'Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks. Its eyes have the blaze of street stalls, eel stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans. Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast-iron spines, and the marble pillars of pubs. Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide boy.' The Elephant & Castle (Picture Post, 1949) In 1961, the year I was born, the Berlin Wall went up, and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on his street. Closer to home, in Walworth, south-east London, an 80ft-wide silver cube appeared on the roundabout at the Elephant & Castle interchange. It is made up of 728 stainless-steel panels, and rises 20ft above pavement level. The natives never knew why it was there, merely what it symbolised: an eyesore on a patch of land destined to be lumbered with more doomed monoliths than any postcode in London. To its architect, Rodney Gordon, it was a clue to the urban future we might inherit, the more modern and moonstruck we became. For me, it became a Checkpoint Charlie beyond which the West End beckoned via the roads stretching from the Elephant & Castle to London's main bridges and, in the words of my nearest and dearest, 'over the water'.
If, as Michael Bracewell wrote in England is Mine, the journey from the suburbs to the city is that from innocence to experience, that from Walworth to the West End was from exile to inclusion. A short bus ride separated the capital's two busiest's roundabouts - Piccadilly Circus, and the gateway to the south, the Elephant & Castle - but culturally, and in terms of social class, the journey could be measured by light years. The latter was the poor whore across the river. Since the 19th century, it has been dismissed as a working- class wasteland, bereft of investment and hope. Virginia Woolf had her fictional Shakespeare's sister buried here as though the perfect resting place for a life of anonymity and thwarted talent. Miraculously, it has taken until now for a plan to emerge that recognises the potential of the location. From next year, with its shopping centre the red of a gash, and railings the mauve of a bruise, it will undergo a transformation. Within a decade it will be a new city centre with low-rise terraces, garden squares, and a tower block at its hub designed by Norman Foster.
'I know what we want to achieve here,' says Nicholas Taylor, development director with the company behind the plan. 'The balance between social and private housing, working and living, retail and leisure.' The Elephant & Castle will be the 180-acre canvas for the biggest urban regeneration scheme ever to occur in Europe. And now that Tate Modern, the Jubilee line, the London Eye and the new mayor's headquarters have put south London on the map, its notorious landmark has got estate agents, big business and middle-class professionals looking south, like archaeologists discovering the riches of a hidden city. But in order to build its future, it's necessary to navigate its present, and excavate its past.
My nan was born in 1892, and lived in the area for all her 99 years. A fortnight before her death, when she could remember the Relief of Mafeking but not where she'd put her keys, she was still making her weekly trip to Baldwin's the local herbalist to buy sarsaparilla. For her generation, the shared experience of the working class was expressed as an oral history. Outsiders who spoke of a community such as this only did so when it was politically expedient. To the right, they were oafish patriots; to the left, armchair activists waiting for the revolution to be televised: each view as ill-conceived as that which has emerged in the press since race knocked class off the agenda, and the white working class became demonised.
To find out more about an English working-class past, there could barely be a better place to begin than Walworth. The landmarks on its map are: East Street market (the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin); Old Kent Road; and Elephant & Castle - where, in the 60s, the Krays and the Richardsons nearly came to blows in south vs east London gang warfare. Until recent years, Walworth Road was Labour Party HQ. Mine was one of a number of families that had lived in the same streets for generations, working locally in factories, pubs and the market. Some remain. Others joined the diaspora in the 80s and 90s, becoming homeowners in the satellite suburbs of south-east London: Welling, Erith and Eltham. Here they became like expats endeavouring to recreate the clichés of community that bombs and bulldozers couldn't totally destroy.
