From slums to social experiments and waves of immigration, the East End has seen it all. Now it has the Olympics and a building boom. The novelist Hari Kunzru returns to see what has become of his old haunts...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
IN THE INTRODUCTION to his 1894 bestseller “Tales of Mean Streets”, the novelist and journalist Arthur Morrison rehearsed what was already received opinion about east London:
The East End is a vast city…a shocking place…an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair.
Unhygienic, drunken and startlingly tangled, this part of London has long been a magnet for social reformers and modernisers of every kind. It is a place that has always seemed to be crying out for intervention—from architects and planners, engineers, policemen, social workers—all hoping to make the irrational rational, to bring order to the moral chaos. Morrison’s own work contributed to the razing of a notorious Bethnal Green slum called the Old Nichol, and the erection in 1900 of the Boundary Estate, the world’s first council housing. The slum clearance created a set of neat blocks, arranged around a little mound with a bandstand, which can still be seen today. Of the Old Nichol’s 5,719 evicted residents, just 11 could afford to move in to one of the 900 new homes. The rest flooded into neighbouring slums in Shoreditch and Dalston.
The subsequent history of east London essentially consists of repeats of this process of reform, erasure and displacement, whose agents have included the old London County Council, the Luftwaffe and the young British artists of the 1990s. Throughout it has remained a poor place: despite pockets of wealth, the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham routinely top statistical tables for child poverty and other indices of social deprivation. Now the area is to host the 2012 Olympics, a festival which has, apart from sport, become synonymous with the idea of "regeneration", the transformation of neglected urban areas into centres of economic activity. In 2010, in his first major speech as prime minister, David Cameron promised to “make sure the Olympic legacy lifts east London from being one of the poorest parts of the country to one that shares fully in the capital’s growth and prosperity".
I grew up in London’s eastern suburbs and spent much of my 20s in the East End, stumbling through warehouse parties, pub lock-ins, and rented or squatted industrial spaces. Eventually I declared my experiments with the north, south and west of the city a failure and went to live full-time in Hackney. In this, I was fairly typical of a wave of middle-class outsiders, who “discovered” the East End in the 1980s and 1990s, forming the crest of a wave of gentrification that broke over areas like Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, transforming them into fashionable "cultural quarters". This process has been mirrored in working-class districts across the world, from the Mission in San Francisco to Berlin Mitte, the bohemians using empty space and partially displacing previous residents, before being displaced themselves by other, wealthier incomers. The club on Hoxton Square which used to be the sole focus of the area’s nightlife closed down years ago, after complaints from its upscale new neighbours about the noise. The icy loft where I spent nights huddled under a duvet with a girlfriend is now occupied by Prince Charles’s Drawing School.
Nowhere is the rapid mutation of the East End more visible than on Brick Lane (right). When I first knew it as a teenager in the 1980s, it was a tense place. The south end was the commercial centre of a thriving Bangladeshi community that had its origins in the settlement of "Lascar" sailors as early as Elizabethan times, spreading north from the riverside area of Limehouse after the 1971 war. The north end was an outpost of solidly white working-class Hoxton and Bethnal Green, and on market day, the fascists of the National Front would set up a pitch by Redchurch Street, where they’d distribute literature under the Union Jack and glower at passing brown boys. In those days, there was still evidence of previous waves of migration—Bloom’s kosher restaurant, the skinny, soot-blackened houses built by Huguenot silk-weavers in the 18th century. After dark, and sometimes before it, the railway arches were used by street prostitutes offering punters a 20-quid "lick and a suck"—a hit on a crack pipe and oral sex. During the 1990s artists’ studios and warehouse parties arrived, before giving way to fashion shows and offices run by creative-industries types with Apple gadgets and directional hair. Now Brick Lane is an established centre for youth-oriented consumer culture. The railway arches were demolished. The Huguenot houses are worth millions. Redchurch Street has branches of the French fashion brand apc and Aesop cosmetics.
This is regeneration as a gradual, piecemeal process, taking place over decades. The Olympic development aims to skip it altogether, taking much of east London straight from post-industrial deliquescence into the age of conspicuous consumption. For the past four years I’ve been living in New York, a city which has itself been transformed by gentrification for both good and ill. I’ve watched from a distance as the British government made its Olympic preparations, wondering what changes this latest wave of modernisation would bring to my old home. The crane that is supposed to lift east London out of its relative poverty is the massive building project for the 2012 Olympics, whose budget has ballooned from £2.4 billion to an estimated £11-12 billion. Apart from the remediation of a heavily polluted former industrial area and the construction of various sporting venues, the Olympics has brought massive investment in transport and what is billed as the largest urban park created in Europe for 150 years. The Olympic village, which incorporates ecological features such as water harvesting and a combined heat and cooling plant, will turn into a development of 2,800 homes, 1,379 of which are designated "affordable". There will be a health centre, and an independent "academy" school, one of 15 set up by a fitted-carpet magnate and Conservative peer, Lord Harris of Peckham. On paper it sounds like an uncomplicated win for London. In early April, I came back to see for myself.
Picture: (Top) Stratford, 2012: the Westfield mall, the Olympic stadia, the Orbit and a view of the central London skyline including the Shard. (Bottom) Brick Lane, home to prostitutes and National Front members a generation ago, now a cool place to go shopping