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A Little Elephant Among The Big One: Elephant Road, Railway Arches and ‘Regeneration’ in Focus

Southwark Notes is very happy to publish a fantastic guest posting from Talia Clarick, a writer and researcher who is currently helping along the good, good work of Latin Elephant campaign.


We cannot change the regeneration that comes, and sadly and gracefully these changes that come will bring consequences that our space will disappear. This date, in one year possibly, our site, number 6 and 7 will disappear. These spaces serve the community and have served the community for around 15 years. It is a Colombian and Latin space where you can have a bite to eat and learn to dance salsa as well. It is a culturally dignified space associated with the area it resides in.” – Cesar, Distriandina


DO YOU KNOW THE ELEPHANT RD?

Elephant Road is a small street that connects Walworth Road to New Kent Road. It only spans the length of a single city street but plays an indispensable role in the bustle of the neighborhood. On the East side of the road there is the site of the demolished Heygate Estate and the shiny new Lend Lease development Elephant Park. On the West side is the small entrance to the Elephant and Castle above-ground railway station. All down Elephant Rd, a series of railway arches support the Thameslink train on its daily journeys to and from the railway station. The street is entangled in a thorny knot of ownership, with usual real estate suspects Delancey, Lendlease, Network Rail, and now Arch-Co, the new owners of the railway arches, looming large.

Elephant Rd View

All of the businesses on the street exist under railway arches, and are often overlooked in maps of the area, where the above ground railway takes priority. The activities in the arches give life to the street, which is almost always active, due to the fact that some spaces are open early as cafes, and some take on a more nocturnal identity such as Corsica Studios and Distriandina. The arches of Elephant Road were occupied within the last twenty years and have become home to mostly Latin American businesses although closer to New Kent Rd are TR Autos and Recycling bike shop.

Unsurprisingly, the arches are also key elements of the current ‘regeneration’ as Arches 6 and 7, currently home to Colombian café and nightclub Distriandina, and a small shopping arcade called ‘Elephant Central’ are planned to be cleared by property developer Delancey in the forthcoming changes to the area. Delancey’s excuse? They need to make way for a pathway from the ‘New Town Centre’ to the park across the street, or perhaps a way for wealthy residents of the new high-rises of Elephant Park to leisurely stroll back through the arches into what will inevitably become a landscape of Waitrose? Zara? Starbucks?

DELANCEY New Public Space Arches

CGI image of what the opened-up Arches 6 and 7 looks like – Delancey

 

After Delancey purchased the site of the Shopping Centre in April 2014, its army of architectural renderers created these images of what the empty arches might look like in the coming years after their ‘Town Centre’ has been constructed. In 2016, Southwark Council released some stylized images of what the arches may turn into and people are walking through the new east-west pathways, in a spectacle-induced daze.

Elephant RD Plans Southwark Council.jpg

CGI image of what the opened-up Arches 6 and 7 looks like – Southwark Council
Southwark Council wrote in 2016 that “The routes through the arches will be largely stripped back to their Victorian brickwork and exposed soffit to the platforms above. The stone paving to the street surface will extend from the Town Centre, through the arches, to meet Elephant Road. Paving modules here should respond to the geometry of each arch to further emphasize the two, near parallel viaducts

Delancey’s vision is that the clearance of the arches forms a part of their larger project of creating an “open-air pedestrianised town centre in the heart of Elephant and Castle” which will include “safer pedestrian routes, wider pavements, connections through the railway arches, and a public square.” Their ongoing lack of commentary on how this will actually affect the existing tenants of the arches remains steadfast here. But thankfully, the well-organised campaigners at Latin Elephant, with the help of Petit Elephant, have created an updated map of the current status of the tenants of the Shopping Centre and the railway arches. This mapping work is key to the understanding of ownership in the area as well a functioning as an innovative campaign tool. This largely compensates for the lack of consultation and lack of understanding that the traders have received from the developers themselves.

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Petit Elephant’s Map Below Ground at Elephant Shopping Centre

Arches 6 7 Red Lines Graph Reader

A ‘social enterprise’ called Tree Shepherd, a private consultancy appointed by Southwark Council as an ‘independent’ business advisor has been set up to supposedly consult traders about their potential relocation deals and sites. But Tree Shepherd’s funding comes directly from Delancey, proving that they are dependent on the very developer hoping to kick out the traders. There are currently close to 100 independent businesses in the ‘red line’ for relocation, but the amount of space the traders will receive in their relocated units is difficult to establish because Southwark Council and Delancey have changed the layouts of their relocation facilities. Now, the areas of the future units do not match those publicly available in Southwark Council planning portal. The updated plans are ‘kept secret.’ However, if we draw on the original plans, most of the traders have been offered a unit that is substantially lower than their current business area. An earlier Southwark Notes article reports on Tree Shepherd’s multidimensional ineffectiveness: asking traders deceptive questions about whether they want to relocate, not including the vast majority of traders, scheduling meetings sparsely, and making people fill in forms with no tangible outcomes, which is why the work of Latin Elephant is so important.

