Everything must go at Elephant and Castle shopping centre in south London. A full 55 years after it opened, it finally closes its doors on 24 September. It dies, as most of us do, in poor health, a distressing shadow of its brightest self. The painted blue exterior is streaked all around with water damage that looks like streams of bird shit, its “moat” littered with corrugated metal, the Charlie Chaplin pub obscured by property hoardings, and the majestic art deco theatre, The Coronet, closed after 140 years.
When I visited last week, more than half of the units were already empty. Saddest of all is the absence of people, of life. By far and away the busiest retail unit was the one occupied by the Dads House food bank – only opened in April – with a queue stretching almost the whole length of the concourse.
In a £1bn-plus project to develop a “new town centre”, as part of developer Delancey’s wider overhaul of the area, the shopping centre will be torn down and replaced with gleaming new retail units and malls, and high-end residential towers of up to 34 storeys – and scant affordable housing.
There’s something eerie about an empty shopping mall – the forlorn ideal of postwar consumer capitalist progress laid bare. You can see the 60s pencil drawings in your mind’s eye: the slick modernity of concrete, the happy mums with bobs and smiling kids in short trousers. When it opened in 1965, the Elephant was the first covered mall in Europe, set to “revolutionise” shopping and offer an “entirely new approach to retailing”, as architects the Willets Group said.
There would be more than 100 shops, across three floors, and a glass roof that could be “drawn back in sunny weather to provide an open-air concourse”. It was to become the Piccadilly of south London, with advertising screens built into its facade. The design brief called for the spaces between buildings to be brightened by trees, plant life and water, to accommodate citizens as well as consumers, and to provide “for them all as spectators, so that it can provide an adequate theatre for them both as actors and audience”. But between these ideas and reality falls the shadow of decades of underinvestment.
And when this capitalist version of utopia reveals itself to be a tragic failure – “50% off!” stickers peeling at the edges – it is always the local residents who suffer. In this case, a broadly multicultural, though substantially Latin community who have breathed new life into the area in the past decade.
Talk to locals about the shopping centre now – and even some outgoing traders – and the word “shithole” is liable to be bandied around freely. But so is a sense of affection and respect, for the persistence of that ineffable quality, “community” – Jenny’s Burgers still serving 80p cups of tea to pensioners, Colombian restaurant El Rincón de Ivancho giving free meals to customers in dire straits during the pandemic.
One thing is for sure: rarely has a managed decline been so obvious, or so long-winded.
“The escalator was out of order for three months, the toilets were closed for almost a week – that sends a message, a signal, that the centre is on its way down,” Emad Megahed, owner of computer repair shop the Tekk Room, told me in 2018, when this “community of friends” was still fighting to keep the doors open. The writing has been on the castle walls for as long as I can remember; even as south London teenagers in the 1990s, we all knew “something” was going to be done about the roundabout (on which the centre sits) from hell. It was an “eyesore” that shoppers “give a wide berth”, explained the Telegraph in 2013, an appropriate neighbour to the “notorious” fellow “monument to 1960s failure”, the Heygate Estate – demolished almost a decade ago. But something can be unlovely and still be loved.
Navigating the febrile arguments around gentrification and major urban change often requires a tightrope walk through false binaries: you don’t need to love the shopping centre as it is right now (or at all), or worry about what happens after its demolition to the meeting places, public spaces and social bonds it offers, let alone to residential and commercial rents. You don’t need to be, in Giles Coren’s memorable words, “middle-aged, middle-class dinosaurs who are determined to keep London shitty”, to raise questions about who must leave and who can stay, when the developers arrive in town.
Former Heygate Estate residents were dispersed many miles away to the (cheaper) south and east, despite a promised “right of return”. House prices in the area have risen by 76% in a decade. Local campaign group Latin Elephant estimates there are still about 40 traders in and around the shopping centre who have not been found appropriate new sites, despite repeated promises.
Nowadays urban regeneration schemes tend to be carefully couched in the language of community co-design, inclusion and diversity – but “the G-word” wasn’t always a dirty one, and Southwark council’s intentions for the Elephant were made explicit to property developers – if not to locals – from the very beginning. “Gentrification is a 1960s term, but it is the same philosophy,” Southwark’s planning chief said way back in 1999, describing the brief for Elephant and Castle at the global property show Mipim in Cannes. “It’s a blank canvas – anything is possible – we can demolish houses, take away roads, anything.” It’s the Thatcherite gangster spirit of The Long Good Friday, where our cities are not layer-cakes of history but a pristine tabula rasa, just waiting for the developers’ imprint. Once you’ve delivered the compulsory purchase orders, demolition is a crisp, clean act that turns a problem into an opportunity.
Over the past two decades developers and councils have changed the tune they whistle in public. Wearied by the resilience of local community groups that have deployed demos, deputations and judicial challenges in their fight to avoid a repetition of the Heygate’s catastrophic social cleansing, the marketing strategy is now to accentuate the Elephant’s “vibrant” cultural diversity, the independent shops and creative spirit – an alternative to identikit high street chains. “Follow the elephant!” implore the hoardings placed around the new Elephant Park development. It won’t be long before we’ll see who is allowed to do so, and who gets left behind.
• Dan Hancox is a freelance journalist, focusing on music, politics, cities and culture