat instead, and I’m introduced to John, the director of Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles, who shouts as I walk past. Operating from a converted horse box he serves coffee stronger than the centre’s concrete foundations.

Our conversation is continually stopped by passersby and customers who are quick to tell me of John’s infectious enthusiasm, presenting a sense of community that John is aware is under risk.

john - director of black cowboy coffee and waffles

“I grew up on the Old Kent Road on Calder Street. It’s shocking that they want to close the centre, I went to America for 14 years, I came back in 2013 and to find out that it’s due to be closed – I can’t really perceive how they think they can do this.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s an iconic spot, it’s contemporary but it’s still iconic. It’s a huge part of the community, without it it will be soulless,” he tells me.

“If they want it to be like a new Piccadilly they’re going to have change everything and that includes the current population who live here and they’ll have to slowly shift them out. It’s wrong. If you want to make it that cosmopolitan, that type of ‘new future’, you have to kick out the community.

“The alternative to knocking it down is to refurbish, whilst maintaining the iconic structure of the building; yes it looks horrible from the outside now, but it represents part of the history of Elephant and Castle,” John says.

“The pink elephant, I remember when I was growing up it was actually grey, we woke up one morning and the whole thing was pink! And at first it attacked my brain a little bit but after a while we got used to it, they had actually enhanced the image and made it more iconic and it’s been with us now for some time.

“Knocking it down completely, I mean apart from calling it a tragedy, I don’t know what else to call it, wrenching the heart out of a community. You can improve certain things, you can make it look nicer, they can put some effort in rather than leaving it to rot.

“Leaving in amongst the newness of the area with preserve the old charm of the Elephant. I can appreciate the angst of the community if it gets knocked down, this is a family spot, they come in here, they go bowling, play in the arcade, it’s an environment that they can spend their time in. It’s terrible.”

The fifth hour – 2:00pm

Lee has grown up in the area around the centre and is skeptical over how much can be really done to fight back against the council’s current plans for regeneration.

Hair cut in E&C shopping centre.

Small businesses are at the core of the shopping centre [J Mark Dodds via Flickr CC]

“Look, everyone wants to complain what’s going on with the community, no-one wants to put in effort to try and rectify it, I’m convinced that no-one wants to chip in. Like, when I heard it was being demolished, think about it, none of the community actually own this, it’s not in their hands unfortunately,” he says.

“There isn’t a lot of actual investment, everything is rented, so how much control of the community do the community have in the first place?

“The sense of community that remains has been eroded over time, it won’t come back overnight. Some of the older customers and shop-owners here tell me ‘this isn’t what it used to be like, we used to look out for each other’,” he tells me.

“What’s happened now is everyone’s out for themselves, but I suppose if your community is vanishing then you have to. Although we all live in same area and this is our area, we’re all having to live in our own bubbles.”

“There are a number of familiar faces behind the counters. Many local traders have taken shops, including traders from East St Market, Petticoat Lane and others. All the existing amenities of the shopping centre will be enjoyed by customers using the new markets. Each arcade opens onto the wide, bright centrally heated concourses. The background music and the indoor gardens help to create a warm, friendly atmosphere that makes shopping a pleasure, not a trail.” – South London Press, December 12th 1970

The seventh hour – 4:00pm

In the curve of the piazza where a now closed subway entrance lies, Alan runs his record stall, housed in a shipping container with its contents pouring out onto the surrounding tables. He has no reluctance talking about its impending closure, he’s been living in the area for the majority of his life but now his way of making a living is under threat.

“I think it’s a disgrace, I think they should have cleaned the place up and kept with the traders that they already have instead of closing it down, having a new centre that’s going to be made up of Costa Coffees and Waitrose Locals which’ll be too expensive for the locals.

“Unfortunately it’s going to be for tourists and the people who own the new expensive flats in the area. Local people are going to be pushed out and have to move further south because there’s going to be nothing here for them,” he says.

“Patrick Duffy is fighting for us, he’s slowing the council’s movements from up there in the bingo hall,” he tells me, backing one business owner’s fight to keep the shopping centre intact.

“I don’t agree with what’s happening here not just as a trader but as a local as well. I’ve lived here for 46 years, in this very area, and it’s turning into somewhere that’s just going to be office people, students (who will also get ripped off because everywhere here will drain their grant), it’ll be like Camden where you spend £20 for a record and I’m down here selling them at the correct price of a tenner.

“To shut some of the places inside there where you can go and get a cuppa reasonably, some lunch, your dinner if you’re feeling lazy, it’s terrible, for some people in the community that’s their little treat to themselves. The only people they’re giving money to are those who already have more than enough money in their pockets, they’re not putting money ‘back into the community’.”