 

UNCERTAIN TIMES SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL

Nowadays, they know that they can put a nice glass door, and then they can rent it to someone big like Nando’s and to some big gym, and then they can pay just 40k-60k a year. So that’s the reason they closed down the whole lot in Brixton, and the same thing will happen here. And they just give us a lease, and they give us six months notice when they are going to need the arch- they are going to need the arch one day, they might ask you one day to go and they find someone else, that’s it.”– Diego, Computer Repair – Arco Central

Speaking to some of the traders in the arches, you get a sense of the continuing uncertainty around the future of these particular spaces. Many traders expressed their reliance on Latin Elephant in informing them on the current status of their possible relocation. The precarious position the traders are in remains as the dates for the potential relocation have become muddled in a relentless cycle of delays. One of the most common complaints from traders over the long years with the regeneration hanging over their head has been the lack of information and the frustration of never knowing what’s going to happen. For some, it’s produced a weary resignation.

Arches 6 and 7, the arches Delancey wants to clear, are fundamentally different in how they operate, as Arch 6 is filled by a single business and Arch 7 is filled with a myriad of small businesses. However, the developers are treating both of these sites as two independent businesses in total: one being Distriandina, the leaseholder for Arch 6, the other being Beset International, the leaseholder for Arch 7. This erases the presence of the other smaller businesses in the Arch 7, as their interests are not recognized immediately in the relocation scheme, and have to depend on the single leaseholder.

As of now, the traders of Arch 7 are looking for relocation in a site nearby. Gathering information from the traders, representatives from Latin Elephant explain that this is the extent of the information that the traders of Arch 7 were given. The rest of the information remains vague, as well as dependent on the results of the Judicial Review, and the amount of money they can get from the relocation fund. Distriandina is a similar case, the critical difference being that Distriandina is a single tenant. Because of how symbolic the place is for the Colombian community who comes from far and wide across London to the arch, they were able to make a case for themselves to the Council and developers, and gain a temporary space in Castle Square across the street. However, this did not come without a challenge, as the space they were allotted is much smaller than the current site. An ‘open dialogue’ with Delancey and Southwark Council appeared to be more of a box-ticking exercise for the developers to claim they were engaging with the traders.

This uncertainty has caused undue stress among people whose livelihoods depend on the arches and nearby Shopping Centre as both means of income and spaces of communal gathering. This constant delay is also caused by Delancey’s refusal to meet the minimum requirements of the Council’s own local plan, something that was recently challenged in the Up The Elephant campaign’s Judicial Review on October 22-23rd at the High Court on The Strand. The Judicial Review results are still pending but the arguments were that Delancey’s ‘regeneration’ scheme is still not providing enough social housing. Up The Elephant is also campaigning hard with traders for a fair relocation for businesses in the Shopping Centre and against unaffordable rents. Worth reading 35% Campaign’s summary here entitled ‘Delays and Delancey’.

 

ARCH-CO: THE UNHOLY ALLIANCE OF REAL ESTATE KINGS

The Elephant Rd arches have also been thrown in the middle of a national narrative as all Network Rail arches have recently and controversially been sold off. The lucky buyer was a joint venture between British private developers Telereal Trillium (it has a property portfolio of more than 12,000 properties in the U.K ) and the infamous Blackstone, a U.S private equity company, who formed a joint venture called The Arch-Co immediately adding another layer to the privatisation of publicly owned land at the local and national scale. This £1.5 billion sell-off of covered the span of 5,261 different properties across England and Wales, with more than half of the portfolio being based in London. This was in response to Network Rail’s £35 billion debt to the Department of Transportation, and funding shortfall in the years 2014-2019, which had left many projects underfunded and risked not being completed. So they decided to sell the arches, their “assets”, in what was termed an “Asset disposal strategy” in 2016 in order to cover the costs.

The selloff is indeed an all-inclusive scrapping of affordable rents, as the arches have historically been cheap spaces to set up shop, as well as offering a generous amount of floor space to people to subdivide and design as they wish. Many of the businesses in the arches are unique to the space allotted to them, as the arches offer spaces for both industrial and commercial uses. On a single stretch of arches in London and the UK one might find a car repair shop, a brewer, a hair salon, art studio, a fitness gym, and so on. As a part of the sell-off, many of these varied tenants have already faced daunting increases in rents, which could increase by 54% in the next three or four years, if all follows the predictable trajectory of the marketplace.

