East Side Story

The “other London”—gritty, graffitied, but with a rising cool index—gets ready for its close-up as the venue of the Summer Olympics.

This story appears in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

After the last customers had wiped the stray crumbs of meat pie from their faces. After the last jellied eel had slid down throats. After the last cup of tea had been swallowed, Fred Cooke, owner of F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop at 41 Kingsland High Street, London E8 2JS, flipped the hand-printed cardboard sign on the front door of the establishment his grandfather had founded when George V assumed the throne from OPEN to CLOSED.

“You bet there were tears,” Cooke said of that day, February 11, 1997. Cooke, a thick-bodied man with thinning hair on top that gathered momentum to crest in a lush white wave at the back, stared wistfully at a case in the Hackney Museum. The display featured the net he had used to scoop eels out of the tank, pots for boiling potatoes for the mash, steel pie pans, and paper bags with F. Cooke printed on them for carryout. The kitchenware of a three-generation-old family enterprise had become a museum artifact.

“We were the Buckingham Palace of pie and mash shops,” he said. The diamond stud in his right ear and a gold bracelet, thick as a handcuff, testified to the rewards. The pie and mash shop on Kingsland High Street, one of six owned by the Cooke family, had been the flagship of the fleet, but the ship had been scuttled in response to the changing social landscape of East London.

Pie and mashed potato drenched in neon green parsley sauce, a bowl of eels in a gelatinous matrix, is a vanishing emblem of East End’s white working class, which has been replaced by a tide of emigrants from the Indian subcontinent—the legacy of the London docks that were once the gateway out to the rest of the British Empire and the gateway in for immigrants. The Huguenots arrived in the 17th century seeking freedom from religious persecution. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Irish fled famine. Eastern European Jews escaping the pogroms of Russia were next. Now the predominant ethnic group is Bengali; most are Muslim. They began immigrating in large numbers in the 1960s for economic reasons and now make up a third of the population—but there are also Africans, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, Turks, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans.

On Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green, the Al-Rahman Supermarket, with itsHALAL MEAT sign, rubs shoulders with the Polski Sklep Mini-Kłos Polish grocery, across from the Somali Mayfield House Day Centre, down the block from the luxury Town Hall Hotel, with a BMW or two parked in front and its £2,500 ($4,000)-a-night De Montfort suite (triple-height ceiling, stained glass windows, room for 16 to dine). Around the corner is York Hall, venue for Saturday night boxing (“Bad Boy Promotions presents: a night of white collar boxing with José ‘KO’ Corrodus and Lee ‘the Bomber’ Banks”), and steps away, the Gallery Cafe, where mothers with children in prams drink lattes and young professionals hunch over laptops. There is the crackle of energy, the jazz of diversity; it’s a bazaar to pick and choose from according to your taste, mood, and wallet.

The number of East End pie and mash shops—Cooke remembered 14 or 15—could almost be counted on one hand now. “East London became cosmopolitan,” Cooke explained. It was unclear if he meant this as a compliment. “They want their peas and rice, mon, and their kabobs.” It was said lightly, with an undertow of edge but mostly with resignation.

Things go missing. We drop a glove. Lose a watch. Misplace our glasses. Sometimes they reappear, are appropriated by others, or stay lost. East London is like that. A landscape of disappearances; streets scribbled with traces of the past, a tangle of bits and bobs that alternately vanish, then show up again in different form. A turn-of-the-century Jewish soup kitchen for the poor on Brune Street is reborn as luxury apartments. An 18th-century French Protestant church becomes the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in 1897, then 80 years later turns into the Brick Lane mosque, a testament to Lavoisier’s dictum that matter is neither created nor destroyed but simply changed from one form to another.

F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop in Dalston was sold to a Chinese businessman, who renamed it the Shanghai. Instead of eels, the menu lists baked lobster with ginger and spring onions. Instead of meat pies, pork dumplings. “I carried on as good as I could,” Cooke said, “but there was no use in flogging a dead horse. I decided to get out and enjoy the rest of my life. Nonetheless, it broke my heart.”

