(A Life of Crime vs. The Free Market Supplemental)
‘The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, once a symbol of hope and regeneration could be on its last legs…’ started a BBC article published while I was in the throes of finishing The Life of Crime vs. series.
If hearing a similar statement when living nearby—permanently 1984 to 86 and then again 1988 to 99—I would’ve partied hard like it was the latter year.
‘Elephant and Castle, stick it up your arsehole!‘ Ade Edmondson in one of my all time fav films Mr Jolly Lives Next Door.
Located next to a huge roundabout (‘traffic gyratory‘) system that felt more like a wacky races speedway when driving/riding round, it had a reputation as the shopping centre at the bowels of Hell in no small part thanks to the fact ‘many pedestrians could only reach it by walking through murky subterranean walkways.’
And that’s being nice; if it had just been a bit dank, no worries – it was a locally well-known muggers’ paradise.
True, it could be reached directly by bus or from the same-named tube or train station, so avoiding all the rat-runs. It was still the same Elephant and Castle shopping centre, though.
Maybe I was spoiled by spending the initial part of my childhood on London’s border with Croydon, so had grown up knowing its massive Whitgift Centre and the array of other shopping immediately adjacent; such as Croydon’s High St with the likes of Allders, which in turn led to the Surrey Street mentioned often in the A Life of Crime vs. series.
Croydon’s Glorious ‘Whitgift Centre’ back in The Day
Still, regardless of the Whitgift Centre’s size, the Elephant was always too small to both grab the attention of all the big stores while also having enough room to accommodate a choice of them. More than two shops selling furniture and it would start looking like a centre specialising in it with a couple of other things thrown in.
The nearest adjacent shopping is (or maybe was) a fifteen/twenty-minute walk away— some of which under a wide, dark and dingy railway bridge—to where shops start on the Walworth Road and run for about a half a mile, East Street market’s entrance situated around halfway into that.
As if recognising its own folly, the shopping centre had squeezed a small outdoor market into a shadowy sunless recess respectively below and adjacent to the above mentioned gyratory and rat runs.
Seeing the story reminded of how it was the only market Mr T and I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. Visiting once was enough to know I never wanted to go back.
So funny, then, that I not only went back, but actually spent a couple of weeks there in the early Nineties having decided I wanted to sell poppies for The Royal British Legion at Stamford Bridge, home ground of Chelsea.
Contacting the local branch, I was told it didn’t quite work like that; instead of getting to pick where in the country you fancied, they allocated somewhere nearby.
Instead of do the sensible thing by saying, ‘Okay, well in that case, f**k you then – least I offered, you ungrateful bastards.’ I instead took it like they were trying to put me off, so considered it a challenge, and said, ‘Okay then, what have you got?’
The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre
Now it was a dare.
One I accepted and never even got any form of thanks whatsoever for, btw.
Perhaps, given how much was collected, they’d assumed I’d only been there for a good half hour in the whole two weeks, and consequently had thought, ‘F**k you – we had to fight and die in trenches just so you could get bored and do one after a quick thirty minutes!’
Though I don’t think that’s true. It was a local branch for local people – and every local knew the shopping centre as dead on its feet.
To be fair, I wasn’t there every given single second it opened in the two weeks, but was for at least three hours every day it did. A couple of things helped pass the monotony of the place being literally devoid of shoppers.
- For most of it a mate with nothing better to do than ride his motorcycle aimlessly around all day would come keep me company.
- The only female security guard took a keen shine and came over to talk as often as possible.
- A lone plod strolled over one day for a friendly chat during which he asked the question, ‘Hello-hello-hello, where’s the local Legion located these days?’
I’d never known it anywhere else than in Gaza Street, off Curzon by Kennington tube, I replied, so was surprised he might think it somewhere else. Then again, he was plod walking round a place like the Elephant alone – was he new to the area, perhaps?
