Opinion

The Last Inhabitants Of Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago
The Last Inhabitants Of Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre

As Kieran Trippier stepped up to take England's fourth, and vital, penalty in the 2018 World Cup against Colombia, the TV signal at Miko's Cafe in Elephant and Castle cut out.

In the melee I scrambled for my phone, tried to get internet and finally got online. "We won!" I exclaimed, before remembering where I was. The Colombians who'd heard me thought it was funny, there was no malice. Gradually, the sea of yellow shirts, which had gathered outside the cafe to watch through the glass, scattered, many of them probably to sip cold beers and scoff bandeja paisa at La Bodeguita or one of the other South American establishments around the shopping centre.

Now, the Latin community — and everything else that makes this shopping centre unique — is about to scatter for good.

La Bodeguita during the 2018 World Cup
Happier days: bowling at the shopping centre in 2019

This lumbering 55-year-old old beast has finally — finally — been tranqued with the gentrification dart, and is now staggering towards a painful, six-month demise. Unless a miracle occurs now, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre closes on 30 July 2020. In its place, will rise a new 'town centre', including 979 new homes and 175,000 sq ft of new leisure facilities, shops, cafes and restaurants. You can't have ugly old things anymore it seems, just ugly new things.

But in sentencing the shopping centre to death, are Southwark Council and the developers, Delancey, ripping out the pulsating heart of this formerly-maligned part of central-south London?

"A shithole we've turned into a goldmine"

"It used to be a shithole," says Amul. He's worked at DIY store Pricebusters for 20 of the 30 years it's been in the shopping centre. It stocks everything from smoke alarms to sealant to mantelpiece statues of golden unicorns. "But now it's a shithole we've turned into a goldmine, apparently. So they basically want to kick us out and carry on with their development."

Palace Bingo and Bowling are now closed for good

There's been wrangling to get the 1960s centre pulled down for years. But in December 2019, a High Court order gave Delancey the news it wanted. The top tier of the centre, which contained the joyous Palace Bingo and bowling halls, has already shut up shop: no more escalator to a special kind of Saturday heaven. Now, the remaining traders are preparing to abandon ship.

Stella: "There's nothing we can do. We don't have a choice."

Stella sits stoically in her fabric emporium, surrounded by a forest of colourful, sequinned garments. She's been here for 20 years. "A long time ago this place was very nice, very busy," she says, "But since they've decided to knock it down, everything changed.

"We don't get many customers anymore. There's nothing we can do. We don't have a choice."

Pricebusters
La Bodeguita has a few incarnations - restaurant, cafe, stalls, dotted in and around the shopping centre

It's textbook gentrification: sit and let a community build up a 'shithole' into something beautiful. Then, when it's ripe for picking, buy them out. Preferably for not enough money. At least, that's what many of the traders here think.

"The money they have put in the pot is nothing," says Amul, "For the money they're offering, they won't even be able to afford fittings for the new shop... They're all laughing."

Janzabullah: "I pay £300 a week. It's a lot of money."

In the half-moat of independent stalls orbiting the shopping centre, traders are being moved on too. Even though they finally have the 'when', there is confusion about 'where'. Janzabullah, who runs a stall selling phones, sunglasses, brollies and suitcases, still doesn't know exactly where he's being relocated. "I have to move the customer, I need some time," he explains.

The traders outside the centre are being moved on, too

He tells me how business has slowed since the subway route into the centre was shut, when the roundabout was rejigged. He is keen to move on, but unable to print out cards and leaflets telling the customers he's wooed over 10 years, where they'll be able to find him from July. "No customers. But still I work," says Janzabullah. "I pay £300 a week. It's a lot of money.

"But what can I do, you see? Because this is not my property"

"It's going to be a shame for people"

In a shopping centre on its knees, there are things you might expect to see: bubblegum globes and claw machines filled with treats that will never be dispensed. Massage chairs to relieve the aching feet and backs of shoppers who are no longer there. Severely traumatised mannequins, which could feature in an episode of Doctor Who. Smashed in, taped up windows, with chilly draughts and an ill wind seeping through the cracks.

