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London's New East End

Among the historic (and historically hardscrabble) corridors of London’s East End, a new energy has taken hold, marked by the efforts of trendsetting artists, designers, chefs, and hoteliers.

By Maria Shollenbarger

There’s a story that circulates through the London art world about the gritty Hoxton/Shoreditch area in the mid 1990’s, when it was just beginning to be frequented by the YBA’s (Young British Artists). Before the pioneeringWhite Cube Gallery opened there in 2000 and things took off in earnest, Hoxton Square apparently had a planted brick border that served as both a literal and figurative divide between its west side—at the time home to the cutting-edge Lux art center and a handful of pioneering showrooms and bars—and the edgy, no-go east side. In the warmer months, the hedge flourished, conveniently obscuring the less glamorous aspects of Hoxton from the movers and shakers of the art, fashion, and culture worlds who were venturing out to mix at the edge of acknowledged London civilization. “But in autumn, when the bush lost its leaves, all sorts of designer bags would be revealed in the branches,” recounts Iwona Blazwick, the stylish and formidably clever director of the Whitechapel Gallery, located just a couple miles from the square. “The local kids would have nicked them from the people on the ‘right’ side, taken out what they wanted, and dumped them. That bush—that funny detritus—was a real metaphor for what was happening in the East End then.”

What was happening, of course, was gentrification. In the past decade it has rolled inexorably east, powered by the freak money being made and spent here in this world financial capital, first into Spitalfields, then Hoxton, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green, in the borough of Hackney, and finally to Whitechapel and Mile End, in Tower Hamlets. (In 2012, it will roll even farther east when the Olympics are held in Stratford.) These are the neighborhoods and boroughs that make up East London, a palimpsest whose rough-and-tumble history indelibly colors its contemporary identity. (Cockney—the quintessential East Ender—is a term said to date back to the 1300’s, when it was used to identify a person born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church, a few miles from Hoxton Square). The area is profoundly defined in the minds of Londoners as home to the working classes, whether English or part of the centuries-old tidal push of immigrants—French Huguenots, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Russians, and latterly, South Asians. Their ebb and flow has sustained a vibrant tension between displacement and integration, poverty and aspiration, heritage and the threat of its obsolescence that endures in East London to this day.

What’s changed in the past decade is that the immigrants in question have been as likely to hail from TriBeCa, or West Hollywood, or indeed the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (seven-odd miles away on a map; light years distant, socially), as they have from, say, Bangladesh or Belarus. And the vibrant tension has taken on a new dimension, as early adopters, and the wealthy who inevitably follow them, have set up shop, bringing along all the attendant signifiers of their lifestyle—from expensive handcrafted furnishings to heirloom produce.

Though it started some 20 years ago in Clerkenwell, just west of Hoxton, East London’s gentrification is still in its inception in other places. On the streets surrounding the Whitechapel Gallery, for instance, you might hear only a smattering of English amid the Bengali, and there are side lanes lined with joyless council housing or semi-decrepit warehouses that, when you consider turning down them on a late-evening walk, all but scream out: not a good idea. But Blazwick cites high-profile figures on London’s cultural scene—directors of the English Heritage society and the Royal Academy—who have eschewed Marylebone and Chelsea to colonize the pockets of pristine Georgian houses behind her gallery as well as bourgeois mums and dads from Wimbledon who venture in for world-class exhibitions and Sunday lunch at the White-chapel Gallery Dining Room, a tiny, exquisite wood-paneled canteen that, since opening last winter, has been one of the hotter seats in town.

A similar dynamic is at work across the rest of London’s East End as blue-chip creative and cultural talents—hoteliers and chefs, art dealers and designers—have been steadily working themselves into the fabric of daily life. In some cases, post-gentrification has arrived in regrettable ways: Hoxton Square and parts of Shoreditch on a Friday night are now awash in suburban twentysomethings with the same dual missions of twentysomethings everywhere: getting epically drunk and scoring. But on, say, a Tuesday afternoon, much of East London presents scenes of commerce and community that are dynamic and downright chic.

