The Mall . . . Britain's first ever indoor shopping mall. I still drop in. I feel almost affectionate for it now, this decaying hulk that has been so central to my London for going on twenty years - ever since I first moved here as an adult in the fall of 87, not a month before the stock market tanked just as it did last week.
The mall feels embattled, though I wonder how long this feeling will last if the credit crunch deepens. At what point will the plug be pulled on all those new towers going up north and west of the roundabout, at what point will the 'revitalization' of the Elephant be put on hold? In the late 1980's, when I was living in Montreal, you could walk downtown and see empty lots everywhere. Empty hi-rises and luxury shopping malls as well, with vacancy rates of 50% and up. You'd go on the top floor of Cours Mont Royal and see mannequins stacked up in the empty storefronts . . .
The Heygate Estate is half sealed off. Talked to my old flatmate last week and he said he was being moved out in a couple of weeks. Yet somehow, the mall survives. The little Columbian cafe in the middle of the second floor is almost pleasant with the Columbian accordion music in the background. On Sunday, when I was down, sunlight poured through the open doors and the traffic was minimal so you were spared the usual traffic roar that makes anywhere in the Elephant feel like the edge of an expressway.
You can never get away from the basic airport terminal feel of the mall's upper level, with the terrible muzak played a little too loud, the concrete ceilings with the water sprinkler plugs, the flourescent lights reflecting off those strange pink and orange pillars- more than an hour there has a curiously deadening effect, but all malls feel deadening to some extent. In the evenings it is mostly empty but for a few stragglers off the trains, and people in the cafe. yet the doors remain open, so you can continue off the tunnels, through the mall to New Kent Road - I guess the Bingo Palace must stay open late.
It's never menacing like it seemed when I first came to the Elephant in the late 80's. One evening I came in to find a bunch of kids breakdancing in front of all the funky, council-issue graffiti on the billboards covering the empty storefronts. The main floor has not one, but two, excellent second hand bookstores and Le Bodeguita, the Columbian restaurant with the big glass windows in the corner, has dancing and great food. The Bingo Palace has been refurbished and does a good business, and there is some sort of bar on top with tables out on the roof. The Polish deli by the entrance to the train station has good sausage and Polish deli stuff cheap. An artist has taken over one of the storefronts, displaying drawings in an exhibition called Elephant Hotel. By the main roundabout entrance is a Chinese Herbalist advertising remedies for 'man problems.'
You may not want to hang out here, but for an hour on a rainy day, the Elephant Mall is a little more interesting than most shopping malls.
I started this blog when I lived on the Heygate Estate from October, 2007 to April, 2008 then kept it up after I left. I have lived in the Elephant since the late 1980's, when I was squatting in the Rockingham across the New Kent Road from the Heygate, and I thought a blog was a fitting way to document the estate's, and possibly the area's, last days.
I left the UK in December, 2008 so cannot report on the day to day, although I do keep up with what is in the news. Anyone wishing to contact me for info or, especially, to tell their own stories or accounts of the Heygate Estate and the Elephant, please feel free to do so. I would especially welcome stories, comments, reflections, opinions - just about anything really - from people who have lived in, or live in now, in the Heygate Estate.
You can also find me at http//:cityofstrangers.wordpress.com. City of Strangers is a more general blog about life, gentrification, alienation and hope in London and New York.