EAST LONDON'S MOMENT

East End 1.jpg

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

WHEN I WAS growing up, Stratford was an unlovely knot of post-war administrative buildings, trapped in a 1960s gyratory traffic system. Now it’s the gateway to the Olympic Park. I step out of the new railway station into a “public realm” (this appears to be the developer’s technical term) bordered by shiny organic sculptural elements that look like surrealist eyes on 15-metre stalks. This is all part of a masterplan known as "Stratford City", a nod to the common developer’s ambition to create a "third city" in London (past candidates include Croydon and Southwark), a southern or eastern hub to supplement Westminster and the City of London.

Stratford used to be a place that made you feel as if you’d found yourself marooned on a traffic island. Now the new plaza has a dramatic footbridge leading to the promised land—of shopping. Westfield Stratford City is, by floor area, the largest urban mall in the European Union, 300 retail units (formerly known as shops) and 70 restaurants, anchored by a 22,000-square-metre department store, a casino, three hotels and a 17-screen cinema. Visitors to the Olympics will be funnelled through this retail space like travellers in an airport terminal. They will pass a Mini Cooper hung precariously on a wall (painted, of course, in Union Jack livery), a branch of Prada and an outlet for the rock star Liam Gallagher’s range of Mod-inspired clothing. Underfoot, there is reportedly a trial of an innovative floor tile, Pavegen, which harnesses the kinetic energy of foot traffic to generate electricity.

I wandered around one weekday morning, past the Tossed salad bar, the Apple store, stands offering massage, Swarovski crystals, “Keep Calm and Carry On” phone covers. Black-clad security guards roamed about with earpieces and that look, simultaneously phlegmatic and suspicious, that club doormen get when you tell them your name is on the door. At a temporary cosmetics stand, in front of a picture of Emma Watson, star of that great projection of British soft power, “Harry Potter", I spoke to Lucy, who was offering make-overs. She said she was excited by the Olympics but nervous of the crowds. She had asked to be posted somewhere quieter while the games were on. I looked down from a balcony to see a mysterious, highly decorated structure, which a sign proclaimed as a “Future Fashion Mocktail Lounge”. It seemed like a perfect executive summary.

In a 2010 report into retail diversity, the New Economics Foundation found that 41% of British towns had become what it called “Clone Towns”, in which more than half the shops were part of chains. It found east London considerably more diverse than the west, with Shoreditch and Stoke Newington doing better on this score than anywhere else in the inner city. In west London, “only Shepherd’s Bush registered as a home town [the survey’s term for diverse neighbourhoods]...How long this status can be maintained remains to be seen with the opening of the largest urban-area indoor shopping centre in Europe—‘Westfield London’—right next door."

The Westfield mall in Stratford, a mirror of its sister in Shepherd’s Bush, is clearly nicer than the tangle it replaced. It is bright, airy, well-designed. The curve of the main gallery could even be called beautiful. It is, however, not a genuine public space: the people of Stratford have no right to be there if they’re not shopping, and can be kicked out at the whim of the management. It could exist anywhere in Britain, or with a few tweaks, anywhere in the world from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. The French anthropologist Marc Augé calls such environments “nonplaces”. They abound in our globalised world—airports, motorway service stations, hotel chains—sites which are both utopian, pointing towards a planned, functional future, and dystopian—thin and transient, with nothing local about them, nothing to inspire the formation of a community. The typical east-London streetscape of pound shops and groceries may be unaesthetic, but it represents interwoven circuits of production and consumption that are local and targeted at the people who are already here, instead of those developers would like to see coming, people with more disposable income and fewer social problems, who will eat tapas while wearing La Perla underwear and playing with their new phones.

THE SUSPICION THAT the East End is to be the site of an experiment in social cleansing gets to the heart of why some east Londoners are violently opposed to the Olympics. It’s the reason why ominous slogans like “Death to the Gods of Mount Olympus” have been flyposted on the blue fence around the Olympic site. From the Greenway, an elevated footpath built over the huge pipe of the Northern Outfall sewer, the skyline is dominated by the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit, a vast steel structure designed by the Turner prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor. If the Eiffel Tower developed chronic shyness, blushed and squirmed itself in a knot, this is how it would look. The Orbit’s introverted red squiggle seems an appropriate symbol for a games which is producing a pervasive sense of trepidation. Conceived in a boom and constructed in a deep recession, the crown-like ring of the stadium and the sinuous curves of Zaha Hadid’s aquatics centre seem impressive but also threatening, if you know what they represent to some of the people huddled in their shadow.

