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Redevelopment Ravages Cockney Community : Time Erodes Tough Corners in London East End

November 01, 1987|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — With a quick smile and light banter, Ruby Joseph flashed a glimpse of the moxie needed to survive in the heyday of London's fabled East End.

Joseph, who has long since moved to the suburbs, leads tour groups on "cockney walks" through her old stomping grounds, but she admits that today, the East End--the heart of cockney London--is fast becoming history.

"Just about everything I point out to people, it's either 'was' or 'used to be,' " she sighed.

Although a true cockney should be born within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow--a church now in the heart of the city's financial district--London's cockney East End is usually more loosely defined to include the grime-coated tenement neighborhoods and drab industrial pockets that sprawl well east of Bow's bells and north of the Thames River.

The famous Petticoat Lane market remains, jellied eels (a favorite cockney street food) are still sold and the remnants of some cockney communities still exist, but population shifts and massive redevelopment have transformed the East End. As the financial district spreads slowly eastward, commercial areas that were once havens for London's small family trading businesses have been targeted for redevelopment.

Change has also overtaken the East End's waterfront communities like Wapping, Shadwell and the Isle of Dogs, where Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine resettled in the last century, joining locals to build and service the British Empire's merchant fleet.

The last East End dockyard closed six years ago, and now, the vast stretch of urban decay half the size of Manhattan is the center of the world's biggest inner-city renewal project--about $15 billion of high-rise office space, high-tech industry and 25,000 upscale residential housing units.

Run-down neighborhoods and seedy warehouses along the Thames have suddenly been transformed into luxury apartment complexes snapped up by well-heeled young professionals willing to pay up to $500,000 for a river view and a short walk to work in the nearby financial district.

Where hucksters and fruit vendors--more colorfully known as costers, costermongers or barrow boys--once hustled business for their next meal, yachting marinas and windsurfing clubs have sprouted.

A spokesman for the London Docklands Development Corp., which administers the huge project, describes the new residents as mainly DINKYS--standing for dual income, no kids yet.

The government expects to pump about $1 billion into the project for improved roads, a recently opened international airport and a rail rapid-transit system that links the area to the city's extensive subway network, but it is private enterprise that has provided the bulk of investment.

The much-publicized $6-billion Canary Wharf development in the old West India Docks, the showcase of the Docklands project, will offer 10 million square feet of office space when completed in the 1990s.

Native East Enders are generally unimpressed by the razzle-dazzle publicity and unsettled by the scale of development. Certainly few of those who lived there regret the passing of depressing slums, outdoor toilets and the damp winter cold. But the sense of camaraderie and shared hardship has left a strong, bittersweet nostalgia among those who experienced it.

In some areas, such as on the Isle of Dogs (an island once separated from the shore by marshland and now by the docks), veteran residents still fight a rear-guard action against redevelopment in an attempt to save that sense of community, but the pace of change points to their eventual defeat. The Isle of Dogs, because of its relative isolation, is the only cockney area where any sense of community remains.

"You can't put a value on strength of community feeling, but when it's destroyed, you can't replace it," said Ted Johns, a former longshoreman who now speaks for a group of old cockney residents, including those on the Isle of Dogs. "We'll hold on as long as we can. That's the East End way."

The East End's history is rich and varied.

Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have written several of the early Canterbury Tales while working in the area. America's Liberty Bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the 1730s.

But it was in the middle of the last century, with British imperial trade at its height and the start of the Industrial Revolution, that the East End took on its distinctive character.

As architects John Nash and Thomas Cubbit carefully laid out London's fashionable parks and squares of Belgravia and Westminster to the west, successive waves of immigrants from Ireland and the Continent settled to scrape out a new life in the sweatshops and along the docksides of the East End.

"It was a melting pot," said Aumie Shapiro, a native East Ender who now runs the Springboard Education Trust, an organization that supports the few Jewish residents who remain in the area. "There was a struggle to achieve, to get out."

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