Alan at his trade stall

Alan has lived in the area for 46 years and now feels his way of life is under threat.

The ninth hour – 6:00pm

Fiona, a local property owner, sits in the marketplace having done a bit of shopping in the centre; she isn’t reliant on the building but is concerned over the changing face of the area and what the demolition signifies for Elephant and Castle.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Maybe we should ask for considerate regeneration? Considerate meaning maybe consider the people who were there in the first place?”[/pullquote]“I feel for the older community, some people travel from much further south to come up here to the centre to have their little day trip, it’s so sad. I mean, I’ve never thought that the centre is particularly great, especially now, there’s nothing there,” she says.

“I’ll go and play bingo with a friend, do my little bit shopping and I’ve come really mainly here in the market. It’s convenient in there, you can get your cultural foods cheaply. I feel claustrophobic with all these new high rises round here already, this is going to look like a modern city for five minutes and then as it ages it’ll just look like a lot of tall council estates.

“The Coronet will be so missed. Sure, the regeneration will be good for some of the traders who can move with it, it’s good for me because I own a property in the area and this’ll raise the price of it – but at the cost of who?

“To think of some of the elderly who’ll be forced into loneliness because their place will be gone, ugh, it’s just so hard to even think about,” she grimaces.

“When they pulled down the Heygate, that was the start. Regeneration happens, there were bits of here which needed spruced up but was a total overhaul needed?

“Like trying to make it middle class and squeeze out the people who aren’t? For what, to turn everything that stands here into silly little Cafe Nero type things, to try and make a bit of a Bluewater? It’ll lose its community spirit, it’ll attract those with money and it’s just totally laughable. It’s Brixton all over again. Who is this change really making money for?”

The tenth hour – 7:00pm

“Change is only good if you are able to move with it. Change needs to happen sometimes. We’re always trying to improve stuff here so that when the time eventually comes, we can,” says the manager on duty at La Bodeguita, gesturing to the busy restaurant floor as I eat.

Dinner at La Bodeguita

The shopping centre is a focus for Elephant and Castle’s Latin community

Elephant and Castle hosts more than 90 Latin American businesses and the community that runs them is on the front line of the area’s gentrification.

From having once been crucial in revitalising the area over twenty years ago during a period of decline, the Latin American populace now face uncertainty as the commercial displacement of the area takes hold.

The nearby in-progress Elephant Park that looms over the back of the shopping centre will host big brand shops and the higher rent that is expected is certain to impact the Latin quarter of Elephant and Castle.

As we chat over dinner it is evident that as repayment for bringing the neighbourhood so much business, the Latin community must be built into its future.

The eleventh hour – 8:00pm

Palace superbowl entrance

Stairway to bingo and bowling heaven [Diamond geezer via Flickr CC]

If you were ever in any doubt that this everyday community of Elephant and Castle actually exists you need only find the escalator to the top floor of the centre and ascend to Palace Super Bowl and Bingo.

While the shopping centre itself lies somewhat empty as the night draws in, it appears that the real party is hidden upstairs.

As I kill time waiting for the entertainment plaza’s owner I am continually surprised by what I find. A bingo hall that stretches as far as Wembley Stadium’s pitch is lined with table upon table of people, and as I watch, a woman rushes to the desk to claim her £3,000 prize; I’m later told that there are more than 700 patrons in the hall this evening.

The bowling alley is packed with young revellers, bowling and playing arcade games whilst a miniature restaurant-come-tuck shop dishes out cheap burgers, chips, fizzy drinks and chocolate.

There is no set demographic that defines these customers: separate social groups with different backgrounds all intermingle to produce what may be one of the truest pictures of Elephant and Castle’s community.

Elephant and Castle's bingo hall

Palace Bingo remains a popular community hub.

The twelfth hour – 9:00pm

After exploring the expansive top floor I am invited to speak to Patrick Duffy, the managing director of Palatial Leisure Ltd.

Within minutes of meeting him it is evident that he is a key figure in helping to hold the community together as regulars stop our conversation to speak of family happenings, gossip and to wish him well.

He’s impassioned and a heavyweight in the fight to keep the centre open. Unexpectedly soft-spoken and understated with a natural warmth: the king of the Elephant and Castle Palace is a king of the people.

“The area needs this, if we were a casino, Southwark would be desperate to keep us. The bingo doesn’t have the image, but it has the volume. Between here and the bowling we have between 12,000 to 14,000 visits a week, when that goes down into votes for this place, well there’s a lot more people here who’ll say no,” he tells me.