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Throughout the process, there was also a lack of input from existing tenants of the spaces. The audit also states the lack of community consultation was in part because the leases were not directly up for removal by the sell-off. However, the excellent campaign group Guardians of the Arches note the selloff as a threat to the tenants’ agency and demanded a fairer deal from it, including the ability for tenants to purchase parts of the portfolio, more favorable rental terms, security of tenure, and formal recognition as a tenant’s association. Network Rail objected to most of these issues, stating that “stronger tenant protections were unnecessary as the sale agreement ensures existing leases remain in place, and that stronger protections would contravene its requirements to act commercially and could raise the risk of judicial review or State Aid Challenge.”

But what does “acting commercially” mean when these arches are already filled with a wide variety of commercial activities that serve many communities in Britain and Wales? The ability to make a profit, to serve the interests of private developers, same as it ever was…

 

THE U.K’s RAILWAY ARCHES KINDA INTERESTING HISTORY

It is important to understand how these current stretches of arches have evolved to accommodate a wide variety of uses. The historical trajectory of the arch spaces is interesting, as it demonstrates how the underside of infrastructure has been creatively used beyond its original intent as a set of viaducts supporting the above ground rail. Focusing on Elephant Road, the gradual occupation of the arch spaces is a testament to how the community in Elephant and Castle evolved from the ground up, both literally and metaphorically.

Elephant Rd 1940 1
Elephant Rd, circa 1940

 

The railway itself was constructed in the Victorian era, but its arches sat on what appears to be vacant until the turn of the century. Going through the Post Office Directory records, local history archives and other historical records, one finds little information on the former lives of this street, aside from two photographs of it in post-WW2 reconstruction phase, prior to the Heygate Estate’s construction. The street took on an entirely different character as it does today. The particular rail line on Elephant Road, formerly known as the London Chatham and Dover line, was built on viaducts cutting through Southwark, Walworth, and Camberwell. The arches of Elephant Road lie adjacent to the old railway station, also built after the speculative ‘railway manias’ in 1862. Today, the railway station has entrances on Elephant Road as well as entrances within the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre at the height of the platforms above.

Elephant Rd 1940s 2

Elephant Rd, circa 1940

In Britain, for decades after the arches’ construction, they had a poor image amongst the general public. They were initially managed and occupied in an ad-hoc way, giving space for trades such as ‘smithies, marine stores, stables, mortar mills, the storage of old tubs, casks and lumber, and other low class trades.’ as Brian Rosa writes in a fascinating Ph.d study of railway arches. They were also associated with poverty because the rail-line was often deliberately built in working class neighborhoods. Throughout late 19th century and through most of the 20th century, the arches maintained a marginal, industrial position within London and the UK. It was only when the management of the arches became embedded in the city’s ‘formal’ economy that their mainstream cultural reception changed. While there are exceptions, the overall de-industrialisation of British economy opened up these spaces for smaller-scale practices. In the 1980’s the British Rail Property Board proposed a large program of arch refurbishment with the intention to improve the arches so that they were competitive with modern buildings, and yielded higher rents.

As the area underwent de-industrialisation in the 1980’s, the private sector had a greater influence on the makeup of the railway arches. The changing perception of these spaces gave way to large-scale cultural shifts and the focus on reclaiming urban space for leisure, entertainment, and lifestyle, as they became friendlier to a wide variety of entrepreneurial pursuits. This also changed the way the spaces themselves were configured, as they became more flexibly designed. The spaces offered opportunities to expand from a single railway arch into multiple, as is the case with Corsica Studios in Arches 4 and 5. It also allowed single arches to evolve into more expansive networks of many arches. The “parallel renting market” that was established offered cheap prices for people to set up shops in the arches, and was less affected by normal commercial price pressures, and local competition for the land. This model has allowed for certain groups of arches to grow into clusters of socially linked businesses, like the Latin American businesses on Elephant Road who came to the area in the last 20 years.

 

WELCOME TO LATIN ELEPHANT: MIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, many Latin American migrants came to the UK because it was easy to get a work contract from abroad. People migrated to the UK following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1971, a piece of legislation that put more restrictions on migrants coming from countries with colonial ties to Britain. Many migrants came with the idea of working for a few years, saving money, and returning to their home countries. Some have stayed, as a returning to the home country adds a risk of never being able to return to Britain. Patria Roman, from Latin Elephant, has well described this history and process in her 1999 book ‘The Making of Latin London’.

