On 3 July 2018, an hour after Eric Dier’s penalty sealed Colombia’s World Cup fate, as throngs of disappointed football fans streamed out of La Bodeguita restaurant, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre’s future was decided: Southwark’s Labour-led Council voted by a marginal four to three decision in favour of demolition, which is expected to commence this year. Last December, the £2 billion Delancey proposal for that demolition was approved by London mayor Sadiq Khan, despite the objections of over 1000 people (including eight councillors). April this year marked the end of an era: the closure of the bingo hall which has provided the most spirited opposition to the project and has also long been the focal point for much of the area’s Black Caribbean community. With the whole top floor of the centre gone, it is only a matter of time before other leases are run down and demolition begins. In total, over 25 food businesses — including some of the best places in the city to eat Guyanese, Nigerian, Thai, Columbian, Ecuadorean, Indian, and Jamaican; outside, Colombian, Ecuadorean, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Dominican — stand to be directly displaced by the decision.
As one of the few tube termini located within Zone 1, Elephant and Castle holds a unique and important position as the gateway to the rest of south London. At the confluence of five roads that spread their tendrils through the south and link the communities of Peckham, Camberwell, Kennington, Walworth, and the Old Kent Road, its position and its real estate has turned it into a battleground for one of the most important modern struggles between old and new London; between those with money and power and those without.
Elephant and Castle has seldom appeared in the mainstream food media, and when it has, references to it have been less than kind: A “stabby shitehole of staggering grimness,” according to one national restaurant critic; where it would not be a surprise to catch “a nasty suppurating skin condition,” the assessment of another. Such sentiments are symptomatic of a broader narrative which tends to overlook the displacement and destruction of working class spaces — one of the most important issues that the London restaurant scene faces today. This starts with the displacement of customers, which in Elephant, manifested itself in 2014 when the Heygate Estate was razed; continues with a steady neglect, where buildings are allowed to slowly deteriorate; and ends with the replacement of businesses by chains and luxury accommodation. This pattern is not unique to Elephant: it replicates itself across the city, affecting various cultures and communities at Seven Sisters Latin Market, on Ridley Road in Dalston, at Chrisp Street in Poplar, and soon, possibly, in Shepherd’s Bush.
The shopping centre is the nexus of this south London community, a landmark which has been called many things: “much reviled”, an “eyesore”, an “old pachyderm” containing “very few outlets of note.” The last word many would use is ‘beautiful’. And yet there is a kind of poignancy in its resolute untrendiness, its fading, cracked blue facade and its location, sitting like a condemned prisoner at the centre of a bustling roundabout, isolated and caged by the glass and metal high-rises that have sprung up around it. But more than that, it is also vital. It is vital for the predominantly working class and BAME community which shops there — for affordable shoes and discount clothes, haircuts and manicures, vintage records, money transfers, and food.
It is also a vital hub for every Latin American in London, a home away from home. Here it’s possible for a newcomer to the city to find a flat, a job, goods and services, work out how to get a National Insurance Number, or register for the NHS. In many ways the centre is a physical reminder, helping make visible a previously invisible community that in turn has helped transform the centre over the last 20 years from mostly empty into a success story of BAME and Latin American enterprise. Elephant’s Latinxs will suffer the most both from the repercussions of the destruction of the shopping centre and the sale of Network Rail’s adjacent arches, which currently offer affordable rents to a majority of Latin American businesses, many of them bakeries, cafes, snack shops, bars and restaurants. This is one of the last areas in central London that remains both work and home to a significant diaspora population; soon, it will have changed beyond all recognition.
Elephant and Castle moves to the rhythm of its restaurants. Santiago Peluffo, from activist group Latin Elephant, is passionate about the importance of food to the Latinx community: “Food is an essential part of Latin American culture,” he says. “Everyday people come to the Elephant to get their fix of empanadas, arepas, or frijoles. And in most cases food is the perfect excuse to get together with your loved ones or even meet someone — there are many love stories that started with an empanada in Elephant and Castle.”
At La Barra, a restaurant that caters primarily for Colombians and Dominicans, the owner’s son Juan Camilo Jaramillo Riascos highlights the importance of the restaurants as a place of respite from the city. “Food is so important to the Latin community here. It’s hard, so sometimes you just want to sit down and eat the food you grew up with. The restaurants and the clubs round here all play a huge role in our happiness.”
The fate of these restaurants once the centre is demolished is unknown. The worst fear is that the gutting of the community’s heart will cause a level of disruption that its tenants will be unable to mitigate, with many of the businesses already training an eye on wholesale relocation. The centre is now a certain loss, but many things remain uncertain. It is worth stating that every single concession, from the percentage of affordable rent at the new centre, to the new Boxpark-like structure that will be erected on Elephant Square to house some (but crucially, not all) of the present units, has been hard won by activists and the vendors themselves. While the centre is expected to be demolished this year, these small battles — by Latin Elephant which has been omnipresent and tireless throughout, and Southwark Notes (a resident-based activist group) — are still taking place and will continue.
More battles lie ahead. Until then, just the act of eating together, of enjoying and sharing the same space, can represent a form of solidarity in a city that seems determined to relinquish its soul.