How Elephant & Castle used to look

Elephant and Castle is a distinct area of South London. Distinctly horrible. A giant roundabout adorned with decrepit council housing, it is a filthy labyrinth of tunnels set beneath a crawling layer of traffic instead of the multicultural hub it ought to be. Located in Zone One with two Underground lines, the Overground and countless bus links, the area is a painful example of wasted potential.

Historically a major traffic junction, it was not always such an unsightly blob on London’s map. Elephant and Castle dug itself out of the Victorian slums to prosper in 1880. Enjoying its heyday in the 1930s, the streets were once lined with prosperous shops. However, the promise the area showed was dramatically extinguished by intensive WWII bombing and subsequent mismanagement by developers in the 1960s. As part of the ‘New Sights of London’ scheme, divised to create a city that was built tall but laid spaciously, an enormous traffic gyration – comprising 2km of underground walkways – was constructed. Elephant and Castle also received a large shopping mall, positioned amid a moat of congestion.

For longer than Southwark council would care to admit, Elephant & Castle has been the sort area you would – unless you relied on its transport links – avoid with fervour. It’s surely possible that this smog-filled, crime-ridden area of town is the sole reason that no one chooses to travel south of the Thames. Felled by flailing and fruitless regeneration plans, can anyone come to this castle’s rescue?

The site www.elephantandcastle.org.uk reports that the area is undergoing “an ambitious programme of change that will culminate in one of the largest regeneration programmes ever seen in Europe.” In the years to come (apparently from 2014 onwards) we can expect a pedestrian zone of shops and cafes not dissimilar to Regent Street, a civic square to rival Trafalgar where the northern roundabout currently sits, and a park landscaped with lush courtyards. Indeed, for anyone who has had the pleasure of using the underpasses of Elephant and Castle, or considered its harsh concrete peripheries from atop a double-decker bus, the plan appears incredibly optimistic, even farcical.

Artist's impression of regeneration.

The planned regeneration of E&C

However, while – for the time being at least – its rough exterior remains, something is happening in Elephant and Castle, and it has nothing to do with town planning.

Last month The Guardian highlighted Elephant and Castle as “already one of the UK’s coolest places”, in light of its underground music scene featuring Corsica Studios and the radical social centre 56a Infoshop. One man who believes the area is worth the fight is Marcus Coates, who brought his play A Ritual for Elephant and Castle to the local Coronet theatre, and filled the auditorium. In the mould of an exorcism, Coates, alongside the band Chrome Hoof, held a shamanistic ceremony in a bid to banish the evils that ravage this part of town.

The presence of the London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts London, positioned in the heart of Elephant and Castle, has inevitably driven the area’s creative undercurrent. The college is responsible for the giant portraits of people kissing which currently decorate the roundabout and may be well observed from the upper deck of a London bus.

Elephant and Castle has some way to go before its transformation into a sleek, socially-conscious West End of the South is complete. However, it deserves more credit than we give it and shouldn’t be written off as another urine-drenched concrete jungle. It is often the case that creativity is born out of the grimiest surrounds, and here we surely have an area primed to bloom artistically. Yet, the fate of Shoreditch (super cool until everybody flocked to it) has cast a cloud over the future prospects of areas like Elephant and Castle. The danger is that once the developers wade in, all that is culturally exciting about Elephant and Castle will be marginalised or, worse still, buried beneath another glossy idyll.