Archive for the ‘London’ Category

Stewart Home writes in his Mister Trippy blog reports that in London of “empty retail units and what only a couple of years ago would have seemed like really unlikely pop-ups in place of tedious corporate chains.”

I can’t imagine rents have dropped more in London than they have in New York, but this would be a welcome development. I haven’t seen it here yet, but you never know – retail units are emptying out in Manhattan as well.

If it IS happening in London, it would be reversal of what was happening when I moved back in 2007, when the old London of independent stores and second-hand shops seemed about to disappear completely.

I’m thinking of one place in particular, a second-hand booksellers in the St. James shopping arcade, just behind St. James Park (between Buckingham Palace and Westminster for you non-Londoners). The bookseller was a garrulous English guy, whose small store was wedged between a newsagent and some kind of coffee chain. He had all kinds of books you didn’t see in the chain bookstores (including a full range of titles by Stewart Home), and perennial sales – books for a pound. His store was ramshackle, with boxes all over the place, but he was a big friendly guy who liked to chat with anyone who came into his store – and there were always a couple of regulars around the counter. After he spotted my accent, he told me his wife was from Canada, that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the store since the landlord wanted to raise his rent beyond any reasonable amount, but that if he lost the store, he and his wife were going to sail up and down the coast of British Columbia “like we’ve always wanted to do.”

A week after our conversation, he was gone. A couple of chain shops – a gift card place, a chain juice shop (I’ve forgotten the name of most of these chain places) moved in, but were never too successful and when I left London last year, the storefront was empty again.

I saw his departure as the end of an older London, since that was what I’d always loved about the city, that you could find an independent bookseller ten minutes walk from Buckingham Palace. From that point on, central London seemed exclusively for the rich – wages were already going down for anyone not in the higher echelons of the financial district, and the prices kept going up, up, up. And the chains were everywhere.

Maybe that’s why I liked the Elephant and Castle shopping mall – in it’s own grubby way, it retained a little of that old anarchic London, with it’s mixture of Columbian cafes, the African market, (the Chinese herbalist with the sign in the window promising relief from ‘man problem’) the good second-hand booksellers on the lower level. Despite, or perhaps, because it was still a miserable place to spend more than say, twenty minutes.

So readers, have you seen any examples of interesting stores taking over empty ‘tedious corporate chains’ like Stewart Home writes about in his blog?

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Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

Since the Pink Elephant Shopping centre continues to be the number one hit on this blog (who knew?) I should provide a link to my other blog ‘live from the heygate’. I started this blog when I lived on the Heygate Estate from October, 2007 until April the following year. In part I wanted to record the experience of living on the estate and the Elephant in what I thought might be it’s last moments before being demolished. Since then, I have followed developments both from while living in adjacent neighborhoods, and now from New York. I try and keep up with the regeneration, how the tenants are faring, and any artistic projects taking place in or around the estate – with anything to do with the Elephant generally.

Posts specifically about the shopping centre:

Elephant Saved (one month ago)

The Mall (from March, 2008)

and Deja Vu All Over Again (today)

I also have many posts about the regeneration, the heygate estate, the Elephant and Castle area in general.

Include from Time Out: a fine post about the Elephant and Castle mall in 2006.

Also, for a bit of recent history: A great post from Micheal Collins from 2001 (The Likes of Us), about growing up on the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle: “The Elephant’s Graveyard”

Escalators to Bingo Palace

Escalators to Bingo Palace

I’m interested in marginal areas in transition, and the Elephant is about as marginal and in transition as it gets. I have also lived in the Elephant, on a mostly transient basis, since 1987, when I first came back to the UK as an adult after growing up in Canada. I lived in a squat across the New Kent Road in one of the inter-war brick estates. Squatting was very common back then – the law supported it, and there were many empty flats across London. I’ve heard it’s making a comeback now, but I doubt it will ever reach the popularity it had in the 80’s, when basically any newcomer to London with any sense lived  in a squat.

The regeneration scheme, the largest construction project in all of Europe, is designed to completely remake the entire area, including the estate, the mall, and the roundabout, encompassing several city blocks, is falling further and further behind schedule. No deal has been signed with preferred bidder Lend Lease. In the latest statement, Councillor Nick Stanton of Southwark Council says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that a deal will be reached with preferred bidder Lend-Lease by the end of 2009, but no deal his been reached.