“TBingo board at Palace Superbowl and Bingohe shopping centre looks bad on the outside but it’s not bad on the inside. Up here keeps the shops downstairs going and it’s safe up here for the community, it’s comfortable and secure.

“The best idea for the shopping centre was to expand it up and over the railway. When you’re demolishing something you have to be very careful about what you’re taking away and what you’re going to replace it with,” he argues.

“There’s all these complications with the tubes underneath us and the trains next to us, it’s not as straightforward a change as they make out.

“If you’re doing serious demolition you’re going to have to cut off all the trains coming up from Wimbledon, Sutton, all of South West London. Anybody in their right mind would not close this place down, what you would do is refurbish and extend, you can take down Hannibal House but this end of the shopping centre and down towards Walworth Road you can build around it and above it,” he says.

“I have 700 customers here tonight and I think you’d struggle to find someone who’d be able to buy one of the new apartments that they keep popping up. What’s that about? We need apartments that we can give to the normal inhabitants of the Elephant and their families.

“This was so iconic once, it was what shopping was going to be. There is nothing stopping these people from developing instead of demolishing, and the core of Elephant and Castle, this shopping centre, let me tell you, this place would be an attraction in itself as the decades go by and it would be a great achievement for the council to say ‘we did this’,” he contends.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I’ll say it again and again and I’ve told the local newspapers this too, I’m not going anywhere!”[/pullquote]And Patrick is not without his alternative proposals: “Instead of Delancey building 1,100 part-time homes for people, how about if the council did 1,100 or even 1,500 dwellings for ordinary people to live in, for people who work in the city or the area and therefore wouldn’t have to travel an hour to get into work?

“I’ve had a member of staff quit tonight, who was such a good member of staff can I add, because they just can’t find anywhere affordable to live near here, so they’re off to Glasgow on the 8:00am coach. If the council won’t get a grip on this situation, who is going to? There’s a social responsibility to house these locals. People’s dignity is incredibly important,” he says.

“There’s people like us, people who come from working backgrounds, not necessarily working class but working backgrounds and unfortunately it seems like Elephant and Castle is becoming somewhere that just isn’t for these people anymore.

“That’s how you have to view it. Everybody will survive, but what sort of city is London going to become? What sort of area is Elephant and Castle going to be? When you do things like this you create chips on peoples shoulders, you make people feel like second class citizens,” he maintains.

“‘Responsible Building’, ‘Considerate Construction’ all these phrases fly about with these building companies like LendLease and Delancey, maybe we should ask for considerate regeneration? Considerate meaning maybe consider the people who were there in the first place?

“Responsible regeneration! I’ve put in a tremendous amount of work to get to where I am but not for any real reason than it’s a nice way to live. It’s nice to walk up the street and have people stop and speak to you. I’ll say it again and again and I’ve told the local newspapers this too, I’m not going anywhere!”

The thirteenth hour – 10:00pm 

Deep in conversation I lose track of time. Following speaking all things Elephant and Castle we swap stories of home and it becomes clear why Patrick has the impact on people that he does. As I go to leave he invites me to go bowling and leads us through the crowds to the bowling alley, stopping to get the latest updates on his customers along the way.

We bid one another farewell as he asks a member of staff to take care of us. I leave the centre at 11:15pm on the dot, well past the 12-hour deadline that I had originally intended to keep to.

Elephant at Night

Many say the shopping centre is a shadow of its former self. [Nico Hogg via Flickr CC]

My time in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre had come to an end and I was left to absorb and process all that I had seen.

When you look at something for long enough you start to see the cracks, but the cracks I saw during my 12 hours weren’t necessarily those of something broken, but of something under immense strain.

Elephant and Castle shopping centre is sitting, waiting to be dismantled into a new ideal and it’s clear that somewhere along the line something has failed the community that surrounds it.

Whatever the future holds for the centre having listened to the stories of those that run their businesses and frequent the centre, it’s apparent that the Elephant will not be put down without a fight.

“I am most grateful to be able to express my congratulations and good wishes to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre on the occasion of its 2nd birthday. A combination of skills has made the shopping centre unique throughout the country. The press coverage both at home and abroad is fantastic and has Southwark on the map. I am informed that as a consequence of this, visitors from all over the world now put the shopping centre high on the list of places to visit alongside the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London. The shopping centre is now taking its place with the high st. in the shopping pattern of South East London and particularly in Southwark. As time goes by I think we will all come to realise its value in this area and may come to wonder how we ever managed without it.” – Tribute from His Worship the Mayor of Southwark, Councillor A.P. Chambers in the Second Birthday magazine, Spring 1967



Featured image by clogsilk via Flickr CC

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