The Conservative-led coalition government recently announced that it would be capping Local Housing Allowance (LHA), a move which will mean that many claimants, particularly those with large families, will no longer be able to afford to live in London. In the spring, Newham council had around 32,000 people in urgent need of housing, and had announced, controversially, that it was seeking to move some of them to other parts of Britain. The maximum available LHA benefit for a four-bedroom property in Newham is around £400 a week. When the Guardian looked into this, it found precisely 339 such properties available within a five-mile radius of the borough, and not all of those would be available to benefit claimants. Rents are rising as the market responds to the Olympic facelift, which will only exacerbate the shortage. So, though the Olympics will undoubtedly regenerate the physical fabric of the area, it is obvious that not all of its current residents will be around to reap the benefits. The poorest will be shunted out.

For east Londoners who are not at the bottom of the heap, the Olympics offer a mixture of risks and opportunities. This can be seen on the other side of the Olympic Park from Stratford, at Hackney Wick. It is a landscape whose contours were defined by the Victorians. Near the junction of the Hertford Canal and Lee Navigation, you can hear traffic thundering towards the Blackwall tunnel, and as you cross the footbridge into the half-forgotten haven of Fish Island, you can see the red tower of the Bryant & May match factory, scene of a formative moment in the history of the labour movement—in the 1880s the so-called Match Girls went on a successful strike in protest at having to work 14-hour days and handle white phosphorus. Now, the canals are lined by developments of buy-to-let apartments and the old factory is a gated community, where, for the duration of the Olympics, surface-to-air missiles have been sited, in case of terrorist attack.

The Wick used to be an industrial centre. The world’s first true synthetic plastic, parkesine, was manufactured here. Other industries included shellac and aniline dyes. It’s also the site of the former Eton Mission, where from 1913 to 1967 the famous public school ran a church and a football league—a previous attempt to better the lives of east Londoners through sport. Many of the old factory buildings have become artists’ studios, some of them used by friends of mine who were in Shoreditch and Whitechapel in the 1990s, before space got too expensive. Tower Hamlets council says the area has “potential for major regeneration”. Everybody seems aware the Olympics will change the place beyond recognition. I found two Polish builders, Tomasz and Bogdan, unloading scaffolding poles in a yard with an uninterrupted view of the stadium. "Maybe we run parking, make good money. But maybe all the roads are closed. We don’t know."

Next door is a fish smokery, H. Forman & Son, whose factory was relocated from the Olympic site. It’s hoping to cash in on its large car park by creating something called the Fish Island Riviera, comprising 30 corporate hospitality suites, for rent (from £75,000 + VAT) for the duration of the games. Its managing director, Lance Forman, told the Evening Standard, which ran artists’ impressions of palm trees and a lecherous-looking businessman watching women’s beach volleyball, “Fish Island will be the VIP side of the games…We expect athletes to come here to celebrate their medals."

At Stour Space, a studio complex which is also advertising itself as a venue to rent for the Olympics, I sat on a café terrace overlooking the canal and ordered a cappuccino—not so much a drink as a coffee-flavoured symbol of gentrification. At the next table were two locals reminiscing about the old Hackney Wick stadium, once a track for dog racing and speedway, later a derelict site which hosted a crazed, informal market where you could buy almost anything under the sun, if you were happy not to ask too many questions. Stephen grew up in the area; Richard teaches in a local school. They used to run a gallery in Shoreditch and have been friends for years. Both wondered aloud whether the money brought into the area by the Olympics will really trickle down to the local people, or whether regeneration will just turn this quiet canalside into a place for the people who have already wrought such change on the area: what Stephen called “the middle-class immigrants”.

Picture: Armed police at Westfield Stratford City

TO UNDERSTAND THE scepticism about the Olympic legacy, it is important to know about the failure of past planning experiments in east London, symbolised for many by the high-rise social housing that was built in the post-war period. After the Luftwaffe’s carpet-bombing cleared much of the Victorian street grid, a social-democratic notion of a rationally planned society took hold of the governing classes. Tower blocks that were supposed to be utopian “streets in the sky” quickly became containment areas for the toxic poor, dangerous and depressing places that made people nostalgic for the low-quality but human-scale housing they replaced.