In the following decade, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre was experiencing the effects of the UK recession, which opened up the area to Latin American migrants looking for affordable spaces to set up shop. The Shopping Centre began to lease the spaces for cheap, and entrepreneurs began to repair the shops that had not been occupied for decades and began to transform them. In 1991, there were hardly any shops open on the first floor of the Centre, but a year later, Latin Americans began opening shops there. La Fogata opened in June of 1992, followed by Inara Travels. By 1994, there were ten shops owned by Latin Americans. This growing Latin American presence began to define what is a large contingent of Elephant and Castle’s demographic, and Latin Americans began to relocate businesses to the area, which includes Elephant Road. You can see a great pictorial summary of the early Latin businesses in The Elephant here.

Talking to Latin American traders about their early days in the railway arches, many of them point to the turn of the century as the beginning of the making of this particular facet of Latin London. Distriandina moved from North London to South London in this period, but originally functioned as a food distributor. The business moved to the South because of the growing presence of Latin American consumers in the area, as well as the space of the railway arch itself offering an accommodating place to sell and ship mostly Colombian products in and out.

In the early 2000’s, the nature of the shops on the street was more accommodating to businesses involving large-scale shipping, and more ‘heavy-weight’ products. The street was not yet a place to visit for a cup of coffee or bunuelo. The two mini-arcades on this block Arco Central and Elephant Central respectively were home to a carpet shop and shipping company called Beset, whose office still exists in the arch, alongside a series of other small stalls. The traders who were there during this period describe the street’s life as hectic, and ‘higgledy piggledy’ and filled with the coming and going of trucks, carpets, bedding, and musical equipment.

ELEPHANT RD PARK OLDELEPHANT RD DEMO 2013 1
Local campaign to save the Open Space on Elephant Rd in 2013 gathering outside Distriandina

Many of the traders refer to the Heygate Estate’s demolition as a part of their workday observations during this time. The residents of the Heygate Estate were large users of these former businesses of the arches, as well as the Shopping Centre. Traders note this demolition as one of the major turning points in the street’s character, as what sat directly on the Elephant Park site before was a publicly owned lot with children’s playgrounds, a pitch for football matches, an actively social space where there is now an underused, bleak square with the visible presence of CCTV cameras and a security guard.

Elephant Rd Corsica Distriandina March 2019.jpg
Half of Corsica Studios at Arch 5 and Distriandina at Arch 6

During the early 2000’s, Corsica Studios moved onto the street, also from North London. Corsica Studios, which only operated in a single arch at the time as a practice space for music, and art studio. Next to Corsica Studios to the South was a music equipment business (now a second arch-space for Corsica Studios), which Corsica Studios frequently used for its parties.

As the Latin American community expanded in Elephant and Castle, and the market for carpets, and bedding dwindled, the formation of Arco Central and Elephant Central sprung up at similar times. In Arco Central and Elephant Central, the spaces were subdivided into stalls, and mezzanine levels were constructed to fit an even greater number of small-scale operations. Throughout the years, the stalls have changed uses many times, but their scale, and short-term leases allow them to become favorable spaces for people to establish their own businesses in the area. Within Arco Central there is currently a clothing store, a computer repair shop, a tailor, a money transfer, an immigration consultancy. In Elephant Central, there is a Colombian products store, two shipping companies, a Café, and a hair salon.

Traders mention how the subdivided spaces act as micro-communities, and point to both the design of the spaces, as well as the multiplicity of functions when they describe how they are used day-to-day. They allow people to transfer money, ship a package, grab a coffee, and purchase an accessory in one go. They also point to the transnational identity of their users, as they offer vital places for people to speak Spanish, pass time, and communicate with other people in the area. Traders often shift around these spaces, expanding their stalls, moving around the arch, progressing their particular businesses.

This also allows for spontaneity and creativity, not a ready-made agenda from the top-down. A trader in Arco Central mentioned that he used to hold martial arts classes in one of the unoccupied stalls because the space allowed him to do so, as he has been practicing Tae Kwon Doe since coming to London and has now moved on to a larger studio in Stockwell. A trader in the clothing stall in this arch mentions expanding from one stall to another upon the growing success of his business, and points to the design of the space as allowing him to easily expand. Another trader mentions working in a food products store at the bottom of the arch, and establishing his own office for legal advising on the top floor of the same arch years later.