The Elephant & Castle last became newsworthy during the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Hannibal House, the unsightly growth erupting from the shopping centre, was the venue throughout, with the centre itself - then Schiaparelli pink - as absurd as a pantomime backdrop, in contrast with the crowd scenes and clashes played out before it. Locally, race has played a part in the changing face of East Street market - where I scratched an adolescent living between the death of glam and the birth of punk. A stallholder remaining from those days tells me that Southwark Council 'don't understand market people'. In the last decade, he says that rules have changed to bring in more 'casuals' and make the market more multi-cultural. A family of regulars that have shopped there for generations agree that they 'barely recognise the place.They sell any old rubbish down there now. Most of ours go down there before 11. After that it's mostly black'. This is more of a cultural observation than a racial slur: one you'll hear from any ethnic group that no longer recognises the culture in the only community they've known.
Change is in the air here now, but the area was first in line for regeneration in the 30s, before the recession. In the 40s, plans were mooted for an ambitious regeneration scheme that came to fruition in the 60s. The traffic arteries at the heart of the Elephant & Castle had become clogged. In 1941, two nights of bombing resulted in it being the worst hit area in the capital. Yet Rome itself may have taken less time to build than it took to redevelop the area. It was completed in 1979. What started as one of the big- gest inner-city redevelopments ever implemented, materialised into one of the worst social and financial planning failures of the 60s. In last year's Elephant Boys , Brian McDonald's tale of his stint in the infamous Elephant gang of the post-war years, he wrote: 'What Hitler's bombs could not achieve, Southwark Council did with ramshackle efficiency. They pulled everything down, erected random blocks of flats and built a grotesque shopping centre.'
When I contact a childhood friend, Julie Fanning, after decades, and tell her I'll be returning to the area to write about it, she says: 'Just keep driving. Or you'll get mugged.' We talk about the mates we had when growing up here. Martin has moved back after living abroad. Linda returns to visit family. Debbie lives locally. Julie comes back to see her relatives on the estate. 'You know who I married don't you?' she asks. 'Charlie no-fingers.' Marriage, divorce, parenthood, death have become the themes in lives where once the big news was that of how one of our number lost three fingers at Silver Blades Ice Rink, during the estate's first summer.
The Heygate Estate was completed in 1974, on land where, centuries before, inmates of a leper hospital walked, wearing bells to warn locals of their presence. The estate was a bad hangover from the neo-brutalism that urban architects embarked on in the 60s. One of its inhabitants put it more succinctly at the time, when BBC's Nationwide canvassed her opinion outside the off-licence: 'It's a concrete jungle.' The estate begins from behind the shopping centre. It replaced tenements, parades of shops, pubs and numerous streets of houses arranged in squares. I was once told that the decisions on which streets were to be demolished was made in the back of a taxi, as planners drove around, striking crosses on a map. Originally, a plan was hatched to link it to the other mammoth council estate in the area, the Aylesbury, and attach that to the North Peckham estate (where Damilola Taylor was murdered) and beyond. 'The idea was that it would start from Crystal Palace,' remembers Doreen Gee. She and her late mother were moved from one of the streets to a flat in a high-rise on the estate. 'These estates with walkways would've linked so that no one was at ground level until the river. It terrified me when I thought of it.'
The Southwark Land Regeneration has now decided that the estate should be eliminated in its entirety. The shopping centre goes, along with the two roundabouts and the maze of subways. 'We are involving the community,' says Nicholas Taylor, from his office. 'The community will be involved in the choosing of the architects for the social housing. In that way we will achieve diversity, and we will help the community to take ownership of the quality and style of the development.' There was no such dialogue during the previous regeneration. Doreen remembers how she and many of her neighbours had wished to remain in the streets as they were. But the guts were ripped out of the neighbourhood, when they should have simply removed the slums. Meanwhile, Julie and I mistakenly welcomed every breeze block that brought change.
In the summer of 1974, when the clubroom opened on the estate, our hopes were as high as our heels. From the stairwells of these modern blocks we bumsucked Consulates, defiantly blew smoke rings to the sky, and gave the finger to the past, as epitomised by the street below. It was stuck like a cavity at the entrance to the spanking new estate, with its thoroughfares and spick-and-span flats. In this street I was raised, and stayed until my twenties. I was seldom off the estate. It brought the future closer to home.
