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.”