After 55 years the final few traders were packing up their shops and stalls at the Elephant and Castle shopping centre in south London with mixed feelings about what the future might hold.
“It’s time for a change, because really everything has to be different,” Luz Villamizar, a “60-something” trader said with tears in her eyes. “It’s time because this is not a nice building now, anymore.”
The death throes of Europe’s first ever large indoor shopping centre which burst into life in 1965 as a bold new postwar commercial shopping district have been prolonged.
Plans to demolish the centre – for many years a bright pink carbuncle in the middle of one of south London’s busiest junctions – were first mooted in 2003.
Those plans, reworked, are finally coming to fruition. But in so doing they have destroyed an icon of working-class London, which has latterly become a cultural hub for the UK’s newly arrived Latin community.
Villamizar claims the distinction of being the first Latin American to open a business in the shopping centre. Originally from Colombia, she opened her hair salon, Lucy’s, on the upper floor in 1992. After a hard-fought community campaign, her business is one of 40 or so which has been relocated to new premises nearby; a further 40 have been left with nowhere to go, campaigners say.
But she mourned a tight-knit community that was being broken up. For London’s Latinos, spread across the capital’s working-class districts, the Elephant and Castle has been a place where they can come together, where new arrivals could pitch up, straight from the airport, luggage in hand and find a job, a place to stay, or a taste of home. No Latin quarter is being created in plans for the redevelopment.
“The community was around here and that’s what we are going to miss, because everyone is moving to different places,” she said. “Me? I’m going to Elephant Arcade, and there’s only going to be two Latin businesses there.”
Before the Latinos arrived, the Elephant and Castle, with its warren of cheap, mainly independent, shops, was a hub for London’s poorer minority communities. On the edge of Zone 1, it was well served enough by public transport to draw custom from across London.
In the late 90s, the area was regarded so emblematic a site of multicultural London that it was chosen to be the venue for the MacPherson Inquiry into the Metropolitan police’s botched investigation into the the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
One of the customers who had come to take her last look at the site was an 80-year-old who would only give her name as Jay. She had travelled from Ilford to “say goodbye to her friends,” the traders from home she had bought essentials from for the past 30 years. What did she think of regeneration plans? “Disgusting,” she said. “They should leave it.”
Jay spoke of how she would come to the shopping centre to buy dresses and materials from African textile sellers, her household goods from the family-owned hardware shop, and exotic fruit and vegetables from the many market traders.
“I used to go to the bingo upstairs. I used to come every day,” she went on. “It just took me out of the house, keep me occupied – and then I used to win! So I would win and send money home to my people in Jamaica.”
Developers say that their “town centre” regeneration plan will “deliver a thriving new Zone 1 destination” that will include “a range of high street and independent retailers, enhanced restaurant and leisure opportunities and a new university campus for [the] London College of Communication.”
But critics of the regeneration say that the plans for the area are simply pushing out the working-class community it has long served and housed. When it emerged that the local council, Southwark, had sold the land on which the 1,200-home Heygate estate sat, next to Elephant and Castle, for £50m, but paid more than that to remove and rehouse its residents and demolish the site, it was accused not just of gentrification, but social cleansing.
Latin Elephant has been one of the campaign groups at the forefront of fighting for the future of traders at Elephant and Castle. Patria Román-Velázquez, the group’s founder, and her colleague, Santiago Peluffo, said that, when they began fighting for the future of the shopping centre’s unique community, the developer, Delancey, and the local council, Southwark, had made no plans for their relocation.
Since then they, in collaboration with other local campaigners, have extracted a number of concessions, including a promise to include 10% “affordable” housing in the development, as well as relocation plans for half of the traders. Many have been left with nowhere to go – including nearly all the traders in the thriving open-air market around the shopping centre.
“We won’t stop until all of those businesses are relocated,” Román-Velázquez said. “This doesn’t stop here, we will continue to fight for those traders who are left out.”