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 pioneering White 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.