Trace a line starting at Tower Bridge along the north bank of the Thames; go east to the River Lea; turn north, looping in the borough of Tower Hamlets and part of Hackney; go south, to the old Roman walls of the City, and you have the classic East End of Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, and the celebrity gangsters of the 1950s and ’60s, the Kray brothers—Reggie and Ronnie, of whom one East Ender said: “The Krays were on the streets killing, but they would take care of your mother.”

This, historically, is wrong-side-of-the-tracks London. Its proximity to the Thames, and the eastern flow of the river, made the downstream location of shipping and manufacturing a natural consequence. Located beyond the walls of the City, noxious industry—tanneries, abattoirs, lead-smelting furnaces—could operate with minimal oversight. Winds blew from the west, lobbing the stink right across the East End, away from the perfumed air of the genteel West. The industrial revolution and expansion of the British Empire under Queen Victoria exacerbated the sordidness. The huge demand for dockworkers shoehorned even more working-class residents into an area swollen by immigration. Overcrowded housing proliferated. Poor sanitation spread disease. “Not a wery nice neighborhood,” observed Sam Weller in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

Unlike the homogenized grandeur of West London, with its Parliament and palaces, East London’s landscape was—and remains—unruly and unkempt. There are oases of loveliness: The quiet calm of houseboat-lined Regent’s Canal; the orderly and expensive Georgian houses on Fournier Street, where the edgy lions of British contemporary art like Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George live; the green of Victoria Park, opened in 1845 by grace of a petition signed by 30,000 East Enders, as well as West Enders who wanted a barrier to the diseased air of the East. But there is squalor in the brutal concrete of low-income housing estates, their corridors shading the furtive transactions of drug dealers, the stale smell of urine in stairwells; in the street gangs; in the brown fields with the toxic detritus of moribund factories; in the marshes scarred by rows of electric line pylons and rusting gasworks.

Today East London broadens out—depending on whom you ask—to include the boroughs of Newham, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, and Havering. Whatever the boundaries—despite more than a century of regeneration, despite neighborhoods colonized by white-collar professionals and more than 170 art galleries and museums, despite the prosperity of Canary Wharf’s financial district and its Masters of the Universe skyscraper headquarters for HSBC, Barclays, and Citibank—East London is still the quarter of the city most haunted by deprivation.

From 1889 to 1903 the Victorian social scientist Charles Booth published a map series of London poverty that scribed the East-West divide. On Booth’s map the West End of Kensington and Belgravia gleam with gold rectangles denoting “Upper-middle and upper classes. Wealthy.” The East End is riddled with black patches signaling “lowest class” and blue squares signifying “chronic want.” An index of deprivation in London today would read pretty much the same.

In 2005 the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London. The city announced it would use the games as an opportunity to transform East London and tackle “poverty, unemployment, lack of skills and poor health.” The Olympics would be, Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, promised, “a force for regeneration.”

In East London disparities between the haves and have-nots are in high relief. In Bethnal Green you can order a sausage roll (£1.40) and a cup of tea (70 pence) and eat at the Formica tables with plastic-covered chairs at Hulya’s, or nip across the street and ease yourself into the handmade furniture at the Michelin-starred Viajante for squid tartare with squid ink granita, followed by, say, duck heart and tongue with mushroom floss and spiced broth (six courses with wine pairing, £115).

“London,” says Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, “is the capital of inequality.” As they say on the London Underground: Mind the Gap.

Turn right on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane facing toward Bethnal Green Road and you approach some of the meanest low-income housing estates in London. Turn left and you approach the terminally cool district of Shoreditch, home of 300 or more digital-based, high-tech businesses.

“Entrepreneurs need four things,” explained Elizabeth Varley, a founder of TechHub, just off Old Street, where for £3,300 a year, developers of Web apps and cloud-based products who are hoping to come up with the Next Big Thing can buy desk space. “They need power, a superfast connection, unlimited coffee, and great creative people around them.”