Some blocks have been belatedly recognised as signature modern buildings (Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House, in Bethnal Green, has been sold to a private developer and is now a “luxury” apartment block), but many more have been demolished, after only 20 or 30 years of service. In 1968, a brand new 22-storey block in Newham called Ronan Point suffered a partial collapse when a gas explosion demolished a load-bearing wall, sending one corner of the building crashing to the ground, killing four people and injuring 17. It had been built using a cheap technique called “large-panel system building”, which was aggressively promoted to cash-strapped local councils across Britain by a corrupt cabal of builders, architects and planners. The collapse put a stop to new high-rise social housing in Britain for a generation. Only recently, with developments like the Shard, rearing up ominously near London Bridge, has the idea of high-rise living caught on again. These days, it’s for the rich. Social housing is usually built closer to street level.

On the south-eastern fringe of the Olympic site is the Carpenters Estate, a typical post-war development, with some low-rise housing built around three tall towers. It is an eerie place. Most of the residents have been "decanted", as the current planning jargon has it, and in April the council was trying to decide whether to demolish or refurbish it. Tenants who used to have secure tenancies, with the right to pass them on to their children, will now be offered less favourable terms, in most cases from housing agencies, which will expose them to the rapid upward trend of the post-Olympic property market.

One rumour is that the Carpenters site will become a second campus for University College London. During the Olympics the top floors of the towers will be used as one of the media centres. When I visited, the only sign of life was the Irish pub in the centre, where a few regulars were having a lunchtime pint. On the bar a stack of copies of a news-sheet called the East End Howler detailed a campaign to "save the Carpenters". "It is very quiet," writes one resident, “and it’s statistically one of the least crime-ridden estates in the whole of London. There is a bit of a community there and it just seems like the council is wilfully destroying what everyone who lives there thinks is a bit of a haven in order to send us to places that we might not feel as safe in or as settled in. A lot of the older people who live there have been there since the blocks went up."

Throughout east London, a population that has come to terms with (and even, in the case of the Carpenters, learned to love) previous planning upheavals seems braced for the Olympics rather than excited about them. In Hackney, as early as March, residents of at least one estate overlooking the site were experiencing daily security sweeps by anti-terrorist police. In Limehouse, locals who live on one of the vip traffic routes have been told they can only cross the road at designated spots, under the supervision of marshals. Everywhere I get a sense of increased discipline and control. This, of course, is part and parcel of any good planner’s drive to efficiency. East London has been unruly for too long. If it is going to pay its way, it needs to stop drinking at lunchtime and get to work. East London has been hearing this for at least 200 years.

On Leyton marshes, ingrained distrust of authority has erupted into outright dissent as protesters have occupied the site of a proposed basketball-practice facility. They claim the council offered the land to the Olympic Delivery Authority without proper legal consultation and suspect that the temporary structure will in fact prove permanent, like the ice rink next door. What was once common land, popular with dog-walkers, bird-watchers and other non-shoppers, risks being enclosed. Charlie, one of the protesters, believes the powers that be are manipulating the Olympic euphoria to clamp down on individual liberty. "While we were blinded by the light," he says, "they introduced new laws, new ways of dispossessing us."

The contemporary trend for public space to be privatised (instead of the old high street, the mall) has consequences, exemplified by the behaviour of the security guards around the Olympic site, who harass photographers and move bystanders along with a casual authoritarianism that would have been unthinkable before the rise of the post-September 11th 2001 security state. These new enclosures may, in their way, be as significant as their 18th-century precursors. Instead of citizens, we are now to be customers, and our right to the city is contingent on the agreement of the private owners of those spaces. It’s not a position that brings with it a sense of personal security. It’s a telling contrast to the industrial optimism of the Victorians, and the Modernist aspiration of the streets in the sky. It seems like an unconscious acknowledgment that off as well as on the field, London 2012 will produce losers as well as winners. A few months ago Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote a poem in memory of the sporting club of the old Eton Mission, which has been set in bronze letters into a wall of what is now one of the Paralympic venues. It reads, in part:

This is legacy –
young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped
to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;
believe community is self in multitude –
the way the past still dedicates to us
its distant, present light

These lines have, for me, a rather half-baked optimism, as if the poet is throwing positive words at the Olympics in the hope that one or two of them will stick. The past of the East End is not dedicating much of its light to these games. London 2012 is all about the shiny, productive future. The Olympic legacy will be the transformation of the built environment, and an influx of new money and people. There is little to suggest that respect and belonging will be part of the package for those who don’t have the money to play. 

Picture: The post-war Carpenters Estate; much of it is marked for demolition

Hari Kunzru is an author and deputy president of English PEN. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Times of India. His most recent book is "Gods Without Men"

Photographs Howard Kingsnorth