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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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Taken Fall, 2008
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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 Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Mall . . . Britain’s first ever indoor shopping mall. I still drop in. I feel almost affectionate for it now, this decaying hulk that has been so central to my London for going on twenty years – ever since I first moved here as an adult in the fall of 87, not a month before the stock market tanked just as it did last week.

The mall feels embattled, though I wonder how long this feeling will last if the credit crunch deepens. At what point will the plug be pulled on all those new towers going up north and west of the roundabout, at what point will the ‘revitalization’ of the Elephant be put on hold? In the late 1980’s, when I was living in Montreal, you could walk downtown and see empty lots everywhere. Empty hi-rises and luxury shopping malls as well, with vacancy rates of 50% and up. You’d go on the top floor of Cours Mont Royal and see mannequins stacked up in the empty storefronts . . .

The Heygate Estate is half sealed off. Talked to my old flatmate last week and he said he was being moved out in a couple of weeks. Yet somehow, the mall survives. The little Columbian cafe in the middle of the second floor is almost pleasant with the Columbian accordion music in the background. On Sunday, when I was down, sunlight poured through the open doors and the traffic was minimal so you were spared the usual traffic roar that makes anywhere in the Elephant feel like the edge of an expressway.

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

You can never get away from the basic airport terminal feel of the mall’s upper level, with the terrible muzak played a little too loud, the concrete ceilings with the water sprinkler plugs, the flourescent lights reflecting off those strange pink and orange pillars- more than an hour there has a curiously deadening effect, but all malls feel deadening to some extent. In the evenings it is mostly empty but for a few stragglers off the trains, and people in the cafe. yet the doors remain open, so you can continue off the tunnels, through the mall to New Kent Road – I guess the Bingo Palace must stay open late.

It’s never menacing like it seemed when I first came to the Elephant in the late 80’s. One evening I came in to find a bunch of kids breakdancing in front of all the funky, council-issue graffiti on the billboards covering the empty storefronts. The main floor has not one, but two, excellent second hand bookstores and Le Bodeguita, the Columbian restaurant with the big glass windows in the corner, has dancing and great food. The Bingo Palace has been refurbished and does a good business, and there is some sort of bar on top with tables out on the roof. The Polish deli by the entrance to the train station has good sausage and Polish deli stuff cheap. An artist has taken over one of the storefronts, displaying drawings in an exhibition called Elephant Hotel. By the main roundabout entrance is a Chinese Herbalist advertising remedies for ‘man problems.’

You may not want to hang out here, but for an hour on a rainy day, the Elephant Mall is a little more interesting than most shopping malls.

Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

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Stairway to an (almost) empty estate

Stairway to an (almost) empty estate

 

View from the 6th floor of Claydon House

View from the 6th floor of Claydon House

 

You can read more about the Heygate Estate here: livefromtheheygate.blogspot.com

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   Yesterday when I came home the welders were working in on three or four flats all over the building. The reverb from their generators shook through the walls like they were working right next door. When I went out, I watched them from platform four of the train station – the arc welders working three at a time putting up the big plates of iron, the blue welder’s flame flashing like sparkles from the gangways, a trio of council officals wandering in and out of the flats that had already been blocked off by the grey iron doors.

   Soon, these iron bands will block off a third, then a half of Claydon House, just like they block off a third of that huge estate I see out the window. How will it be when the whole estate is empty but for one or two holdouts? How would it be occupy a single flat in a building this vast, to feel the emptiness spreading out through the building at night, to walk down gangways past sealed off flats, knowing no one else’s steps will tread the concrete stairwells – to know the building will soon be rubble?

   For now, people are coming out again to enjoy the light evenings. Kids on the gangways, the Africans and Latinos who seem to make up most of the Heygate’s residents feeding on and off the rampways. Two young English girls, hair back in those ponytails young English girls seem to favour, one of them pushing a baby carriage with that stolid efficiency of young English single moms, as if having a baby has fulfilled their duty in life . . .the friend chattering and breaking into random dance moves – hip-hop hand gestures, a more obvious 80’s style sway of her hips and legs; the robot – moving as if to music only she can hear, describing to her friend through motion what is playing in her head. 

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90454936_6f785c7eba1.jpg   I’ve never known what to say about this mall. I’ve tried to describe it years past and failed because it’s such an odd little corner.

   Right now, I am sitting in the Café Nova Interchange (‘making connections!’) off the entrance to the brutalist concrete railway station, one of the Colombian places open on the upper level. Muzak overpowering everything else, the little wooden tables mostly empty, good espresso coffee served in little Styrofoam cups. Down the mezzazine is another Columbian café with outside tables and a combination café/ store where you can buy fresh coffee beans, Colombian cokes, cold empanadas. Latin music, all syncopated bass and wailing voices has just erupted from the stall or the Bodequita Restaurant with the big glass windows and the great, if pricy, food at the end of the mall, competing with the Muzak.

   Even though most of the shopfronts are full, this level never quite loses the abandoned air that it had twenty years ago – you feel like you are on the top level of a not very busy airport (those 60’s spaces seem to work better without people anyway). When I first came here in the 1980’s, the mall seemed both strangely familiar and totally alien. A North American style mall but with all these ugly shops – the totally depressing diner with the big glass windows and hard plastic chairs and old men having chips and eggs and beans at three in the afternoon. The massive roundabout outside, interconnected by dark concrete tunnels with that inexplicable cube in the middle, surrounded by yellowing grass and marooned amidst the traffic like the remnant of some lost civilization. The concrete – concrete tunnels, concrete rampway connecting the mall to the even more alien world of the estate. The lobby of the Hannibal House office tower which rises from the top of the shopping centre like some misshapen grey head, looked musty and decrepit, as if the offices above had already been abandoned. It was hard to imagine that any work actually took place up there.

   By the time I’d come back in 91, they’d painted the outside of the mall pink in hopes of cheering everyone up. I took my new Canadian girlfriend round to see it once and she said she’d never seen anywhere more depressing.

   The Latinos have cheered things up considerably, as has the market in the concrete hollows runs in a big L around the ground floor. No mean feat, since that concrete space, inevitably dingy and dark, overwhelmed by the traffic noise just above and only one step removed from the black holes that mark the tunnel entrances, is even grimmer than the mall. But in the evenings it is full of people coming home, buoyed the forcefield intensity of some sort of dub. The vegetable guys by the front entrance, south Asians of some sort, say ‘what you want tonight buddy’ and chat a bit when you stop by, and in the cold and the yellow light you feel a sort of camaraderie with all these disparate folk crossing paths in this strange place before disappearing into the tunnels or onto one of the dozens of busses that swirl round the roundabout, or out into the back where the big estate is all lit up like a freighter behind the mall.

   I wonder how much longer this mall will last. You can’t do much to change it’s basic dinginess (Muzak, fluorescent lights that make your eyes ache if you stay under them for too long), pink and neon green pillars and the diner with the plastic seats and 1973 menu), but it has, if not charm, then a uniqueness. Two good used bookstores downstairs – the kind of stores that can no longer survive in central London. The aforementioned Latinos. The Chinese herbalist advertising cures for ‘man problems’. Maybe if they got rid of the Muzak, it wouldn’t be a bad place. I’ve heard that the Bingo Palace upstairs has recently renovated – but the mall looks like it’s on the way out. The white siding over the pink is peeling in long strips outside, exposing the tired silver paneling, and the concrete ramps are cracked and dirty. Like the estate, it looks tired, as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball to move in. 

For more (and continuous) updates on the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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