East London has become a high-tech nexus, she explained, because of its affordability, its proximity to the city, and the “common vibe.” “The area is full of artists, restaurateurs, and retailers, people who want to do things their way.”

People like 24-year-old David Tenemaza Kramaley, a computer game developer, who sold his first digital product at 13 for £1,000, was looking to raise £300,000 for his latest venture, and had just moved to a one-room windowless basement flat five minutes from work, for which he was happily paying £1,000 a month.

“I like living here because of the convenience and ability to network,” he said. Kramaley, whose round face is framed by a Beatle-like mop of black hair, relishes the roller-coaster ride of a start-up. “I know I could get a well-paid job doing coding or marketing, but I like being in control of my own destiny.”

His goal?

“To make two million pounds.”

“Everyone keeps looking for the newest immigrants,” said Sotez Chowdhury, 22, a Bengali community organizer for Shoreditch Citizens. “They keep wondering—which ethnic group is next? I keep saying, These are the new immigrants, and you can’t say they don’t belong.” He meant the young professionals who had moved in, lured by the vibrancy and hipness of the place.

One night Sotez; his mother, Rowshanara, who is a family therapist; and I walked down Brick Lane, the heart of Banglatown, as it’s called. The lower end of the street with its curry restaurants (there are more than 50) glowed with the flamingo pinks, acid greens, and garish yellows of neon signs; the air practically vibrated with the smells of curry, cloves, and burning charcoal and the blaring Bollywood music.

At Woodseer Street, a Maginot Line of sorts, demographics change: Curry Restaurant Brick Lane turns into Boutique Brick Lane, with vintage clothing stores, music clubs, and bars filled with young men with sandpaper beards and young women in leggings and abbreviated tops. The Brickhouse bar and supper club that week promised the burlesque chanteuse Lady Beau Peep, along with Audacity Chutzpah, Bouncy Hunter, and Vicious Delicious.

An old Bengali man struggled to make his way against a tide of young people. “This used to be his neighborhood,” Sotez said of trendy Brick Lane, beyond Woodseer Street. The street was filled with the careless exuberance of a different generation, with money to spend. Did they have any sense of the deprivation that lay just around the corner? I asked Rowshanara. “They don’t have a clue,” she said.

“I’d come here with my friends from uni,” said Sotez. “It’s vibrant. It’s cool. We’d have a look around. From here you can see the lights of Canary Wharf, but they turned out to be an illusion.” He paused and his face seemed to harden. “My mates all wanted to be investment bankers. None of them are.”

In one of those gleaming glass towers in Canary Wharf, Jerome Frost, head of design for the Olympic Delivery Authority, leaned forward on an impeccably white-topped table of the sort that telegraphs modern design and explained the driving force behind the London Olympics. “The games present a unique opportunity for London,” he explained. “We would reinvent the event. Make it more sustainable. The bid we made to the Olympic Committee was positioned on what we would leave behind.” The games were dubbed the “legacy Olympics.” In developing the site, the ODA cleaned up a square mile of contaminated land, buried power lines underground, and created 200 acres of new parkland. No environmentally correct detail was too small: 2,000 newts were carefully relocated away from the construction to a nearby nature reserve.

After the Olympics the buildings would find new life as community sport centers, and the athletes’ village would become private housing—half, it was said, earmarked for low-income buyers. The regeneration bounty would spill over to the surrounding area. Westfield Stratford City, one of Europe’s largest shopping centers, had recently opened in Stratford, gateway to the Olympics, with 1.9 million square feet of brand-name shops.

Impressive, though the trumpeted word “legacy” provoked skepticism in some precincts. “‘Legacy’ is one of those words like ‘cool’ and ‘brand,’” said Stephen Bayley, a London design critic. “You can’t create a legacy. Let us not imagine that great buildings can undo a ghetto.”

“Will they get it right this time?” I pressed Jerome Frost. On the plus side, he said, a chunk of East End had been cleaned up in record time and under budget, an improbable accomplishment if left to the private sector. But would those who live there really benefit? Or would it end up as another Canary Wharf, a walled-off Vatican, one urban studies scholar called it, that merely underlined the economic divide?

