Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Concrete Jungle

In March, I moved to the Walworth Road in Elephant & Castle, the birdsong dawn chorus of suburbia swiftly replaced by a nighttime polyphony of sirens and my monthly train pass swapped for a second-hand bike. Defined by an enormous double roundabout, labyrinth of underground tunnels and a dated multiplex, the area couldn´t be further from the leafy lanes of Surrey. More of a through-road on a main bus route than a residential area, by day it is a chaotic clog of traffic. By night it´s desolate, the pavements scattered with uncollected rubbish and debris. Voluptuous silhouettes linger suggestively under the railway arches and disparate groups loiter listlessly outside all-night newsagents with windows caged in security grates. Drunks stagger unstably along the kerbside, side-stepped by quick-footed commuters alighting from the night bus, and shop-owners using the emptiness of the early hours restock their stores, some wearing grubby white aprons and shouldering animal carcasses, others shifting mattresses or crates of Tupperware.

As Walworth is devoid of social nightlife, I often find myself on the 35 to Brixton for an evening out. Once a no-go area in London, the site of the infamous riots of the 80s, Brixton now has the buzz of an area on the up. Home to the best restaurant scene south side of the river, edgy vintage shops and late-night watering holes, its streets draw a diverse crowd and are always a hive of activity. In comparison, Walworth feels like a wasteland. For one, it is dominated by the dilapidated shell of the notorious Heygate Estate. A sprawling concrete monstrosity, the estate was initially conceived as some kind of socialist utopia, but rapidly became a crime hotspot. Now, its walls daubed with colourful expletives, windows boarded and only a few stubborn residents remaining in a complex that once housed 1000s, it is on the brink of demolition and pending redevelopment. The glistening glass-fronted Strata nearby is something of a paradox in comparison, poignantly out-of-place amidst the surrounding monotony of drab tower blocks. A teaser of what could be?

The local in the bike repair shop – an ex-Heygate resident – always reflects fondly on the years when the estate was full and Walworth wasn´t such a ghost town. Though I imagine the crime stats tell a different story, he has a point: the whole area feels abandoned. On the doorstep of central London, it is a potential goldmine. Yet as London primps and preens for the 2012 games, it remains on the edge of the regeneration drive. A forgotten strip. Dreary-and-dismal rather than up-and-coming.

I suppose that until redevelopment is put into action, the central location will have to compensate for the desolate cityscape. My commute used to involve a 45-minute train journey, during which the novel I had planned to read was often forgotten in favour of an inelegant, head-bobbing snooze or a vacant scan of the morning´s Metro. Now, my journey has been cut to a 15-minute cycle. Though something of a slalom race with traffic on route to Waterloo, that I can get up at 9am and be home by 5.45pm if I want to more than justifies living in the urban nucleus. It may be a concrete jungle, but at least, with excellent transport links, it´s easy enough to escape it!

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