After years of back-and-forth between property developers and the local community, Southwark Council planning committee last week voted in favour of demolishing a much-loved shopping centre in South London’s Elephant and Castle. The Elephant, as it’s affectionately known by locals, epitomises London’s diversity, having acted as a place for various communities to shop, socialise, and work for over 50 years. In particular, the centre is frequented by London’s Latin American community, who came to the city after UK immigration laws relaxed in the 1970s, fleeing political unrest in places like Chile and Argentina. Many settled in Southwark, the only London borough to now recognise Latin Americans as a distinct cultural group.
Come 2019, however, their Elephant will be no more.
The “regeneration” project, staged by property developers Delancey, is being criticised by local Labour councillors as the worst example of gentrification at the expense of marginalised locals. The site of the shopping centre is to be turned into 974 new homes, some of which will be student flats, but with only 11 percent constituting affordable housing. A new shopping centre will also be built, however, many are worried that the rent will be too expensive for the original vendors—not to mention the fact that the entire thing could take at least nine years to demolish and rebuild. By then, many vendors will have been forced to relocate.
Judging from outward appearances alone, the Elephant admittedly looks a bit shit. Inside, it’s also quite grubby, the Greggs sign is so old it looks like a bad knock-off that should read “Greigs,” and the kitsch plastic decor makes it feel like you’ve walked straight back into 1964—but with more iPhones. However, unlike many run-down shopping centres, the Elephant is bursting with life. Even on a Monday morning, there are groups of friends having coffee and cake in the Columbian cafe, people haggling for a papaya at one of the many fruit and veg stalls, and students browsing the market for fake Gucci bags.
I've wandered through the Elephant many times in my life, but this is the first time I've realised how vital the place is to so many people. Vendors joke with me, despite having met me only two minutes before. A toddler excitedly plays with my camera, and her mum thanks me for keeping her occupied while she was on the phone. Locals wave at each other as they pass through the centre.
I speak to Bobby, who has worked at Castle Fruit and Veg for a year now, about the demolition plans. “For people like us, it’s bad,” he says. “I will need to find a new job, as I think it will be very expensive rent after [the regeneration].”
He gestures outside to the “moat” of markets that surrounds the shopping centre. “In the market, they are a little depressed,” he explains. “They don't know what to do, because they have been doing business for a long time, and suddenly they need close down and move on, and they don't know where they will move.”
Angela, an employee at La Bodeguita, a Columbia cafe and restaurant that has served the South American community of Elephant and Castle (and London's many croqueta enthusiasts) for over 20 years, shares Bobby’s view. “It's very bad, because the Latin community is invested in this place,” she explains. "Everyone knows about it. Every single year they say the same thing: ‘next year, it's closing,’ but nothing has happened. But this year at least, it's true."
After buying myself a 11 o’clock pastel de nata (necessary), I walk outside to the market, which hosts many of the Elephant’s eclectic food stalls. Alongside many different South American cuisines, there’s Afro-Caribbean, Indian, West African, and even a stall that sells “Thai and Spanish food.” Innovative.
It’s here that I speak to a worker at the Best Caribbean Spice food stall, who declines to give her name. The stall has been open for over 20 years, selling dishes including "sexy stewed chicken" (it is unclear what makes it “sexy”), curry goat, and patties.
“It will be best for the people who have the money, and it will be the worst for the small people,” she says. “They're gonna move us naturally, and it's gone through already so what can we do about it? We don't have any money, and money talks.”
Aamir, a grocer on the outside of the shopping centre who’s been here for 15 years, hopes that his business will be able to relocate, despite the upsetting plans.
“I feel very sad,” he says, “But we can move on anyway. We will find another business.” He looks to his colleague. “Right, boss?”
“We will try to find somewhere else, hopefully, better than this, but this is a really very good place, from a business point of view,” he continues, “There’s a good community around. It's painful.”
However, not all food vendors are opposed to the plans. John Otagburuagu, owner of Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles thinks the Elephant’s regeneration will be beneficial to the area. Although Otagburuagu’s stall is situated in the market area, his “wagon” is portable, meaning his fate is not quite the same of those permanently housed in the shopping centre.
“It'll bring something new,” explains Otagburuagu, who is wearing an actual cowboy hat. “A lot of people object because they’re so fearful of change and they think that it's going to go down like Westfield, but this is Elephant and Castle—it's got a character that you can't touch.”
I wonder what he thinks of the vendors who have been here for years and will now be displaced at the will of greedy property developers. “It's up to them to worry about,” he says. “What I'm thinking is: ‘This is my community, and I'm happy that they have actually decided to focus on it and revamp it.’”
“It’s time to change,” he continues. “Change is not always bad.”