Friday, April 4, 2014

London's East End: Too Cool for School

Do I celebrate or commiserate the extraordinary changes that continue to take place in London's East End? When I lived in London in the 1980s, I went to the East End for one reason only: to visit the Whitechapel Gallery. Places like Bethnal Green were where the cab drivers lived and spoke a language I didn't understand. Shoreditch didn't really exist as a location on anyone's map, and Hoxton Square was so radical that those who lived there were at best scarey, at worst, outright dangerous. Today, I could barely breathe for the effort made to be fashionable, edgy and consciously cool.

Fully veiled women, drug dealers, young couples eating scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and home made bread jostle for space on the pavement on Bethnal Green Road. Pink hair and piercings are more than a regular sight; they are de rigeur. Even the graffiti is made to order for the trend seekers in Shoreditch. Apparently, Banksy was commissioned to decorate the wall opposite Shoreditch House, a private members club only for those cool and trendy enough to be nominated. French, German, Polish and Russian are heard on the streets, mixing with dialects of all descriptions from the Indian sub-continent. Art in its most experimental and nascent forms and media springs up all over the place, changing the faces of walls by the day. This aspect of the East End is definitely to be celebrated.

In the early 2000s I went with one of my London friends who knew the hottest, coolest and trendiest spots that London had to offer. We walked down to Spitalfields, browsed through the racks of the interesting and absurd clothes of young designers, had "real coffee" - unheard of in most other parts of London outside Old Compton Street until five years later — and a bowl of noodles for £5. We sat on old wooden benches, the kind found on the streets of Bangkok as a place to sit while eating street food. Spitalfields is now unrecognizeable: the architecturally redesigned roof structure covers the wares of immigrant vendors, surrounded by chain stores, and there's even a website. There's no trace of the hustle and bustle, the smells and the disarray of the old fruit and veg market.

Crowds to compete with Ginza
The crowds in and around Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Shoreditch High Street are deep and the neighborhood more a place to be seen than somewhere to go for serious shopping. I don't doubt that there are boutique stores to visit, and restaurants with a reputation, coffee so good it's written up in Time Out, but there's no discovering unknown corners, or bargains to be stumbled upon in these parts. Don't get me wrong, this London is better than the one I knew in the 1980s; when the book of English cuisine was a very slim volume, homosexual activities could be a criminal offence, when there was no such thing as public life, and I was told by everyone I met "you're not from round here," as if I hadn't realized I was a foreigner. London today is appealing and open on many levels. But as is often the way, "gentrification" — even of the carefully crafted "I am cool and creative" variety — brings with it hoards of people, inflated prices, the loss of local traditions and cultural flavours.

London's East End is changing so rapidly that I am sure it's only a matter of time before the investment bankers, corporate millionaires and off-shore speculators move in and buy up. Why not? They have purchased and homogenized most of the rest of London. I am sure that it won't be too long before I am bemoaning the extinction of the "too cool for school" who colour these streets.

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