Throughout the 2000’s, Distriandina also evolved from a Colombian food distributor to a restaurant and venue for salsa. As the nature of the street began to shift, the owner of the space decided to make it more of a gathering space for the community. The design of the interior of the space transformed to accommodate the changing character of the street and neighborhood. A mezzanine was constructed for the kitchen upstairs, a bar was added downstairs, as well as bathrooms, and areas to dance and gather. Distriandina is also used for salsa classes on certain days, and features salsa nights Friday-Sunday. Distriandina has also shown great love and support for the Up The Elephant campaign to save the Shopping Centre!

Corsica Funding 2018

It’s been a bit divisive down on Elephant Rd in that although Corsica is recognised by the Greater London Authority as an ‘existing cultural’ space, Distriandina is not and despite its popularity on the weekend is reported to be only a coffee bar. With this dubious fudge, Corsica will receive £125,000 of funding to soundproof their club space presumably to spare them the wrath of those new wealthier neighbours while Distriandina will be thrown out of their arch all together. None of this is to point the finger at Corsica who have supported the area for over 20 years but more so at the sketchy and appalling way Black and Brown communities get treated under the regime of ‘regeneration’. With this in our minds, we also give a big shout out to our friends at Save Latin Village in Tottenham who are facing the same long battle as Latin traders at The Elephant!

 

COMMUNITY CAN PLAN ITS OWN FUTURE!

This is simple: if you do a treat the public well and delicately, good word will spread. It is like working in a restaurant. If you make bad food no one will come to your restaurant. If you do well, if you make good food, people will come and spread the good word.” –Alexander, Arco Central

Distriandina and the other businesses along Elephant Road played a large role in Latin Elephant’s envisioning of a Latin Quarter, a document envisioning an official recognition of the Latin American Community in the neighborhood, published in 2016. It highlighted key parts of Elephant and Castle as especially important to the Latin American community, and offered small but significant updates in the designs of these sites to amplify the importance of the already existing businesses. In this plan, there are drawings that display small facelifts to the railway arches and the surrounding street, and offer improvements in the layout of the roads, safer crosswalks for pedestrians, and clear signage and entryways into this cultural quarter. Although this vision was never executed, it allowed for imaginative renderings of what one could, yes, safely call ‘regeneration’ by the people who are most familiar with the area.

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Elephant Road is no Bond Street. It is not the most glamorous road to walk along. The arches along the North side of the road are covered in graffiti, and the pavement is poorly maintained. This makes it easy for it to get overlooked by passerby and developer alike, and allows people to associate the street with dereliction. It gives a greater case to developers like Delancey for their regenerating the area, and city councilors to welcome this. This gives developers the opportunity to run rampant with proposals that cleanse the area of highly complex social enterprises that have taken years to cultivate, and have infinite potential to grow even further, as seen in the Latin Quarter proposal. Just from talking to traders, there was an overwhelming antagonism to the regeneration, though some traders remained neutral to it.

The Elephant Never Forgets – The Struggle Continues:

“They are planning to give to the traders a really small place but there is just like 30 or 40 places for people. But we are more than what they offered him, so I don’t know how they are going to do it. Also, someone told me that there is a place where they are supposed to put the traders, but they are refusing the applications. They are telling to the traders that they cannot get those places.”

“I think this it is the identity that we have here. We are here in England. This is a different culture for us, a different language. Anyway it’s London, it’s very multicultural but it’s not our country. In this place we find a little piece of where we are, it’s like our identity, our culture, where we are from. For example I came here five years ago, I live by myself. I don’t like to cook, but I like the food from my country so here I can find this. I think that we are more than a building, we are more than a space in here. We are more than a commercial transaction. They are selling the space to the other people to make more money. This place is more than that. I think that they are not saying from that side, they are saying from another side. It’s sad, but I think it’s the reality. I don’t know if there is something that we can change. I don’t know, we just have to wait…”-
Both from Lisette, Arch 7

Hearing these local points of view makes you see that the situation at the Elephant and Castle railway arches reflects the complex, multifaceted and critical aspect of the regeneration of the area. It also points to a more national conversation on affordability and the survival of small local businesses. Existing within the Network Rail selloff, the struggle for affordable rents on Elephant Road reflects both local and national campaigns, fighting for the stability and livelihoods of small businesses and their surrounding communities. The use of terminology like “asset disposal” really begs the question “who needs to be disposed of… who needs to get in the bin?”. Despite the Council’s support during the long campaign for the area to be officially recognized as a Latin Quarter, it seems that there are few actual planning protections for the current Latin traders. The first feisty battle is ongoing at the Shopping Centre but latterly those in the Elephant Rd arches with the new owners of the Arches being in part a predatory ‘vulture fund’ and Delancey’s plans to knock through two arches, will face the sharp end of commercial displacement that ‘regeneration’ schemes usually bring. The struggle continues…as always! See you there!

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