The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.17 minute read

Introduction

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Center is located within the neighborhood of the Elephant and Castle, originally two different villages, Walworth and Newington, that over time came together. During World War II, and more specifically the London Blitz, the Southwark area, home to Elephant and Castle, was particularly hard hit (Littlefield, 2012, pp.121). The post war reconstruction period led to the creation of new buildings including the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. As a response to the recession that London experienced in the 1980s, the area lost value but it also became exceedingly cheap and thus affordable to the rising Latin American population in London (Roman-Velazquez, 1996, pp. 97). Since the 1990s the Southwark Council has been planning the “renewal” or “regeneration” of the area, recently resulting in the demolition of the Hygate Estate, against the desires of the local population. The Southwark council has since created a Southwark Plan, which has been used as a template to frame the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle.

Key to this redevelopment is the destruction of an important Latin American meeting place in London, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center (Littlefield, 2012, pp.121). The urban redevelopment or regeneration project that is being undertaken has slowly but surely attempted to wipe away the Latin American community within Elephant and Castle, as especially shown by the proposed destruction of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. As a consequence of the processes of gentrification happening in Elephant and Castle, specifically evidenced by the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center, the Latinx community is in the process of being erased. However, in response there has been an upsurge in cultural resistance to this process.

The term palimpsest describes the layering of history, however evidence of the past is able to shine through allowing history to interact with the present (Dillon, 2005, pp. 243). This is something that is characteristic of Elephant and Castle, but it is also something that is happening right now in regards to the Latinx community in Elephant and Castle. By attempting to wipe away a center of the Latinx community in London, the community has only become more prevalent. The Elephant and Castle Shopping centre has become a fighting ground of the past, present and future as the redevelopment provides very little assurances to the Latinx community that has formed in the area. This has forced the community to come together and fight to be part of the Elephant and Castle future.

Specifically this paper will widely address the topic of gentrification / ‘urban regeneration’. In order to discuss this topic I will discuss research on consumption, the consumption of culture and the commodification of culture as it relates to the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center. In order to connect these theories to the Latinx community in Elephant and Castle I will look at research done on diaspora communities, specifically through studying everyday multi-culture and migration in the Elephant and Castle area. In order to address my question directly I will be looking at the topics of protest and contestation and how this links to the cultural resurgence of the Latinx community that has happened as a consequence in Elephant and Castle.


Analysis

Gentrification/Urban Regeneration:

In the world that we live in today, profit consumption, drive many of the changes occurring in both the public and private sector. Two examples of this are the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center, one a council estate that was destroyed in the name of ‘urban regeneration’ and the other something that many are attempting to destroy for the same reason. Both of these centers of community were considered worth having until they were no longer profitable to have in the area. The change that occured in these locations is analysed by the works of Newman and Smith and Debord.

Figure one: image of the Heygate Estate before it was destroyed for the creation of Elephant Park.
Figure one: image of the Heygate Estate before it was destroyed for the creation of Elephant Park.

Rather than simply allowing their existence to be quietly erased, the Heygate residents resurfaced and made sure to make the destruction of the estate something that all knew about (Lees). A concept that Guy Debord makes clear is that of humanity being blinded by consumption: while many are happy and willing to move into new luxury apartments in central London, not many are willing to learn about the people that were displaced in order to create those homes (Kaplan, 2012, pp. 462). By fighting back against the process of ‘urban regeneration’ that would eventually lead to the destruction of the Heygate Estate, its residents ensured the palimpestuousness of the site. By wiping out the Heygate Estate the Southwark council brought the residents of the estate to the forefront. However, though the Heygate estate was ultimately destroyed, its legacy has allowed for the possibility of a different future for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center and its residents.

Newman and Smith analysed the the development of the Southbank area during the twentieth century, marking a change that occurred during this period. Specifically that during the twentieth centu all social spheres of life came to be organized according to a capitalist ideal: that all things had to add something in terms of profits or political power (Newman & Smith, 2000, pp.1). In the 1990’s the Heygate estate found itself in the awkward position of being unable to prove its usefulness and as such drew the eye of the Southwark council as something to be removed (Ferreri & Lee, 2016, pp.14). This ignored a survey taken of the council estate residents that found that a majority of its residents wished for the estate to remain open. Rather than the community value, the council could only see the lack of monetary value that the estate held. Instead of making money, the estate cost the community money and as such it held very little value. As such the “decanting” of Heygate residents begun in 2007 and the subsequent demolition of the estate makes sense as it made it possible to bring about plans for market price apartments (Lees). However, the Heygate residents did not make the destruction of the Heygate estate easy.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Center was constructed as a part of the post-war Modernist building craze and soon the negatives of the buildings overpowered the draw of the new architectural design (Littlefield, 2012, pp.121). During the 1970s the shopping center seemed to be a failure in terms of producing a profit and when the recession hit in 1980, the centre lost the few shops that it did hold. It was thanks to an influx of entrepreneurs from the Latinx population that the centre was able to maintain its profitability. As a consequence of the low rents, the location drew in more of the Latinx population, revitalising the area to a certain extent (Roman-Velazquez, 1996, pp. 97). However, eventually the shopping centre, which one article referred to as an “eyesore”, was unable to account for its existence in terms of profit (Bourke, 2015). Nonetheless, the centre had gained a new kind of value as community center in time and today stands not only as a site of shops but also as a place where Latinxs can meet and connect to their culture.

