Creativity in the Shadow of Demolition

by Cristiana Strava

Last weekend, local magazines invited Londoners to have free "fun in the shadow of demolition." The fun was part of Elefest, a creative festival that takes place each year in London's Elephant and Castle neighborhood. This offered a welcome opportunity to revisit the infamous Heygate Estate, and see for myself if rumors of its imminent demolition were any truer now than they were last spring.

Poster for the 2012 creative festival in London's Elephant and Castle neighborhood. Source: Elefest

Elefest was inaugurated in 2002 and has since become a staple event for South Londoners. A celebration of local creativity, it changes venues each year between galleries, studios, public spaces and a range of unconventional locales. This year's theme focused on the environment, both built and natural.

Open-air gallery at the Heygate Estate.

Artist at work.

Exploring the Heygate Gardening Project.

The main event, "Estate Art," brought together eight artists for an open-air show at the Heygate Estate. The artists were encouraged to respond intuitively to the space and materiality of the area, "possibly bringing some pre-conceived elements, possibly not," in an effort to create playful art. Visitors could watch the artists at work or become participants in performance-based pieces.

Guerilla Gardener Elephant Mural.

The Heygate Guerilla Gardeners space at the core of the Heygate Estate.

Pac-man graffiti on one of the Heygate low-rises.

This year's festival also revolved around the theme of urban transformation, as its main venues went through several metamorphoses to accommodate the variety of scheduled events. A former Shell station hosted StockMKT, a night market with fresh food and live music. On Saturday morning the same venue was home to "Food that Makes Community," an occasion for tasting the national cuisines of Elephant and Castle's diverse residents. On Sunday, the former gas station hosted the Underground Skate Film Festival.

Preparing the pop-up night market and bar in a former Shell gas station. Source: Elefest

The StockMKT, a pop-up night market at Eelefest. Source: The StockMKT

A few blocks away, at the Pullens site, the Electric Elephant Cafe showed two vintage films about London's music scene. Unmentioned in the events program, but unmissable for visitors to the Heygate Estate, were the remains of a pop-up cinema event hosted by the Heygate Regeneration Scheme, a "guerilla gardening group" that has fought against the estate's demolition for years. In fact, although at the center of Elefest's main venue, the Heygate Regeneration Scheme was not included in the festival's calendar of events. Instead, Elefest chose to feature what some critics have called the "developer compliant" community gardening project Mobile Gardeners. As Elefest 2012 was funded by the Southwark Council, it comes as no surprise that organizers chose a less controversial stance towards the fate of the estate.

Remains of a pop-up cinema event.

Thanks to Elefest, the Heygate appeared less like a doomed estate and more like a vibrant community space, attracting families from the area as well as students and hipsters. Although the Southwark Council has taken more steps toward demolition since last spring, the Heygate remains largely open to the public. Crowds were small, giving the events an aura of a cozy neighborhood fiesta.

Still, I couldn't help wondering what the 3,000 relocated residents of the condemned estate were doing at that moment. How did they feel when their weekend paper invited them to have fun in the shadow of their former, soon-to-be demolished homes?

Credits: Photos by Cristiana Strava unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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  1. beautiful photo documentation. especially love the stock market idea and the pop-up cinema, and the live outdoor gallery. this place looks like the perfect environment for experimental urbanism. would be a shame to loose it.

  2. That's just the half of it. Is a real shame that Elefest has gone this way of pushing to one side the huge question that hangs over the regeneration of The Elephant and that is the thorny question of displacement of former working class tenants and very little commitment to providing new cheap housing. The regeneration agenda can easily sit with these kind of cultural festivals when they fail to even engage in the long social community histories that they assume to be part of. There seemed less and less anything about the local community this year and more about creating mere spaces of consumerism - pop up bar with expensive beer, a night market of food stalls, so-called interactive art from artists who have no real connection to the area esp the Heygate Estate etc. How does this reflect the complex local cultural production that happens in the area. It seems to more fit in with why cultural funding is available for the area from the council and developers if such festivals serve to enhance the area for attracting private investment and also to attract new private house buyers based on a kool and happening vibe. It's an old old story.

  3. The images that accompany this article bundle up a collection of photos of very different activities as a celebration of alternative/experimental urbanism.
    Why can't commentators spell a bit more clearly the abysmal difference between a developer-funded (temporary) spectacle of creative consensus-building and a few threatened and precarious self-organised sites of resistance? Why don't people ask basic questions, such as: for whom is this spectacle of creativity? How do we contribute to the developers and the Council's agendas by writing about it as forms of alternative urbanism?
    And FINALLY, most importantly, who is silenced and sidelined in these accounts?
    This is not just about the residents who were displaced and the future tenants and owners of the luxury apartment towers to come, but about the CURRENT residents of the estate, huddled up in blankets inside their damp homes without heating for the third winter in a row. The Heygate is NOT EMPTY, and that's why they can't demolish it as yet!

    Why do artists and commentators always seem to think and act in a social vacuum?

  4. Wholly perverse situation: two of the remaining residents on the estate are in their eighties. They are leaseholders and have got nowhere to go because the council is making a paltry offer for their homes and is claiming it doesn't have the money to offer more. Neither does it supposedly have enough money to install heating for them after having switched off the estate's central boiler in 2010. Meanwhile it has found enough money to fund so-called artists to bring fire-breathing dragons onto the estate, wastefully spitting out flames into thin air while two residents in their eighties are draped in blankets huddled around a portable electric fan heater...

    Posh egg and chips at Elefest 2012. Says it all really.

  6. "The community fund is part of Lend Lease’s commitment to act as a catalyst for the wider regeneration of Elephant & Castle".

    £9000 to Elefest