Shopping is at the very heart of the Elephant and Castle. The famous pink shopping centre adjacent to the main roundabout was the first shopping centre to be commissioned in the UK (though not the first to open) Once celebrated as a beacon of modern retailing, the centre now has a downbeat quality that distinguishes it from the identikit malls that have sprouted in every town centre in the UK. Sure it has some chains: a Tesco, Lloyds TSB, Greggs, WH Smiths, Boots and Iceland but there is also a bookstall with no English titles, where you can buy the Harry Potter books but only in Spanish. There’s a bingo hall and a bowling alley on the top floor, hairdressers catering for the Afro-Caribbean community, a Polish café and deli, a Columbian restaurant, two pawnbrokers and four money transfer centres that facilitate sending earnings abroad.
Walking through the Elephant I discovered a myriad of retail outlets, eateries and stalls. Dragon Castle, my favourite Chinese restaurant in London sits on the ground floor of a student accommodation complex. The graffiti covered bicycle shop called Recycling lies under the railway arches. Angelus Temple, the Foursquare Gospel Church, is located in a shop on the Heygate Estate. These photographs of the façades of shops in the Elephant epitomise this local, particular and richly multicultural economy. As this area
experiences the inevitable transformation of regeneration, this typology of shops will undoubtedly shift.
At St Georges Circus, a series of fake façades of shop windows has been pasted over the row of boarded up shops adjoining the old Duke of Clarence pub. These detailed photographic images show expensive designer boutiques and upmarket grocers selling organic foods. They look like an old-fashioned unspoiled high street in a prosperous town, not what we think of the Elephant. There is no sign of Payless in this developer’s vision of the future.
This record of shop fronts offers a miniature time capsule, a record of a locality, its high streets and retails outlets at a particular point in time (May 2009). The pattern of the local economy in the Elephant is bound to change. What will the regeneration do to these outlets? How many of these small local businesses will survive or even flourish? But the shopping centre is no longer scheduled with demolition. The latest plans are for a major refurbishment. Perhaps the new centre will still have space for the small market traders who cluster below the roundabout.