Today, on a sunny autumn morning, the street is a thing of beauty compared to the haggard estate: trees are more prominent than the gates protecting its houses.The day before my brother died, in his late-thirties, in the early 90s, he said our generation were 'the last outpost'. It was uncharacteristically poetic, but apt - his first love was Westerns. In recent years, the street has partly become something it never had the potential to be: middle class. There are doctors. There are students. There are even members of the media class. Doors and decades on from where I once discovered pop and my balls dropped, an actor from Notting Hill has bought a house.
Similar to many flats on the estate, Doreen's home is manacled by a gate and window grilles. Elsewhere, the surgery is defended by a halo of barbed wire, and the clubroom caged. Almost anything that resembles a walkway is fenced in. Signs and faded posters make points about the perennial problems of dog shit, drugs and syringes. Doreen's home is bright, immaculate. 'A lot of us don't feel safe here,' she says. But she loves the location. With the new scheme, the tram returns to the Elephant & Castle for the first time since 1952. It's a reminder of the neighbourhood of her youth, when the Trocadero, then the biggest cinema in Europe, thrived on the spot now occupied by Erno Goldfinger's Alexander Fleming House. The listed office block, once described as 'Stalin's architecture as it should have been', was converted to expensive apartments two years ago.
The only indication of the world that lies outside Doreen's neat, peaceful flat, apart from the shadow cast in her kitchen by the bars of a grid, are two scars on the wall. Her flat was flooded twice by a former neighbour above. First by accident; secondly, intentionally, after she mentioned the fact. 'The problems on the estate have stemmed from drugs, crime and anti-social families,' she says. 'The council don't do what they should do to keep it in a decent state. And they move in a lot of anti-social tenants. I've seen flats that are filthy and have cockroaches at the window. It makes people want to get out of here as quick as possible. It's gone down in the last three years as much as it has in the last 20.' There still remains a scintilla of community within each of the individual blocks. Nearby, at my primary school, headmaster Keith Fox says: 'Walworth and the Elephant has still managed to keep a sense that it is made up of pockets of neighbourhoods. The estates, East Lane, the Elephant are each like little villages.'
The turnover of residents on the estate is rapid. A number of tenants are sub-letting their homes with the council seemingly turning a blind eye. Heygate resident Maggie Ambrose believes that the students in the area add to the itinerant nature of the population. The London College of Printing was built as part of the previous regeneration: the South Bank University has spread like a tiny empire. The only new living quarters created in recent years have been for students. 'They don't have a stake in the neighbourhood,' says Maggie, who sits on the Tenants' Association with Doreen. 'And they don't need to care about it because they don't stay here.' The association's efforts have been largely responsible for the attempts to curb crime. In the 70s and 80s, mugging was already a problem in the area. It was then exclusively a black on white crime. One resident tells me: 'I know it's a generalisation but a majority of the street crimes here are carried out by black youths. The burglary is mainly a white crime.' During my short time in Doreen's flat, a window shatters several doors along, and two joyriders skid a car on to the forecourt below, crashing it into an oncoming car. The other driver, dazed and confused, attempts to give chase. These are now uncharacteristic occurrences, apparently.
For the past two years, Maggie and Doreen have given much of their free time to working as part of the Elephant Links board, the group set up to liaise with the developers. The consortium needs to consult with the locals. This part of the land is where the private housing and the shopping complex will be built, thereby bringing in the cash to pay for refurbishing the surrounding council blocks and the creation of new homes for current residents. After a history of being disenfranchised, the denizens of this estate are finally finding a voice. Maggie got involved in local-housing issues the day someone told her there was asbestos in her flat. 'I stay involved because of my grandchildren. I want these changes so that they will have the chance of a better future.' Her children live nearby, in a high-rise built in the 60s which is said to be the tallest block of flats in London.
