By Sukhdev Sandhu
Paul Davis and I love the East End of London. He’s lived and worked here since the end of the ’80s, when it was still seen as a slum-infested footnote to the real London. “Bleak humor, drinking, illegal dens of iniquity”: That’s how Paul remembers the years when he ran a gallery above a hard-looking bunch of chauffeurs. As for me, I first came here in the mid-’90s, searching for a place to escape a broken heart. East London offered me that, and much more: a fascinating, centuries-long tradition of migrant settlements; a tough, sparky street energy; a feeling that I was part of a community, creative and often embattled, that was distinct from the rest of an increasingly homogeneous city. Now, what used to be an outpost of the capital is seen as London’s funky, beating center. Speculators, politicians, music promoters, restaurateurs—in they flock, all eager to invest money and cultural capital in this newfound land of grit and cheap real estate. The transformations they bring about, common throughout London’s blossoming economy, are most visible here in the East End. And there’s no better time to feel their effects than at night, when the bright lights of the clubs and eateries illuminate the sharp contrast between East London’s private, dreamy past and its gaudy, promotional present. Both Paul and I have watched our home metamorphose over the years—both of us with a healthy dose of skepticism—and we wanted to explore some of these changes up close. On a wet and greasy January night, we wandered the area together, chronicling the shifts that have taken place in East London’s texts and texture.
Traditionally, the East End has been home to Cockneys, and is a hub for immigrants and refugees—Irish Catholics, Russian Jews, and Bangladeshis. Historians have championed it as the spiritual heart of London, the area embodying the hard-earned freedoms and aspirations of generations of newly arrived exiles. An inscription on the Brick Lane mosque that stands on the site of a former synagogue, Methodist chapel, and Huguenot church reads “Umbra Sumus”—“We Are Shadows.” City dwellers from outside the East End may have given those words a different meaning. For many years, other Londoners saw the area as irredeemably dark and morally depraved, a home to brothels and disease—and, of course, “undesirables” such as the Jews and the Irish. But depravity and darkness can be turn-ons, too. Nighttime in East London has attracted slummers, sexual adventurers, and Hollywood royalty, all in pursuit of kicks and a bit of the Other. In the 1880s, double-decker buses began transporting tourists to the area’s cobbled, poorly lit neighborhoods to retrace the footsteps of Jack the Ripper, and such tours have continued to the present day. “We sought rapine and murder,” one sightseer told a reporter in 1929. “But they gave us chop suey and tea.”
A lot has changed in recent years. The East London neighborhood of Spitalfields, through which runs Brick Lane, has gone from being a danger zone for its Bangladeshi residents—who were terrorized by skinheads in the area’s alleys and winding lanes—to a haven for artists and students. The East End is reputed to have a greater concentration of creatives than any-where else in Europe. These and other recent arrivals to the area are keen, sometimes a little too much so, to show how embedded they are in the area. Until very recently, no Londoner would have sported a T-shirt advertising the neighborhood in which he or she lived. Now, it’s not uncommon on a night out to see people strutting along with “Arnold Circus” or “Dalston” (poorer parts of East and North East London) embossed on their tops. They wear them partly ironically, but partly to distinguish themselves from cattle-class clubbers so unhip they wear designer-label clothes.
The East End is becoming a brandscape. Clear Channel billboards break out like a bad rash. The bright, familiar logos of newly arrived supermarket chains, such as Tesco’s, are hard to escape. There are also posh restaurants such as Les Trois Garçons (with a burning torch by its entrance) and private clubs such as Shoreditch House, run by the same culturepreneurs who founded Soho House. “What’s it like?” I ask Paul. “Full of people coked up to the latest Chanels, jabbering about ‘totally the coolest hotel, yeah?’ and being loudly competitive about everything,” he says witheringly. Smaller, family-run shops, cafés, and garages are struggling. They often sport hand-painted signs with idiosyncratic lettering and misspelled words. They’re the ones whose owners paint over the names of recently deceased partners; one sign reads, elliptically, as “Bhopal &.” But it was these stores, together with the shabby travel agents, language schools, and immigration offices, that gave the area real character. Now, less personal typefaces predominate; many of the street scenes in last year’s documentary Helvetica were shot in this part of London.
As Paul and I roam the streets divining traces of an older, more illicit East End, it’s clear we’re not alone. The narrow lanes seem to be filled with photographers, amateur and professional, documenting the neighborhood’s ethnic subcultures and frayed architectural fabric. They move slowly, looking with the eyes of aesthetes and anthropologists. They don’t view the area as a rambunctiously organic whole, but as an aggregation of pixelated close-ups and zoom-ins. Their snapping is mirrored by that of the police-surveillance helicopters above them in the sky, as well as by that of the CCTV cameras installed inside and outside many buildings. London is the most heavily monitored city in the world, and the current “War on Terror”—and the sizeable Muslim population of the East End—means that the very act of looking, especially at night, has become a competitive and deeply political activity. Paul and I know that we are part of this cycle of observing and being observed. But we’re motivated by curiosity rather than suspicion, and love rather than fear.
Tourist officials are keen to brand the area, and there is talk of renaming the East End “Eastside.” In 2002, activists eager to celebrate the area’s Bangladeshi population succeeded in redesignating it “Spitalfields/Banglatown.” Such acts of cultural reparation weren’t always carefully thought through: The street signs, newly scripted in Bengali, failed to help locals, most of whom speak only Sylheti. East London has also become a hotspot for journalists who want quick access to “what Muslims think.” They get their camera people to take a few shots of skullcapped youths, women in veils entering a local mosque, or bearded, hobbling elder haggling for jackfruit at a street market. What they don’t show are the cybercafés where high-school kids are trawling the Internet for images of Bollywood actresses wearing wet saris. Or, indeed, the stripper-pubs where, until recently, Bangladeshi men could go to slug back a few pints of ale and gawk at gyrating women.
The East End’s darkness has always helped graffers such as Banksy and Faile to work unhindered through the night. The neighborhood walls and shop fronts were canvases on which they refined their skills. It’s harder for street artists now. On the pretext of cleaning up the neighborhood in time for the 2012 Olympics—most of which is taking place in Stratford, a 10-minute tube journey away—local authorities are clamping down on nocturnal markings. Photocopies, stickers, and fly posters are being scraped off neighborhood walls. Public benches and bus shelters are covered with vinyl coatings so that illegal paint can be blasted off. The murky nights that have been a haven to street artists and titillated hordes alike are disappearing. Uptight newcomers urge the council to improve streetlighting, and the ever-rising number of bars and restaurants, many of them decorated with retro-neon piping, spill light wantonly onto formerly shadowy backstreets. East London’s new residents don’t seem to understand that sometimes you need darkness to let a neighborhood glow.