People remain on the estate – including exactly one lease-holder living on the Kingshill Estate, a building which once held 800 or 900 people. One person in an empty building, the flats covered in thick iron slabs to keep out squatters.

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My friend Ian has a new site: 

London Sound Survey

Ian spent a year or so walking all around London recording street sounds, market criers, preachers, crowds in Soho on a Saturday night, random coversations, building sites . . . pretty much anything he could. He has a ‘sound map’ where you can click to see how different neighborhoods sound – outlying areas are not always quieter than the centre – and a blog recording different reactions to sounds (AN Wilson on the advent of the Walkman), his own experiences walking around with his headphones/ microphones. 

And since everyone wants to hear the Elephant, he has two recordings taken in the Elephant and Castle mall: 

One, on the lower level inside the mall

Then the Lady in White, who preaches regularly outside the main entrance, shouting over the noise of rush hour traffic (recreated faithfully here).

So, if you can’t travel to London, you can at least find out what it sounds like . ..

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The Mall in all it's glory

The Mall in all it's glory

You wanted it . . . you got it.

The most popular posting on this blog has nothing to do with Brooklyn Obama Art Culture  or even Planet Toronot  but . . . .

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall.

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

Britain’s oldest indoor mall, like the Heygate Estate behind it, is part of an earlier regeneration scheme for the Elephant Castle, which had been devastated during WWII. The mall , like the Heygate Estate and pretty much everything else in the Elephant, is slated for demolition to make way for another attempt at ‘regeneration’, though the mall likely won’t be torn down until 2012 – at the earliest. 

It’s easy to hate the mall, and up until a couple of years ago I basically did. In the late 80’s, it was depressing, and the tunnels that fed into it from the nightmare roundabout were not just depressing but sometimes even dangerous. Packs of kids hung around the mall, especially on the upper levels, along with more than a few drunks. The few cafes were dingy, served terrible food; the garish reds and pinks, the muzak, the vandalized phone boxes, made it seem like some awful caricature of the malls I’d left behind in North America. 


Perhaps it was just familiarity, even sentimentality, but eventually . . . while I can’t say I came to love it ,  I had to admit a sneaking affection came over me when I lived on the neighboring Heygate a year ago. 

Columbians had taken over many of the stores on the upper level. They served great coffee, and you could sit and watch the waves of pedestrians in and out of the concrete terminal of the neighboring train station. There are two kiosque type places, and La Bodeguita, a Columbian restaurant with big glass windows that plays Columbian music out into the mall, offsetting the muzak classical drifting from the ceiling . . . 

Cafe on second floor

Cafe on second floor

Underneath the railway arches, where there’d been the original raver’s clubs back in the 80’s, were more cafes with more good coffee and that rarity of rarities in London: good, cheap food. They also have South American music, films. Nice place to hang out for a half hour or so. Up the street was a bike shop, with the bikes stacked up outside.  

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

The Charlie Chaplin pub had been taken over by squat Latin American men with profiles straight out of the great Mayan frescoes. The first time I went in, I thought I was hallucinating and that I was back in New York. 

The Elephant's most famous citizen

The Elephant's most famous native son

The murals. The kids breakdancing on thursday (or was it wednesday) evenings, inhabiting the airport lounge space on the second level, almost out of sight as you went by for the train. The great used booksellers on the lower level (I never had the money to actually buy any books, but that’s London for you). The Chinese Herbal medicine place by the 2nd floor entrance advertising remedies for ‘man problem’. 

Pink elephants racing through the mall

Pink elephants racing through the mall

And the market, open most days, running through the concrete cavern next to the mall. ‘Cheap and cheerful’ clothes, some electronics – mostly junk by and large. But I’d stop at the fruit and veg market just beside the ground floor entranceon the way home. For London, it was almost cheap and the young South Asian guys who ran it were always friendly, a welcome pause after the frenzied, usually alienating ride home.  

Market on a weekday afternoon

Market on a weekday afternoon

Curiously the Super Bowl was still in use. I didn’t know people still bowled in the Elephant or anywhere else, but on the weekends and evenings, I’d see families going up and down the escalators. There was some sort of patio bar place on the roof behind the Super Bowl and there always seemed to be people out in the evenings, even in winter  . . . 