'I've been a bit of a nomad,' Maggie says. 'I've lived in different parts of London. But I've settled here, and it's because of some of the people.' By the end of this decade, the living room in which we sit may be part of a shopping centre the size of Bluewater, coated by a top layer of public parkland. She can't wait. 'I've lived here all my life,' says Doreen. 'I like this area. I want to see everyone here that deserves a decent home get one.'
When flagstones were laid for the Elephant & Castle shopping centre it was to be, like the Bull Ring in Birmingham - built simultaneously - the biggest shopping complex in the city. An advert declared it was 'setting the standards for the 60s that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain'. During my youth, it was so desolate you expected to see tumbleweeds blowing past June's Bingo, the Green Shields Stamp shop and the photo kiosk. Both the Walworth and the Birmingham concepts were described in Oliver Merriot's The Property Boom as 'two major and uncomfortably visible blunders, born of overconfidence'. However, the biggest misjudgment was in making the shopping centre accessible from the new tower blocks, via an intricate web of underpasses. Two miles of tunnel, no less. The architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner went underground here and emerged 'deafened by traffic and crushed by the ruthless scale of the surrounding towers, confusingly similar at first sight'. The subways became the ideal location for the perfect crime. Those that could navigate their way overground by jaywalking, did so. Those who couldn't became the easy prey of muggers. The sporadic attempts to remedy the situation proved to be little more than cosmetic.
These days, the shopping centre is the most vibrant it's been. There is a bingo hall and a bowling alley. The author Vida Adamoli, who lives in one of the remaining redbrick blocks near the university, says it reminds her of Rome. 'When I moved here, friends felt sorry for me, because the Elephant & Castle is seen as the underbelly, the great scab. When you mention that you live here, it is as though you've farted. I know the shopping centre is considered an eyesore. But I get a kind of excitement when I go there. It's like a strange love story and it was from the beginning. And that is how I felt about Rome.' Although she was born and raised in Hampstead, Vida spent decades in Italy before returning to Britain, and settling at the Elephant & Castle. Her son lives in one of the tower blocks. Both are concerned that the changes will take the area too upmarket. 'I personally don't like those modern complexes like Bluewater,' she says. 'I like the Elephant because it is a very human space now that the stalls have crept in. And the fact that the top is Colombian gives it an atmosphere.' However, it is this that has alienated many of the long-term natives of the neighbourhood, and where the finger points in relation to the drugs problem. There is a feeling that the shopping centre has been colonised by South American shops, travel agents, bureaux de change and cafés. ' We need somewhere to go as well,' says Maggie. 'I look forward to the new cafés and restaurants that will open as part of the regeneration.'
The central segment of the planned Elephant & Castle will be a piazza with an art gallery, an amphitheatre and, occasionally, an ice-skating rink. Each open to either use or abuse. 'There are a lot of people moving into the area that love it with the same passion that I do,' says Vida.'We're concerned that some things that people think are awful don't get made over but I love the fact that some of it is tacky.' Doreen agrees: 'I worry that the only people that might be able to one day live in the area are the well-off, or those that have everything paid for by benefits. And people in the middle, like me, will be forced out.'
Of all the proposals, it is the promise of the Elephant & Castle as a bustling centre at night that provides the strongest link to the past - something destroyed during the last regeneration. 'She'd had all her insides out, but she could still play the piano in the pub at the Elephant,' my nan told me, apropos of nothing, during her final days. Historically, Elephant & Castle was the home of a cluster of music halls. Even after the bombs fell, it retained some of its infrastructure of cinemas, dining rooms and pubs that meant every- thing to the inhabitants. At its centre, the dance hall where my mum met my dad, and the former Elephant & Castle pub that kept the area's name and statue alive. When this was demolished and replaced with a silver cube, the area may have kept its heart - 'that of its people' - but it had stopped beating.