A bit of recent genealogical research has revealed that members of my family have been getting born (and dying) in the East End for a couple of hundred years. For the last 50 I’ve had to cope with the shame of not being one of them. By an accident of birth (as some wit once said ‘I wanted to be near my mother’) I was born at the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum, less intriguingly known as Wanstead Hospital which in 1964 was in Essex, but is now firmly rooted in suburban Redbridge and is a private housing development!
I’ve been living in Bethnal Green since 1991, where my own children have been born (and died) thus re-establishing the geographic continuity of the family tree. For a variety of reasons that might be of interest to a psychologist, but no-one else, living in Tower Hamlets has been very important to me. When I moved here, it was to a place that I’d known, more or less, all of my life and felt a strong affinity to. For most of the last quarter century, nothing much seemed to change. Of course, the ‘Docklands’ phenomenon was already in train and has accelerated since, but I’d been aware of that since the early 80s. My first housing demonstration, in about 1982, was against the building of a relatively small private development at Savage Gardens, Beckton. It caused local outrage at the time, but was the thin edge of a very thick wedge.
That was the period of ‘Yuppies’ who personified the changes being wrought to east London. Today it’s ‘Hipsters’. Back then it was mullets and shoulder pads, now it’s beards and retro chic. But however much they annoy me (a lot sometimes) these superficial trappings are not the real point and nor, I increasingly think, is the term ‘Gentrification’.
There is, undoubtedly, a process of cultural colonisation at work in the East End. For years I heard that Bethnal Green was becoming ‘trendy’, but it didn’t feel that way when I went to Woolworths or one of the three pubs that were within a two-minute walk of my flat. The pubs are all gone now (they’ve become flats themselves!) and Woolworths is now Iceland, but in many ways Bethnal Green Road still feels very familiar. But something is changing: a wave that started at Hoxton and Shoreditch and is rolling inexorably eastwards.
But again, it’s important to differentiate between scales of social and economic power and conquest. For a few years we’ve had exotic commercial enterprises in the area e.g. a vintage shop on every corner, a cafe where you eat with cats and a retro guitar boutique, but a significant moment was reached recently when the first big high street brand (Pret a Mange) arrived at the top of Brick Lane. This will inevitably put even more upward pressure on rents and squeeze out the small independent shops (selling things I neither want nor understand) and hasten the cloning of the area to resemble everywhere else that’s gone through a similar process of corporate make-over. A good example is the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, a landmark council estate that successfully resisted privatisation, but after a period of decline during which some quite diverse local shops appeared, is now dominated by the usual collection of Waitrose and Starbucks stores.
Of course, all of this only deepens the local housing crisis. There are currently several really big redevelopment projects in the offing in Tower Hamlets e.g. Bishopsgate Goodsyard and the old News International site where the usual proliferation of private luxury housing will do nothing to help the 20,000 households currently on the waiting list and edge even more of them out of the East End. But most of the people who are coming here aren’t members of the ‘Gentry’. They’re paying a huge proportion of their income on rent, in return for a precarious six-month tenancy and a variable quality of housing. Like the people on the waiting list, most of them have no chance of staking a longer-term future in the East End by buying a place or getting a council tenancy.
I remember a time when ‘East Enders’ were a self-defining white clique. Now they speak in many tongues and the old cultural mores are more likely to be found 30 miles from Bow bells than within sound of them. The East End is changing and lamenting a mythologised past will neither stop that or make a better future. But if romanticising history is wrong, so is trashing it. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the East End, some on a massive scale, but nothing as crass or insulting as the opening of a ‘museum’ to Jack the Ripper. Please join the campaign to stop those who not only want to make money out of the East End, but do so by glorifying a mass murderer of women.