On the evening of 29th May, The Artworks Boxpark in Elephant and Castle held a preview opening for potential tenants and, as it turned out, a number of local residents. The new pop-up Boxpark sits on the ruins of what was once a public park next to the Heygate Estate. The latest in a series of ‘pop-up retail experiences’, the space is constructed from a number of stacked shipping containers.
Attendees were given a brief rehearsed talk about the exciting potential of the space and how it represented the culmination of an ongoing process bringing life, a “healthy community” and more “prosperous economy” to the area. The promise of future riches – for an area most of whose current residents will never get to live in – were expounded. Like vultures denying the existence of the carrion on which they feast, the project was presented without even a hint of the undemocratic, corrupt and destructive practices of the developers Lend Lease and Southwark Council (Labour) which led to the cleansing of such a valuable piece of real estate.
Whilst people looked around, a number of those involved in local housing struggles were able, if only in a small way, to offer an alternative story of the space. Holding banners in front of the new sales office, a dialogue opened with other attendees about the housing crisis in the borough and the history of the Heygate.
A more accurate commentary on the social forces in which the new box park operates was provided instead by the towering edifices which crowd around it. The borough’s past represented by the fast disappearing hulk of the Heygate Estate, once home to hundreds of families – all now unceremoniously dumped somewhere else outside the area; the borough’s bright future represented by the Strata Tower, cut from cold steel and glass which says very clearly: “You are not wanted. This isn’t for you”.
The space is on the edge of what is now a giant building site. The shipping containers which make up the bulk of the space are tiny, and at over £200 a week will be largely unaffordable to many local businesses. In fact, the organisers of the open day were not aware of the number of local businesses which had taken up tenancy. There is also an unreasonably small temporary structure bolted to the top of one pile of containers which is supposed to replace a much larger library nearby which burnt down last year. Users of the library will be forced to navigate the maze of boutiques to access it.
Whilst still incomplete, the box park is expected to open next week. It is currently estimated to be operating at half capacity, with the kind of cake shops, artisan bakeries and clothing boutiques which have become the almost embarrassingly unselfconscious signifiers of the rapid process of gentrification across London. Next up: the Aylesbury Estate.
By Jack Dean | @Jacqueimo