To generations of Londoners, the badlands began at the City's eastern frontier, just beneath the gleaming towers of the financial district. To stray beyond was to enter the darker world of the East End, the heartland of rough, tough Cockney culture. This was where successive waves of immigrants, from Russian Jews to Bangladeshi Muslims, found their first homes. It was poor, and it could be dangerous. To outsiders it meant gangland killings, grubby factories, trackless slums, and the docks. This was a place to escape: the wise got rich, then got out.
Today, the East End is pulling in a wave of wealthy new settlers. London's cultural axis is tilting sharply eastward, led by an infiltration of artists who have transformed pockets of the area once defined by such local industries as brewing or garment making. Modish bars have replaced the sweatshops. The mean streets of Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper once operated, are home to hip loft dwellers as well as the most recent immigrants in housing projects. The city's densest cluster of art -galleries—about 100—can be found not in the West End but in the East End's Shoreditch section.
And the pace of change is set to quicken. As Vancouver returns to normal following the Winter Olympics, London is just gearing up for the next Games—and as local residents and sports junkies know, the 2012 Summer Olympics will be centered in the East End. Already the outlines of the first -structures—including the 80,000-seat centerpiece stadium—are appearing, built around a vast derelict railyard barely five kilometers east of the City. Regeneration is in the air. The same new rail links that will shuttle spectators back and forth to the Games will open up wider patches for redevelopment.
The East End owes its current resurgence largely to the soaring cost of space in London's classier districts. For the past decade or so, artists in search of cheap studios—as well as middle-income settlers looking to make their pound go further—have pushed eastward, establishing islands of gentrification. (The squeeze continues post-recession; in much of London prices are on the rise again.) And if the East End is still edgy—four of Britain's 20 poorest boroughs lie in East London—much of it is easily accessible for the pioneer. The modish streets of Hoxton, for instance, are a 15-minute Tube ride from Oxford Circus, not much farther than Notting Hill.
Artists are not entirely new to the East End. The publicly owned Whitechapel Gallery, recently refurbished at a cost of more than $15 million, first introduced Brits to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The galleries of the East End also gave rise to the confrontational Britart pack of the 1990s; the White Cube in Hoxton has fostered such talents as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Critics in pursuit of the hottest new talent flock to Flowers East, part of a group of galleries that also has outlets in New York and on Bond Street.
The area's most desirable parts lie in the shadow of the City, where the telltale signs of transformation from post-industrial graveyard to chichi artists' quarters are everywhere. The giant Truman Brewery that towers over Brick Lane, best known for its curry houses, now provides homes for more than 200 small creative businesses, including graphic designers, architects, and artists. City workers looking for a chocolatier or a designer frock can saunter across to the shops that fill much of the former Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market. The old Shoreditch Town Hall houses a -cutting-edge Southeast Asian restaurant.
The new affluence is already apparent. Only bonus-rich bankers or successful artists can afford the price of a Shoreditch duplex. Fashionistas are signing on at Shoreditch House, the latest venture from the chain of private-members' clubs that includes premises in New York and in London's Soho. Otherwise, rich bohemians in need of a bed can turn to the Boundary Project development, a converted Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch opened last year by veteran style leader Terence Conran that offers 12 guest bedrooms and five suites as well as restaurants and bars.
Anyone looking to buy a townhouse in the grid of Georgian terraces at Spitalfields, once a run-down center for the rag trade, may find Emin for a neighbor. Two years ago she spent $6 million to convert a giant former weaving works into a studio for herself and fellow artists. River views command fancy prices; actress Helen Mirren, an East Ender by birth, has a home overlooking the Thames at Wapping. Moneymen tired of a long commute can opt for a new apartment in one of the sleek developments lining the river around Canary Wharf.
Rising prices are pushing the next generation of artists farther east. Already the first new galleries are appearing in the more distant boondocks where tourist draws are few and bargains still abound. There's not much elegance in the surroundings. Badly battered in the Blitz, much of the East End is liberally scattered with unlovely blocks of public housing, still home to the city's immigrants.
But the Olympics hold out hope for reviving even the farthest reaches of the East End. The Games will leave behind not just new transport links—the proposed Olympic Javelin train is capable of whisking 25,000 passengers an hour into central London in just seven -minutes—but also more than 3,000 new apartments in the athletes' village. The site itself will be the biggest new urban park in Britain in a century, overlooked by Europe's largest shopping center with more than 300 stores. Jack the Ripper wouldn't know what hit him.
The Albion Cafe
The Empress of India
Les Trois Garçons