There are also some unexpected things: on one corner of the mezzanine floor is a selfie station, people still pausing to pose in fake wintry forests of silver birch trees. It feels like a knowing side-swipe at the 'Selfie Factory' that appeared at Westfield last year, charging 20 quid per punter. If Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre were human, it'd be a snide, self-assured thing with stories to tell of the old days (like the time it was misguidedly painted bright pink in the 1980s), and warnings about what the future might hold. Badly dressed, too.

There is also an exhibition from the neighbouring University of the Arts, an arts and therapy centre, and a community hub offering 'babyfit family salsa classes' and cheerleading sessions for seniors.  

"The money's been very good. It's very good in the morning," says Justin, about the morning commuter rush

And while businesses at the shopping centre are now dropping off one by one, there are still setups in situ, which are helping to teach people from the local community language skills, and to find work. Get Set employee Fatima tells us that each week, they release a vacancies bulletin. Things have been 'very busy'.

"It's going to be a shame for people who are used to coming and meeting people here," says Fatima.

"Nothing is forever"

Hector at La Bodeguita: "Nothing is forever."

Not everyone will be sorry to see the back of this shopping centre.

"Nothing is forever," muses Hector, pouring pints of Stella Artois in La Bodeguita. He's been working here since the early 2000s, and has watched how quiet it gets in the week now, although the restuarant still gets packed out for the dinner dances on a Friday night. La Bodeguita will move to a site nearby, when the shopping centre is demolished. But there won't be any more dinner dances, says Hector. Because of the lack of space, we wonder? No, because the noise will disturb the people in the new apartments, says Hector.

"Sometimes changes are good," says Elizabeth, who's been working in a clothes shop here for 10 years, "It's quite an old building. And Elephant and Castle is changing a lot. So I'm just keeping my hopes up that it's going to be for good."

Castle Tandoori has been here since the 1980s, and is, at the time of writing, still open

"Don't get me wrong," says Amul, back at Pricebusters, "the shopping centre's past its sell-by-date. But it's the way they do it. You don't mind them regenerating here, but it should be up to us.

"We don't want to be going to Peckham or Camberwell. We have a business here."

"It's sad, especially for the Latin community"

Not worth the 20p

Southwark Council and Delancey's plans are not entirely unattractive. You can look back with heavy-hearted nostalgia on lamb rogan joshes at Castle Tandoori and 12 quid pitchers of San Miguel at Palace Bowl, where the lanes would often break mid-game. But the shopping centre is run-down and clapped out. It still costs 20p to use the toilets, although try telling that to the shopping centre's customers and traders, who leap the turn-styles. When you try the toilets for yourself, cardboard laid out beneath the urinals, you understand why. Even the famous Elephant and Castle mascot out the front of the building has faded from deep red to a sickly pink.

William at Castle Brasserie
Miko's - quieter than it was for Colombia Vs England

Delancey is keen to point out its own connection with the traders, telling us: "We continue to work very closely with independent traders at the existing shopping centre to support businesses plans for relocation and this includes the building of the retail space on Castle Square that has now commenced."

Southwark Council has been adamant that demolition is the right thing too — not for it or Delancey, but for Londoners and locals. In January 2020, it pledged an extra £200,000 to support traders affected by plans.

The office blocks above the shopping centre lie empty
The adjoining train stations still bring in lots of footfall

But while it's hard to turn up your nose at the prospect of new entrances to the Northern line — with escalators — Elephant and Castle can never go back to what it was.

"You've never seen a shopping centre like this," says Amul, "We've had people coming from America and everywhere, saying 'it's bloody brilliant'."

"We know each other, all of us. We've been together for such a long time. It's like a family, a little village."

Ultimately you're left feeling that traders and locals have been let down. "It's sad, especially for the Latin community, all the Latin businesses here," says William, from Castle Brasserie. "Personally, I think it's going to suck the life out of Elephant and Castle.

"There's a language barrier as well, and perhaps that wasn't taken into account."

A new dawn is on the horizon

Maybe total redevelopment is the coup de grace this place needs. The trouble is, when you tear out the architecture, how do you stop everything that was good inside it spilling out and trickling away. Just look at the Heygate Estate.

"We'll see what happens," says Hector, pouring another Stella.

Last Updated 12 February 2020

Continued below.