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Elephant & Castle Gentrification 5
Marianne Wilson

How the gentrification of Elephant and Castle affects Latinx Londoners

It’s a familiar story of the city – as the area ‘regenerates’ into the sky, we look at what’s being left behind

The summer of 2018 felt significant in the ongoing dilution and diminution of London’s nightlife. On July 20 it was Hackney Council’s ruling on a 12am weekend curfew for all newly opened venues in the borough. A legislative abstraction that has taken concrete meaning over the past week or so, with the death knell ringing for both Visions and Alibi – two much loved Dalston clubs that will be shutting with immediate effect.

Though the two decisions were owner-driven, they seem part of the same narrative and texture: one of decay and despondency. However, it was a different verdict by Southwark Council’s planning committee on July 3 that might well prove more enduringly significant for the city’s diversity and sense of difference.

After a 4-to-3 vote (with one Labour abstention) the decision to demolish Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre was finally approved, despite local opposition and long standing controversy over the precise terms of what comes next in an area not unfairly perceived of as South London’s gentrification Ground Zero, due to the still contentious running down and demolition of the Heygate Estate in 2013, followed by the ruthless pricing out of its mostly working class residents, all forced to leave an area they’d called home for decades. It’s a grim soap opera currently being replayed on the nearby Aylesbury Estate in Walworth.

Certainly, no one has bothered to seriously address the concerns of the areas Latin American community. One of the largest in London and by extension the rest of the UK, with 9 per cent of the city’s 145,000 strong population based in Southwark, mostly clustered in either Elephant and Castle itself, along the arterial flow of the nearby Walworth Road that runs south to Camberwell, or down the equally close-by Old Kent Road.

It’s been this way for as long as many care to remember, or at least the mid-1970s. The Ecuadorians, Brazilians, Columbians, Peruvians and other groups that make up what local charity Latin Elephant unsuccessfully lobbied to have designated London’s first official Latin Quarter in 2016.

Neither the developers Delancey or the council have offered more than vague platitudes about what happens to the constellation of small South American businesses in the condemned centre that find themselves set to be replaced by new retailers, a fresh wave of safety deposit box private flats and eye-wateringly-priced student accommodation running into the high hundreds of pounds-a-week, tied to the new LCC campus also earmarked for the site.

“They say they want us to remain in the area, but you see how many apartments are being built. It’s very unlikely that they’ll grant us a license to operate as a club and bar when they’re done” – Mateo Quintero

And though a slight increase in the numbers of social housing units has been provisionally secured (116 out of 979, up from an initial 33) along with a relocation fee and a pledge to keep 10 per cent of the retail space “affordable” – it’s not enough, critics argue. Firstly, it’s a notion of affordability that can mean anything up to two thirds of Zone 1 market rate. Figures that are wildly out of reach for the Latin American hairdressers, garment shops, money transfer points, cafés, bars, restaurants and clubs that have served as a Spanish speaking hub for 20 years and beyond.  

Few of their number have been as enduringly popular as Distriandina (also known as The Colombian), the longest continuously running Colombian venue in London. It’s one of several multipurpose spaces (restaurant, bar or nightclub depending on the time of day or week) perched under the set-to-be demolished railway arches on Elephant Road, with a capacity of over 300.   

There have been plenty of big nights at Arch Number 6 over the years. During the normal order of things it’s their Sundays that are typically busiest, offering a late night, DJ-packed crescendo to the weekend. People come to dance, to drink, to catch up with friends in a space that provides a cultural connection with home. Latin American music, drinks and reminders of elsewhere. A space to wile away an evening in temporary forgetfulness of the day’s cares, in an environment that feels like yours.

“You know how lager and opposing football fans aren’t always the best mixture,” says owner César Quintero, who set up roots in Elephant after moving southwards from Holloway in 1998. Well it didn’t matter during their screening of the Colombia vs England last-16 World Cup clash this summer.

Though it might have been wildly over-capacity with punters thronging onto the street and traffic paralysed against the wall of yellow and noise, there wasn’t a hint of trouble among the mixed supporter crowd despite the possibility for tension after a thrilling game terminating with an agonising penalty shoot-out climax and English victory. It’s always the same when Colombia play, he tells me.

Although it doesn’t seem to matter how beloved, popular or even useful: where venues like The Colombian fit into the new corporate storyboarded Elephant and Castle is beyond César’s son Mateo. “They say they want us to remain in the area, but you see how many apartments are being built,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s very unlikely that they’ll grant us a license to operate as a club and bar when they’re done.”

It’s a citywide issue played out with alarming frequency in the area. Firstly, the 138 year-old venue The Coronet finally shut its doors at the beginning of the year after a long fight against closure. A cocktail of rent hikes and police pressure on “urban events” was no match for the death knell chimed by Delancey’s new plans, with demolition penned in for the start of 2019.

Nearby Ministry of Sound was spared after it took the novel step of lobbying developers on a previous round of redevelopment in 2016 to build-in better soundproofing to the new flats, in a bid to allow noise levels to remain as they were. This seems to be the critical point. All of the whirlwind building and activity is pointed at a new, so far entirely hypothetical population that want residential security over anything remotely anarchic or vibrant. A demographic that don’t really want – or understand – the kind of the nightlife offered by the existing area, or what surely constitute the consolations and attractions of London life: its cultural diversities and breadth of opportunity.   

That’s Mateo’s hunch, anyway. “We think it’s been done this deliberately. For instance, you saw the Colombia game – the whole road is just crowded with people. I don’t think that’s something that the developers want in the new Elephant and Castle.”

“You saw the Colombia game – the whole road is just crowded with people. I don’t think that’s something that the developers want in the new Elephant and Castle” – Mateo

“Community” is a popular buzzword in public sector officialese and developer lingo alike, particularly in the hypercharged sphere of London regeneration. Delancey’s own website trumpets the value of the “comprehensive redevelopment” of the old centre into a “focal point for the community.”

But it doesn’t seem a vison much concerned with accommodating the already existing Elephant and Castle, a place very much in possession of its own “focal points”: though just not the sort easily packaged and up-sold by international developers. In a city with public bodies less hellbent on self-immolating any sense of difference, the vibrancy of the Latin American community might even be something to celebrate.  

And though Southwark have hired the highly regarded Tree Shepherd to work with local businesses on a “community outreach” basis, Mateo says there’s been a fundamental lack of understanding, willful or otherwise, on behalf of the local authority.

“Supporting documents for the planning application even list us as a coffee shop, not an entertainment venue. It’s odd because Corsica Studios was listed correctly,” he explains. Many of the centre’s other occupants have also raised concerns about a consultation process quickly degenerating into farce, or shrouded in silence. Over 2,000 people have signed a petition asking Sadiq Khan to take another look at the plans and stop the displacement, but communication lines remain closed.

“It would be great if there was more dialogue between traders and Delancey,” Mateo says. “It’s something they’ve promised but remains just talk at the moment. We don’t know if we can stay or if we’re going to be compensated. These are things they could easily make us aware of so we have an idea of the bigger picture.”

The most frustrating thing, he says, is that the Latin American community is in favour of things changing and “some regeneration – just not at the cost of displacing hundreds of people. It doesn’t seem necessary.”

There may be more important things in the fabric of city life than the loss of a venue, or the closure of a particular bar. But it isn’t just the possibility for late nights and revelry that get lost with places like The Columbian. It’s the symptom of a wider danger, as Mateo puts it. Of obliterating not only “the connection with home. It’s about losing the whole slice of South American life that we’ve built here in London.”