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper level

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper leve

The mall is decrepit certainly, but it’s that  very decrepitude allows people like the Columbians, the market, the used booksellers to flourish. Once it’s gone, the Elephant will look just like any other part of London – that is to say, homogenized, gentrified – and boring. If they do blow up the Heygate this summer and, as expected, not have the money to put up anything in it’s place, how will the mall be in one year, two years time? What will happen to the booksellers, Columbians, the South Asians in the market? Whither the Elephant?

For more (and continuous) posts about the Elephant, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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From the New York Press: 

What You Make

A surprising analysis of what mostly white kids, 22 – 32, make in New York. The answer is, apparently, not much – a lot of folks in this city, established, professional, educated, or not, make less than 30 grand a year. 

And here I thought it was just me that was broke.  Small comfort I guess . . . 

This parallels the situation in London where I knew many 20 something producers, directors, graphic artists, admin people,  and so on, who survived on more or less the same – and London is still more expensive than New York. I made more as a housepainter – not that I made much. 

When the folks on Wall Street, the City can make stratospheric salaries for, I don’t know – failing – there’s something wrong here. 

The article would have been a lot stronger if they’d profiled what, say, a black working man in Brooklyn is making, but this gives a good example of the gross income disparity in our society . . .

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Why go to the riots when you can read about them on Vice?

Do they owe us a living?

A blow by blow account by blogger John Knight. Great pix by James Pearson-Hawes (aka Queenie) and Jamie Teate.

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London Calling . . .

Video of protests erupting at G20 summit in London

Kinda makes me wish I was there. Though some figures only put the demo numbers at 4000, they had the gumption to storm the cops, and break into the Royal Bank of Scotland  building (using a compter keyboard to smash a window) and smash a few things up. Not that I’m in favour of mindless vandalism, nor even most of the political factions – anarchists, socialist workers, radical enviromentalists and so on, who were very likely behind this. But you have to admire the energy. I haven’t seen anything this sustained since the last of the anti-globalization protest/ riots in Quebec City in summer, 2001. 

When I moved back to London a couple of years ago, after twelve years away, it amazed me the degree to which the financial district had hijacked almost every sphere of London life. A kind of frenzy dominated everything, accelerated up to and after the Crash, with people barking into their cellphones, and advertising and PR and finance the only gods that mattered. Hey, capitalism isn’t all bad, but anything that takes high finance down a few notches isn’t all bad either, and maybe these protests are the beginning, or more than the beginning, of a basic restructuring of British society . . .

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They just end up in the Guardian. 

Skins and Punks by Gavin Watson


Photo series by British photographer Gavin Watson of sins and punks in mid-80’s London. Watson knew many of his subjects, and this intimacy comes out in the photographs.

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Taken Fall, 2008

As the Heygate Estate empties out – it is over fifty percent empty now and the first demolitions are scheduled to begin after the summer, what is lees and less clear is what will happen once the estate is demolished. The credit crunch has made the future of the Elephant and Castle regeneration uncertain. At the moment, it looks as if the estate could be pulled down and a vast moribund construction site be left in it’s place. For years. 

   At least it would slow down the gentrification of the Elephant. 


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The Recession is Now Pt.# 87

Damn. I leave London and riots and protests break out all over Europe

And wildcat strikes break out all over the UK in support of oil workers going on strike after their bosses hired European workers, and effectively locked them out. 

Well, bless their hearts.

When I was still in England, I wondered how long it would be before this happened. Though the rallying cry of ‘British jobs for British workers’ might be exclusionary – and might make it that much more difficult for my one generation removed though British passport holding person to get a job – you can hardly blame these guys for feeling the way they do. The ‘Polish Plumber’ might have been great for the middle-classes, but the drastic wage cuts, the pressure that immigration put on employment in general in Britain was very real, and was making life very difficult for non-rich people. This was pretty much ignored by the government, the papers, by everyone except the BNP.

Wages for most people in London were a joke, the cost of living was a joke. As  the son of British immigrants to Canada – as a North American – I’m not against immigration or immigrants, but so often in Britain immigrants were used to undercut standards, wages of the British worker. It’s about time they got their own back.

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