London’s East End, that is. Once home to Huguenots, Irish, and Pakistanis, this hot neighborhood is now opening its arms to hip Londoners and in-the-know tourists.
AS YOU WALK toward the Old Spitalfields Market, it is clear that the once downtrodden East End of London is on the rise. Long associated with disease, crime, and poverty — dating back to the days when Jack the Ripper roamed these streets — the East End, until recently, was shunned by most well-to-do Londoners. All that has changed, though, as high prices in other parts of the city have made the East End, with its fine old-housing stock and good public-transit links, attractive to hip young people seeking a foothold in London. The drab storefronts have been replaced by hot new restaurants and clubs, chic vintage-clothing shops, small designer stores, and an open market place, where well-made clothes are sold at a fraction of the prices charged in other parts of town. And though it was once off-limits after dark, today London’s East End has a buzz even at night.
If London is the city of the future, with its mind-boggling mix of languages and ethnicities and religions, then East London is the place where it all seems to work, where blacks and whites and Pakistanis and Indians and Muslims and Jews mix together with very little friction. The tolerant neighborhood has been a beacon for wave after wave of immigrants since the end of the seventeenth century, when Huguenots seeking religious freedom came from France, followed first by the Irish and the Chinese, and then, in the late nineteenth century, by Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. After World War II came Pakistanis and Bangladeshis — that’s why some of the street signs in the Brick Lane area are in the Urdu language. Now young families taking their first tentative steps on the expensive London property ladder have moved in.
Here you can find fresh bagels served 24 hours a day, spicy Bangladeshi cuisine, fancy Mexican meals, and traditional English fare (like sausage and mash and jellied eels) mixed in with the offerings of trendy restaurants and wine bars. Much of London has become relentlessly upscale, with the same pricey chain stores and restaurants popping up in each neighborhood, but this uniformity has not yet hit East London, where each shop and restaurant seems original.
“It’s hot,” says Patricia Holmes, an investment manager with the local city council who expects the upward trend to accelerate as the 2012 Olympic Games, based in nearby neighborhoods on the eastern outskirts of London, near. “The Olympics are really the icing on the cake. It really is very trendy at the moment. It’s where Londoners tend to go out. There is just so much happening here in terms of regeneration, with shops and bars opening. Around Spitalfields, Brick Lane, and Shoreditch, you see a large number of shops and restaurants and bars that are unique. If people have an eye for the unusual, this area gives you a vast selection. The place to be in the ’60s was King’s Road; in the ’70s, it was Carnaby Street; now it’s Spitalfields.”
When London was a major destination for steamers and sailing ships, newcomers to England tended to settle in this crowded urban neighborhood — partly because of East London’s proximity to the docks and wharves along the River Thames, where many disembarked after difficult passages from other parts of the world. The neighborhood’s unique history is written on its walls. For example, some of the storefronts of Brick Lane still carry reminders of the early Jewish immigrants, including the painted sign for the Katz twine dealers, who were one of the last families to depart. I checked it out with particular interest — it could well have been a relative, as my grandfather, Solomon Katz, landed here in the 1890s and my father, Nathan Katz, was born in East London before moving on to New Zealand and the United States. Nearby is the Jamme Masjid, a mosque that began its religious life as a Huguenot chapel in 1743 before becoming a Methodist church and then, in 1898, a synagogue. The synagogue closed in the 1960s only to reopen as a mosque in 1976.
Today the passenger ships that used to land along the River Thames have ceased operations, but the once derelict waterfront has been redeveloped into sleek office towers. Many of the people who are resettling East London work in this area, now known as the docklands, or nearby in the City, as London’s thriving financial district is called. The result is a wealth of entertainment and dining choices for residents and visitors looking for something new in London.
“It used to be just a few old pubs and urban wasteland, with maybe one nightclub,” says David Swindells, nightlife editor for Time Out magazine. “That was 15 years ago. Now, of course, there are maybe 300 restaurants, bars, clubs, and pubs there. The development has followed a classic pattern where first artists move in because rent is cheap and there are warehouses available. Then you get new bars and clubs, and then other people move in because it’s become a vibrant area. And then the artists move out because it’s expensive.”
On weekends, the fashion parade in the East End is a show in itself, providing ideal peoplewatching as London’s hippest put on their Sunday funkiest and spend hours looking for the perfect retro or nobody’s-heard-of-him-yet new designer piece. Stores like Absolute Vintage and Rokit are crammed with people looking over the hundreds of used designer shoes, refurbished cowboy boots, and tiny little dresses in search of that one perfect item. Others jam the small art galleries and design studios, and some stop to admire the display of a life-size inflatable battle tank, its gun barrel sprouting flowers. There are vintage-record stores that sell thousands of used albums, and there’s the Duke of Uke shop, specializing in ukuleles and banjos. Some of the old, abandoned breweries have been turned into restaurant and shop complexes, saving the historic buildings from demolition.
The incredible array of goods forces the careful consumer to confront some difficult personal choices. In my case, there were two questions: Can a man ever look good in a well-made fedora that happens to be bright red? And is the fringed buckskin jacket popularized by Neil Young in the early 1970s likely to make a comeback in my lifetime? After careful consideration, it was yes to the hat and no, no, a thousand times no to the jacket.
IF YOU GO
In addition to our service to London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, American Airlines now flies to Stansted Airport, which is a mere 45 minutes by train from East London.
Absolute Vintage, 15 Hanbury Street, 011-44- 20-7247-3883, www.absolutevintage.co.uk
There are plenty of midpriced Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants on Brick Lane, in the heart of East London. Rather than decide on one ahead of time, it makes sense to walk up and down the street and choose whichever one seems the most welcoming.
Duke of Uke, 22 Hanbury Street, 011-44-20- 7247-7924, www.dukeofuke.co.uk
Green & Red Bar & Cantina, 51 Bethnal Green Road, 011-44-20-7749-9670. This small restaurant offers an unusually good selection of regional Mexican dishes and a fantastic range of tequilas.
Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, 011-44- 20-7247-7392, www.thehawksmoor.co.uk. This excellent bar offers a wide range of classic cocktails as well as high-quality food, with an emphasis on steaks and salads.
Hookah Lounge, 133 Brick Lane, 011-44-20- 7033-9072. A fun, bohemian place to enjoy a good cup of tea or inexpensive Middle Eastern food, it’s best for snacks and atmosphere.
Old Spitalfields Market, at the intersection of Commercial and Brushfield Streets, www.visitspitalfields.com
St. John Bar and Restaurant Smithfield, 26 St. John Street, and its sister restaurant,
St. John Bread and Wine Spitalfields, 94-96 Commercial Street, offer terrific food for meat lovers who also enjoy fresh bread and delicious wines. 011-44-20-7251-0848, www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk
GREGORY KATZ is a contributing editor to American Way. His work has also appeared in GQ, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. GEMMA MORRIS is a writer and a broadcaster based in London.