A walk down Redchurch Street, in loud, busy Shoreditch, manifests this in its most concentrated, and current, state. Art exhibition spaces—Urban Angel; the Redchurch Street Gallery—mix with shops and creative firms housed in former convenience stores and warehouses. Fashionable apothecary Aesop made its debut here nine months ago in slick, scented surroundings; Labour & Wait, selling simply perfect household items, recently relocated after 10 years in Spitalfields to the old green-tiled pub at No. 85. And Hostem, a menswear store that opened in June, counts among its clients both fashion-forward gentlemen hailing from within the Square Mile (hedge fund managers; derivatives analysts) and locals sporting the East London hipster uniform of sockless brogues, rolled denim, thick spectacles, whiskers, and the occasional waistcoat. At the street’s westernmost end is Terence Conran’s Boundary, which comprises a proper French restaurant, a 17-room boutique hotel, and a rooftop bar and brasserie that was completely packed within about 10 minutes and has by all appearances remained that way (English weather permitting) since opening last year. From here the much larger terrace of Shoreditch House, in the top floors of the Biscuit Building across the street, can be seen. Opened in 2007 to cater to the influx of media companies setting up shop in the area, the Soho House group’s eastern outpost has a no-suits-or-ties clause in its dress code—smirk all you like, it’s strictly enforced—and as of February a new 26-room hotel, Shoreditch Rooms, that allows guests access to the club’s rooftop. The hotel rooms are small, wood-paneled, and gratifyingly affordable; the Cowshed Spa downstairs proffers pedicures to customers in sleek white leather armchairs. Just around the corner is Pizza East, a sprawling pizzeria with an unreconstructed industrial interior and a menu of rustic antipasti and wafer-thin pizzas.

Just a few blocks to the south is Brick Lane, a cacophonous artery connecting Shoreditch to Spitalfields and Whitechapel. It’s known, of course, for having London’s best (or at least its most prolific) Indian-food scene. But it has a history that’s illustrious enough to fill textbooks. Case in point: Jamme Masjid—the Great London Mosque—on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street. It was consecrated in 1976 in an early Georgian house that, for the century prior, was the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. Before that, it had a Victorian life as a Methodist church; and in the early 1800’s, existed as a chapel to promote Christianity among a burgeoning Ashkenazi immigrant population—before which it was the Huguenot Neuve Eglise, built in 1743.

Brick Lane’s brewing tradition also dates back centuries: the Old Truman Brewery here takes its name from a family who started making ales in the late 1600’s. Today, the brewery building is home to almost 200 independent creative companies. It’s connected to Brick Lane by a small pedestrian alley called Dray Walk, over which the brewery towers, and along which the best of Brick Lane’s energy can be experienced: food stands peddle izakaya-style snacks, dosas, empanadas, kebabs and dolma, and eye-watering Goan curries. Small fashion traders with provocatively arcane names (Son of a Stag; A Butcher of Distinction; Public Beware Co.) enjoy fiercely loyal local followings. In and around Brick Lane are multiple markets, including the storied one in adjacent Spitalfields; Thursday, not Sunday, is the connoisseur’s day for antiques.

Less than a mile north lies Columbia Road, the grassroots opposite of Redchurch Street’s sleek canniness and Brick Lane’s hurly-burly edge. It’s in low-rise, charmingly shambolic Bethnal Green, and is home to London’s favorite flower market—a Sunday morning affair lent a surreal Dickensian air by vendors cajoling browsers with hyperbolic sales pitches delivered in semi-ironic Cockney accents. (The original Saturday market was moved to Sunday to cater to the area’s Russian and Eastern European Jewish traders.) People are packed tight as sardines among the stalls, bargaining for Dutch tulips and Kenyan lisianthus and English roses.

The road itself is a sweet two-block stretch of early Victorian houses, traditional two-up, two-downs, many converted by their new owners into hobbyist shops with façades painted lurid shades of purple and green. Glitterati, for instance, keeps hours more or less according to the whims of its owners, a couple who are specialists, respectively, in vintage watches and Miriam Haskell costume jewelry. At the pint-size Café Columbia, open for 30-plus years and still the best place around to get a bagel, there’s a photo of Pete Doherty in his Babyshambles days affixed to the wall; comment on it to the stout sixtysomething owner, and she rolls her eyes heavenward as if to say: I knew that little geezer when, and “when” wasn’t pretty days for him either. Sunday mornings, croissants and fair-trade coffee are served in the courtyard of the Royal Oak, a pub with excellent food and an aggressively self-regulating clientele (the change in noise level and quality of gaze directed your way when you walk in tell you more or less instantly whether you should stay, or just turn around and go).