“If this doesn’t work,” Frost said with a sigh, “nothing will.”

Perhaps the menu needs updating?

The question was put to Fred Cooke’s cousin Bob, who still runs his pie and mash shop at Broadway Market, Hackney. Bob Cooke set a bowl with a piece of eel floating in a sea of green sauce in front of me and sat down. It was tricky spooning the slippery segment out and trying to nibble around the tiny white cylinder of vertebrae in the middle.

“One of my pals said: ‘Why don’t you sell pizzas? Kids love pizzas.’

“I said: ‘You look after your laundry. I’ll look after my pie shop.’”

Cooke stood up and wiped his hands on his blue-striped apron.

“Yes, we have customers, but they’re older and getting fewer. Yuppies are not our customers,” he said, as a tall young man with a ponytail peered in the doorway, then walked away. “I sell 3,000 pies a week,” he said. “We’ve been here more than a hundred years. We’ll be here another hundred.”

Noon was approaching. The street outside was packed with young people trolling the Broadway Market—which once sold utility-grade cabbages, onions, and potatoes—for organic gluten-free banana-walnut cake, pedigreed Devon beef, and truffled olive oil. There was music in the air, and the smell of fresh-baked artisanal bread. There were only five customers in the shop eating pie and mash.

In East London you may hear more than 200 different languages—Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil, Swahili, Latvian, among others. Immigration makes itself heard as well as seen, but there are sounds no longer heard—like Yiddish, Brick Lane’s lingua franca at the turn of the 20th century. For the same reasons white working-class Cockneys moved east to places in Essex, East London Jews moved north to suburbs like Golders Green and High Barnet. It was about aspiration: about moving up and out. Until the 1950s Brick Lane was a Jewish high street. Now practically the only trace of its former life is two bagel bakeries.

“That’s my Jewish East End,” said Mildred Levison, showing me the apartment off Brick Lane where she grew up during the Second World War. (“I’m sure the vermin are still there. In London you are never very far away from a rat.”) We walked to Spitalfields Market, a bomb shelter during the blitz, now gentrified to within an inch of its life with boutiques and bistros. Levison, 72, retired from a career in public housing, lives in North London now. She recalled the six pence it cost for the public baths and playing in bombed-out rubble (“Brick Lane feels different but strangely the same, because my grandparents were immigrants”), as well as the warmth of community and family. “None of it is here anymore.” She paused, then touched her heart. “But it’s here.”

It’s still here, just in a different guise. East London remains a continuum of arrivals and departures, appearances and disappearances, a human march, sometimes, of simply getting on with it. Generations had landed with little or nothing and built a business, a family, a life. If poverty had retained its stubborn grip, one would do well to remember, says Alveena Malik, director of UpRising, a program to train young leaders in East London, that “being economically deprived doesn’t mean you are spiritually deprived.”

“I came from Bangladesh in 1973 to continue my studies,” Shahagir Bakth Faruk told me over dinner one night. “My uncle sponsored me, but there was no money, so I found a job as a shop assistant in an electronics shop in Brick Lane for £28 a week. I remember sitting in a park reading a letter from my brother. It had taken 17 days to arrive from home. My tears soaked the paper.”

In time he made a new life. He started a successful business. He ran twice for Parliament as the Conservative candidate from Bethnal Green and Bow. (“And lost twice. Bethnal Green has always been Labour,” he said ruefully.)

Faruk, now 64, became British. And another thing...

“In Bangladesh, if a girl wants to marry outside the Muslim religion, there is a one in a million chance the parents will give their consent. It isn’t done,” he said.

“But when my son came to me to say he wanted to marry a girl whose mother is Christian and whose father is Hindu, I didn’t give it a second thought.

“Now, my younger son wears an earring; when a friend pointed it out, I said: ‘So what?’”

Just then, his cell phone rang. His married son was checking on him.

“This city taught me an important lesson,” Faruk said, putting down the phone.

“The lesson it taught me was tolerance.”