The Elephant that forgets: regenerating SE17

20 Jun

elephant posterIf my 20-year-old self could see me now … he’d probably spit at me, then shake my hand. And then ask for all of the Grand National and FA Cup winners for the next 16 years.

Sitting here with an ice cold beer on the balcony of my lovely little flat overlooking the Elephant I don’t think I’d blame him. This little corner of south-east London that I’ve lived in on and off since 1998 is finally changing into something befitting a Zone 1 neighbourhood in the greatest city on earth. According to the glossy Lend Lease posters there’ll be shiny new buildings, cinemas, market squares, tree lined boulevards – or roads as I like to call them – and more artisan bakers than you can shake an organic French stick at.

Or there will when it’s finished, by which time I’ll probably have moved out to a larger place two buses and an uncomfortable train ride away – somewhere I can hang up all those Nepalese prayer flags and Laotian lampshades.

The Elephant and Castle. An actual elephant could build a castle in the time it has taken a series of ignorant local authorities to decide what to do with the area. Day after day I’d pass the “regeneration” office nearby to see bearded, middle-aged men and women (not all of the women, some had shaved) fiddling while the area sank deeper into a post-crash malaise. To their credit they must have got through a shitload of tea, sandwiches and Hob Nobs, which I’m sure has made a lasting, positive impact on the economy.

You see, now that it’s actually happening, I can’t really decide whether I want the Elephant to change. Couldn’t we have just prettied up the Heygate a bit, smoothed off the edges and renovated the decaying bits? Did we have to spend 20 years um-ing and ah-ing only to sell the land off to a property developer for a ridiculously low sum, on the proviso of “social housing” that doesn’t really do what it says on the tin?elephant regeneration

I couldn’t afford to live in the area if I was looking now. And I can barely afford to live further out as the knock-on effect of this insane house price inflation ripples out through London. That’s not really Elephant’s fault, of course. But it’s come to represent a lot of what’s bad with Britain today: its politicians, its vested interests, and its priorities. Number one on the agenda of any local council regeneration meeting: “Let’s get a fucking Starbucks in guys. Chop chop.”

Then I remember just how grim this area was in the late 90s. I mean, it had nuttin’ going on. Yes, there were fewer payday loans shops and Halal butchers, but the decaying husks of the local businesses that were once on those premises did little to brighten my student days. I think Elephant was the carpeted, mock Tudor-beamed pub capital of the world back then. My early evening stroll back from uni to the council estate flat I shared with two others was rarely a stroll, more like an anxious jog.

I’ve just seen a flat in that estate going for over half a million quid.

Nah, fair play to Elephant. It’s got to change. Like an elderly aunt bricked up in the attic of a stately home, it deserves to be give a bit of lippie and a change of clothes once in a while. There are already more students than nut jobs walking the streets outside, which is no bad thing in my book.

Let’s just hope the sandwich and Hob Nob vendors aren’t forced out of the area.

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