When people ask me “which places should I visit when I come to London?” Elephant and Castle doesn't normally spring to mind. The area has always been seen by most Londoners as a bit of an eyesore. After being bombed heavily during the Second World War, it was rebuilt during the 60s and 70s in the architectural mould of what was once clumsily called ‘modernism’. Before I moved here, my memories of this place had always been the sight of a peculiarly coloured shopping centre, crowned by the statue of a pinkish elephant beside a noisy roundabout where the sound of car horns never stops, all beneath the blanketing grey sky of England and its drizzly weather. Yet I recently recommended this place to some tourist-friends of mine and I wasn’t even drunk at the time.
© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (The large roundabout area of Elephant and Castle)
Those friends of mine were Colombians in search of somewhere to dance to Latin music, and Elephant and Castle has gradually established itself as the Latin-American hub of London. It turned out that my Colombian friends had a great time here and can’t wait to come back. “Adam, thank you so much for telling us about Elephant and Castle” were words that I certainly had never heard before.
© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre)
Elephant and Castle is in many ways just a large roundabout with a 1960s shopping centre surrounded by housing blocks. It may not sound beautiful and it isn’t. But there is something unique and special here, namely the vibrant Latin-American community for whom the shopping centre has become the focal point of their social lives. According to some of the local Latinos I’ve spoken to, it all started because of La Bodeguita which is a Colombian restaurant that turns into a Salsa bar every Friday and Saturday night.
© Photo: COD Newsroom (Salsa dancing)
When I first came to La Bodeguita, I felt like I had taken a flight across the Atlantic and arrived in Colombia. It was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of London just outside. I was now surrounded by the Spanish language, salsa dancing, lively clientele and great vibes. I left the area but I always come back here and each time, I’ve seen the Latin-American community grow bigger both in and around the shopping centre with more shops, cafes and bars opening up and offering the flavours and atmospheres of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia to name a few.
© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (La Bodeguita restaurant inside Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre)
Approximately 10% of the population in the borough of Southwark is Latin-American and most of this community is based in Elephant and Castle or just nearby. Nowadays, I always recommend the area to my Latin-American friends who can find their favourite traditional cuisine here, places to meet and mingle with other Spanish speakers and late night spots for dancing Salsa, Bachata and other types of Latin music.
© Photo: COD Newsroom (Nights of Latin music)
The area has already changed drastically over the last few years as a regeneration project has seen the demolition of numerous old residential buildings which have been replaced by soulless luxury apartments. This has already forced some members of the community to move out and the future of London’s Latin Quarter hangs in the balance.
Personally, I hope that Elephant and Castle retains its Latin character as well as its working class roots. Sadly, I fear it might be a case of 'enjoy it while it lasts'.
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Adam L. Maloney
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