Last month, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, which served as a hub for London's Latin American communities, closed its doors for the last time. But here, Santiago Peluffo, Patria Roman-Velazquez and Natalia Perez from Latin Elephant explain why the fight isn't over for campaigners against gentrification in the area.
As the sun went down on the 24 September, so did the shutters in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, for the very last time. The centre, which became Europe’s first ever large indoor shopping mall when it opened in 1965, was closing in favour of “re-development” by Delancey and Southwark Council. But that September evening, the community remained in high spirits, populating every corner of the historic South-London building, which had been a second home for many. Traders had spent the day clearing out their units, and now people from the local area and beyond joined them in solidarity to give this much-loved Castle a proper farewell after 55 years.
Throughout the day, we witnessed hundreds of Londoners come from different parts of the city to take a last picture of what not long ago was the most vibrant place to hang out in South London. Elephant and Castle long transcended the boundaries of the river Thames. The shopping centre primarily served people from BME and working-class communities; in particular, it served as a hub of cultural and economic activity for London’s Latin American community. Throughout the day, we witnessed how hundreds of Londoners came from different parts of the city to take a last picture of what not long ago was the most vibrant place to hang out in South London. Like the Elephant, they too seemed to have a great memory.
Invaded by mixed feelings, we firmly stood at the bottom of the statue of the Elephant holding a banner that read, "Elephant, always in our hearts". After an emotional rally around the building, we embraced the Elephant for the last time. Heartfelt words were said and loud chants were sung – by locals, former residents, traders, customers, campaigners, families. Witnessing such a display of solidarity moved us deeply.
Part of us was broken inside – another part felt proud for all these years of hard work campaigning for an inclusive development that would see the local community benefit somewhat from this scheme. After a very long planning process that began in 2016, today, over 40 traders have been relocated within the area. This was largely driven by campaigners’ advocacy work and a fierce fight against a flawed consultation and planning process. None of these significant gains came for free, and the fight will not end until all remaining traders are relocated and the promises by developers and Southwark are delivered. More than ever, we are standing for our local community.
Elephant and Castle was, is, and in the future, will be an example of diversity and inclusion for BAME groups in the UK. Marginalised communities of colour and migrants are constantly pursuing a sense of belonging. And, for many of us that come from Latin America, Elephant and Castle specifically resembles home.
It is where we would meet our friends; get a haircut; where we first landed in London and went to ask for a job and a room; where we would hear distinctive Latin American accents all day long; where we might bump into strangers and end up chatting for hours over Colombian coffee; where we could spend long hours trading, shopping, walking, chatting or simply listening.
At the Elephant we laughed, cried, hugged, ate, drank, and danced. We bonded. And we will still do it, despite the loss of the iconic Shopping Centre.
Sadly, it took many years for developers Delancey and Southwark Council to get a sense of these dynamics, and that it was not the very idea of development or change that campaigners were opposed to, but this particular form of development – which does not benefit the local community.
For the past five years, at Latin Elephant, a charity that promotes the inclusion of migrant and BAME groups in processes of urban change in London, we have taken part in a huge, coordinated campaign run by traders, community members, local groups and residents. Our campaigners have spoken out in support of a community-led regeneration, rather than the developers’ preferred model – which had no sense of what makes the Elephant and Castle community special.
And we aren’t the only ones protesting. The number of local campaigns emerging and active at the moment in London is testament to a resounding sentiment of “enough is enough” from local groups, who are feeling the brunt of a form of regeneration that leads to gentrification, displacement and fragmentation of London’s most vulnerable communities.
Developer-led gentrification is decimating communities – forcing out families who can no longer afford to live in London. Gentrification is working as another form of spatial consumerism: it is about the city as an object of consumption – not about new forms of citizenship or community building and certainly not about justice for BME communities. Developer-led gentrification is the antithesis of social and spatial justice.
In the past few weeks, we have been approached by several media outlets to comment on how this marks the “end of an era” for BAME communities in Elephant and Castle – in particular Latin Americans. But as a recognised local charity with deep roots in the area, we are confident that our community, the "Elephants", are strong, vibrant and resilient, and we will remain united. Our endurance over recent years is testimony to that.
For decades, Latin Americans have left their mark on London’s urban fabric, fighting for their place in the city alongside other economically disadvantaged and minority ethnic groups. Our communities have continually demonstrated their capacity to sustain and reinvent themselves, under constant risk of eviction from the very places they helped to revitalise.
In the big covered mall, small arches, kiosks and hidden alleys, our community has found incredible ways to transform local space into a lively Latin Quarter where working class and migrant communities can buy specialised goods at affordable prices.
We have been doing so since the early 90s – when Elephant and Castle wasn’t considered a popular area to trade. We have endured and prospered, against all odds. And despite the constant threat of “regeneration”, our history shows that we can prevail.
After all, an Elephant never forgets.