If it’s a Saturday, one should instead proceed beyond Columbia Road and along Goldsmiths Row past Regent’s Canal to Broadway Market. It’s mostly foodstuffs rather than flowers here, and to miss it on a sunny day would be to miss the best people-watching in town—equal parts farmers’ market and urban style show, with the cast of flaneurs and flaneuses sizing up organic Wiltshire Horn lamb and Excalibur plums while only slightly less overtly sizing up one another. Lining the road are cafés and pubs to please all aesthetics and palates: for the Francophiles, there’s shabby-chic L’Eau a la Bouche; for beer drinkers, the picturesque trellises and outdoor tables at the Dove Freehouse; for synapse-stimulating coffee and flapjacks, Climpson & Sons; for pie and mash and even jellied eels (don’t knock ’em till you try ’em), F. Cooke.

“I still love [the scene at] Broadway Market,” says Pablo Flack, a co-owner of Bistrotheque, the Hackney restaurant-cum–cabaret parlor opened in 2004. Flack and business partner David Waddington are, like Blazwick, elder statesmen of East London’s culture and nightlife scene. In the late nineties and early oughties, Flack ran Shoreditch’s Bricklayers Arms, famously the watering hole favored by YBA’s, before Bistrotheque became a social nexus for the fashion designers and artists who’d put down roots in the area. He could easily decry the loss of authenticity, perceived or actual, that gentrification has wrought. But he’s dismissive of the naysayers: “I don’t subscribe to the ‘It was all better in the past’ mentality,” he says. “Shoreditch was a ghost town. Today there are great shops, restaurants, bars; some of the streets are actually pretty now. And an awful lot of wealth has been created. There could—there should—be more places like Boundary, or Town Hall.”

“Town Hall” is Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, an ambitious five-star establishment that opened just a few blocks away from Bistrotheque in May and is housed in the former Bethnal Green council chambers—a listed monolith that’s a hybrid of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The Singapore-based boutique hotelier Peng Loh fell in love with (and signed a lease on) the site the first time he laid eyes on it, despite the monumental task of its restoration and the arguably equally daunting one of convincing the traveling classes that Cambridge Heath Road—east of Shoreditch, way east of the West End, and not exactly walking distance to the City—was the New Place to Be (at $460 a night, to boot). Certainly, the spaces have “labor of love” written all over them, with Peng and Paris-based architects Rare collaborating to meticulously restore original wood- and stonework, any new detailing carefully crafted to reference, if not replicate, the original elements. Furnishings are spare and clean-lined, a mixture of Midcentury reissues and new pieces designed by Rare principal Michel da Costa Gonçalves. Conspicuous luxury isn’t the order of the day here; one is meant to appreciate having 18-foot ceilings, Tasmanian oak–paneled walls, and original casement windows (and thanks to Rare’s subtle ministrations, one probably will). Locals, meanwhile, are coming to sample Viajante, Town Hall’s restaurant, where chef Nuno Mendes is turning out consistently imaginative, delicious, seasonal food (despite London’s critics meting out only the thinnest, most begrudging praise, as is their bitchy wont).

Peng, like many of those around him, is betting that East London has achieved critical mass of the best sort—an ideal balance of inviting and challenging, despite the occasional Hoxton Square–style lapse. And the move ever eastward continues: the 2012 Olympics are pulling development beyond Mile End to Stratford; Westfield Stratford City, an outpost of the massive Westfield mall, is slated to open shortly—a good or terrible sign, depending on whom you ask. Blazwick, for her part, is more cautiously positive. “When I say it’s cosmopolitan, I mean truly cosmopolitan,” she says. “There’s a mix of people and classes here you can’t erase. There’s still a great deal of public housing, for one thing. I think it will never be too gentrified, and conversely, will never again descend to a real ghetto.” This tension between the area’s storied past and its electric present ensures that East London (or parts of it, anyway) will remain a forcing ground for creativity. It’s a delicate balance that Blazwick roots for: “I, for one, hope we’ll maintain this tremendous dynamic—this fragile ecosystem.”