Diaspora Community:

The Southwark are can be characterized by its large ethnic minority population, with over 60% of the residents identifying as ethnic minorities in the 2011Census (Hill & Román-Velázquez, 2016, pp.14). Within this population group 8.6% identified as Latinx on the official census, however other studies have found that this number may be even greater (Hill & Román-Velázquez, 2016, pp.14). This large concentration of Latinx people in the area is both a consequence and a reason for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Center becoming a site of culture and community for Latinx population of London. The Latin Elephant released a report in 2016 that surmised that entrepreneurship provides migrants the ability to escape the box that migrants usually find themselves in of working in low wage jobs. As a result the low rents of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre drew in migrant Latinx entrepreneurs, which drew in more, as migrants are likely to go to where they know they will find jobs and a community formed in the area (Hill & Román-Velázquez, 2016, pp.16). This community spread beyond simply the shopping center and came to encompass the Elephant and Castle area as a whole. For the purposes of this essay I will be focusing on the Shopping Centre.

This interlinkage between consumption and culture is something that Suzanne Hall addresses. One of the main reasons for migration to London is to work and this is true for the Latinx population that can be found in Elephant and Castle. However, as a consequence of this migration and entrepreneurship, the community has been able to establish itself as part of the wider London culture. Rather than the Shopping center being a space that the Latinx population in London occupied, it became a place that represented the changing multi-culture of London (Simonsen, 2005, pp. 7). This has been evidenced by the fact that in addition to commodity driven business, food markets and budget stores, the shopping center currently holds many service driven industries that specifically cater to the Latinx population. Additionally, the centre also provides information in the form of leaflets. Moreover, one of the key services that the Elephant and Castle shopping centre provides is that of a meeting center for the community, something encouraged by cafe such as the ‘La Bodeguita’. One survey conducted by the Latin Elephant that 28.6% of respondents visited the shopping centre, not for shopping but for socializing (Hill & Román-Velázquez, 2016, pp. 62).

The shopping centre has become an example of Latinx culture in London, with action being taken to have the Elephant and Castle area as a Latin Quarter. More than on entrepreneurial level, the people of Elephant and Castle themselves have made this area of London their own. Many consider it to be a meeting point for Latinx, with the shopping center playing a key role. However, the proposed changes to the area include tearing down the shopping center and replacing it with a new town center with no regard to the community that currently exists there. The proposed changes are estimated to cost £1.5 billion and will eventually result in the creation of a new shopping center, a new campus for London College of Communication and provide for more pedestrian walkways (Lendlease & Southwark Council).

Figure two: Delancy mock up of what the proposed changes to the Elephant and Castle area could look like.
Figure two: Delancy mock up of what the proposed changes to the Elephant and Castle area could look like. The area is depicted as sleek and shiny, with the sun shining down. What is missing from this image is the same sense of the Latinx community that the Shopping Centre inspires.

What is not mentioned is the effect that this regeneration will have on the already existing community in Elephant and Castle. This touches upon the concept of exclusion that Sibley introduces concerning the London which is also applicable in the case of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment plan (Sibley, 2002, ix). Though the plan will bring many positive features to the area none of the current residents will benefit from those plan. Similarly to what occurred to the residents of the Heygate Estate, it is likely that the Latinx community at the shopping centre will be scattered as the resulting increase in price for the area would force out the Latinx entrepreneurs within the shopping centre. This pushes out the current residents of the area, creating an idea of what is accepted for Londoners and what is not. Nonetheless, what occurred at the Heygate Estate did provide useful lessons as to what could happen in the future.

Protest and Contestation:

The story of gentrification is one that has been repeated throughout the world and overall has the same plotline everywhere. However, rather than repeating the past in the case of the Heygate Estate, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre has inspired an interesting response in the Latinx community both specifically in Elephant and Castle and in London generally. Rather than fading away from the public eye as a consequence of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment plan, the Latinx communities public presence has actually grown.