He laughed and went on his laughing policeman way . . . I’m pretty sure without buying a poppy, but anyway:
All the aimlessness in my mate’s life had led to numerous brushes with the wrong side of the law. He’d been stood next to me throughout the exchange and reckoned the seemingly frivolous rozzer would’ve nicked me for sure if I hadn’t been so certain and sure about the Legion’s locale.
- The Elephant and Castle
- Heygate Street (to be mentioned)
- Start of shops on the Walworth Road
- East Street
- Where I lived
- Location of local Royal British Legion branch
Instead of jumping for joy when seeing the headline, a sentimental pang hoped the iconic statue would be left in place at the very least.
By the end of the article, though, I was overcome with an urge—patriotic, almost—to defend each brick to the last.
Things only went the way of seething from there.
A lot’s changed since I lived nearby
The shopping centre has become the home to many a small independent trader, something only possible thanks to it not being all that great to start with and the ever growing decrease of big-chain high-street stores.
Faced with let it sit empty or lower the rent, the latter occurred, so allowing the little guy a look-in.
Low-end and no more than knick-knacks, maybe – but if it’s providing a livelihood, then people are finally shopping there and who could argue with that?
Over the last few years, however, the new traders have faced two major obstacles.
- First they took a financial blow in 2014 when the neighbouring ‘brutalist monolith’, the Heygate Estate, was knocked down, so removing a large source of customers.
- The second came when new owners of the shopping centre—Delancey—decided to increase traders’ rents as much as they could without care or concern for whether they were viable in relation to the businesses.
Taken at face value the second makes little to no sense given the first.
Except, that is, when knowing the circumstances behind the Heygate Estate’s destruction.
Apparently Southwark Council only made the decision to demolish the Estate after much consultation.
From the Heygate Estate Wiki page:
‘Architect Tim Tinker described the estate’s ‘notorious’ reputation as a “farrago of half-truths and lies put together by people who should have known better.”’
Of course there are people who found a sense of community there – they didn’t have any choice. For my money, I’d happily wager Mr Tinker never lived there himself.
The point, though, isn’t to debate the pros and cons of cramming people on top of one another in high-rise blocks; instead it’s to simply point out the quote only exists due to opposing the ‘negative’ view clearly given the greater credence when deciding the Estate’s fate.
It was demolished.
The reason for Heygate’s destruction and the trader’s rent increases boil down to the same thing:
Despite what objections to Heygate’s ongoing existence would’ve entailed, the Council Estate totalled 1,214 dwellings, whereas the private development taking its place will total 2,704 . . .
In Toronto, where I now live, building as many new high-rise condos as possible is plague-like rampant.
The numerous and ever increasing problems with such building policies are horribly manifest.
A few examples:
- Once sunny streets become overshadowed wind tunnels.
- Suddenly hundreds of people are using streets and public transport where pre development only a few houses and business may have existed to add to local traffic flow.
- New buildings have been found badly constructed to the point of widows falling out and little to no sound proofing.
It might’ve cost half a mil, but if the person owning the one next door wants to Air B&B it to a never ending stream of stag parties, tough shit (there have been reports of some buildings having more apartments used for Air B&B than by actual permanent residents).
A study even concluded current building trends will have a long term detrimental impact on the city due to not offering enough ‘family friendly’ condos, so showing no thought whatsoever being put in regarding sound urban planning and community.
If all that isn’t bad enough regarding what London seems all too eager to let itself in for just to profit a few, there are the precise details surrounding the sale of Heygate Estate. From the Wiki page:
‘A council blunder in February 2013 revealed that it had sold the 9-hectare estate to Lend Lease Group for just £50m, having spent £44m emptying the site and £21.5m on planning its redevelopment.’
Anyone I talk to from a major city mentions the rampant desire to erect as many buildings—whether they be called condos, high-rises, apartment buildings or blocks of flats—as quickly as possible.
Thanks to blunders on the monumental scale of Southwark’s, degrees may vary; consistent in every case, though – ‘the people’ are getting well and truly pummelled.
Thanks for reading,
N. P. Ryan.