Best exemplifying this is the evolution of representation that the Latinx community has experienced. Though one Guardian article commented on the fact that Latin American did not appear as an ethnic or cultural group in forms within the city of London until 2012, less than four years later the Latin Elephant made a case for the declaration of Latin Quarter within London in Elephant and Castle (Hill, 2016). This evolution of Latinx peoples becoming more visible has only grown rather than been wiped away by the redevelopment plan.

The community itself has been more sharply brought out to the light and the Latinx presence in Elephant and Castle has not only been made more clearly present, but has also been able to demand changes to the redevelopment plan. One article commented that the community has even been able to bring about changes in the plans of the developers (News Desk, 2018). The Elephant and Castle shopping centre location and the Latinx communities reaction to the proposed redevelopment has created an interesting sense of palimpsestuous. Rather than the redevelopment plan itself giving a voice to the past and the present in the future that they envisioned for the future Elephant and Castle, the Latinx community is doing this themselves.

Campaigners fighting for the Latinx community in Elephant and Castle have been trying to find a way to halt the destruction of the Elephant and Castle shopping center. However, where their demands have not been met they have been able to bring about concessions to ensure that the Latinx community is not forced out of Elephant and Castle completely (Johnston, 2018). They have been able to achieve some success by negotiating for some social housing and a place for displaced traders from the shopping center to continue their work (News Desk, 2018). However, even these small victories required an immense amount of work that has in some cases been walked back. Regardless of the outcome of the redevelopment project the amount of recognition and changes that the Latinx community of Elephant and Castle has been able to bring about cannot be ignored.


Methods

This palimpsest project included a variety of methods, such as found interviews, walks around the Elephant and Castle area, a literary review, planning information and census data. While I was not able to do interviews myself do to time constraints, I was able to find interviews  in videos found on the Latin Elephant page and within the newspaper analysis that I did for the area. Another method that I employed were newspaper articles, specifically dealing with the examples of regeneration that can be found in the destruction of the Hygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle redevelopment plan. The articles provided updates on the changes that were occuring in the redevelopment plan, while also showcasing the communities response. Important to understanding these plans, I also analyzed the redevelopment plans of the Southwark Council and also of the Lendlease company, as these plans painted a very interesting picture as to what would come to be in the area and what would not. I have also looked at the data provided by the Latin Elephant, specifically looking at their survey results of the Latinx community within Elephant and Castle and the shopping centre.

However, these methods have had their limitations. Though I was able to locate some interviews available online, they did not necessarily answer all of my questions as to how the redevelopment process has affected people more recently. Newspaper articles have also been limiting in that some contain either conflicting information, incomplete information, or simply outdated information and as such it was difficult finding the most up to date information regarding the redevelopment plans. The architectural plans themselves have also been difficult to find the most updated versions of as different concessions are made in the negotiations but no new plans emerge.


Conclusion

This subject matter of this project is something that I have always been interested in, both on personal and academic level. When I began the project, it was with the very general question of: what does the Latinx community of London look like? However, in order to fully address this question through the concept of palimpsest, I changed my focus from the Latinx community in general, to the Latinx community within Elephant and Castle specifically. Even more specifically I chose to focus on the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre redevelopment plan. Through this I have been able to come to another question that addresses the idea of palimpsest: how has gentrification in the Elephant and Castle neighborhood, specifically as it relates to the Latinx community, engendered a mixing of the past, present and future?

I chose to approach the idea of palimpsest this way because my focus was on the community, rather than the building itself. As such my project was less about the different generational impacts that the Latinx community had on the site, and more about how the changes occurring in the site brought the history of the community to the present in hopes of preserving it and continuing it for the future. Through this project I have been able to address how the Latinx community in Elephant and Castle formed on geographical level and how the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre became the focus on a more personal level. I have also addressed how gentrification / ‘urban regeneration’ has made the Latinx community in Elephant and Castle come together and work towards building a future in that area.

A consequence of studying cities is that they are always changing and London is no exception. By studying London and how gentrification can affect an existing community, I have learned about something that is applicable throughout the world. In addition, this project has also shown that it is not only the past can create a sense of palimpsest, but also fighting for a future can also engender the same sense of melancholy and mixing of past, present and future. Throughout this project I have attempted to depict the existing community in Elephant and Castle, their reactions to the ‘urban regeneration’ ongoing in the area and how the community has reacted.

Lakisha Arias De Los Santos


References

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