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Blimey! Dickensian Slums Get Gentrified

London's East End is Europe's largest urban renewal project. And the yuppies swarm.

January 25, 2004|Thomas Wagner | Associated Press Writer

LONDON — At age 71, Monica Hearne has seen the East End nearly destroyed by German bombing. She has seen its thriving Thames River docks die. She has seen it fill with wave after wave of refugees.

But she has never seen it get rich -- until now.

The East End -- the world of Jack the Ripper, Dickensian slums, cockney English and British soap opera -- is being reborn in Europe's largest urban renewal project. And in Hearne's working-class neighborhood of Wapping, the results are evident in the yuppies and artists who have decided that this is a trendy place to live, even if it lacks a Starbucks.

"When I was a young woman, cabbies wouldn't even drive me back to the East End at night, seeing it as a bad, unsavory area of foreign sailors and ladies of the night," said Hearne, while shopping at P&J Baker, her local mom-and-pop store.

"These days you're as likely to hear posh English as cockney in the East End, and to see yuppies driving Range Rovers and living in luxury apartments on the banks of the Thames."

She has mixed feelings about it -- haves and have-nots, gated communities. "Our mothers and fathers would turn in their graves if they saw what was going on here today."

On the other hand, the public housing apartment she bought years ago for a pittance is now worth $300,000, meaning the former welfare recipient has something to leave to her children.

"The East End is undergoing an amazing transformation," said Chris Hamnett, a professor of geography and sociology at King's College in London. "Many young professionals now see it as exciting, cutting-edge, street-wise and sexy. Some even regard London's posh West End as a boring geriatric ward by comparison."

For such people, Soho doesn't refer just to that famous nightlife strip of central London, but to "South of Hoxton," an up-and-coming East End area of cafes, nightclubs, bistros, wine bars, ethnic restaurants and art galleries.

Cockney, that oddball slang and pronunciation that once was as East End as jellied eel and pie-and-mash shops, is now considered hip in many parts of class-conscious England.

Gentrification has come in fits and starts, beginning in the 1980s with loft conversions of derelict Thames-side warehouses.

A narrow band of wealth has spread all the way down the meandering river, from the Tower of London to the Isle of Dogs and the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The wharf, named after a dock that imported Canary Islands bananas, has become the capital's second financial center.

The rebirth still has a long way to go. Across much of the East End, and a larger area known as East London, public housing projects and slums suffer some of the nation's worst unemployment, crime, poverty and outbreaks of long-term illnesses such as tuberculosis.

Still, even in deprived areas such as Stratford, which has suffered drug-related drive-by shootings, property speculation is underway. The drive is fueled by record low mortgage costs, congestion and troubled public transport that have turned central London into a commuter's nightmare, and the government's bid to hold the 2012 Olympics in East London.

In 2007, Stratford, one of Britain's poorest and most ethnically diverse areas, is to get a new terminal for trains linking Britain to the continent. That has prompted private developers to propose building a virtual city of 4,500 new homes, 2,000 hotel rooms, three department stores and swaths of public space.

The East End's revival is part of a dramatic postindustrial transformation of the city of 7.2 million since the 1960s, from manufacturing to financial and business services.

In Victorian times, the East End spawned Jack the Ripper. In the 1960s it gave Britain the gangster-chic of the Kray twins, vicious underworld bosses. And to this day it is the setting for "EastEnders" and "Coronation Street," soap operas watched by a quarter of the nation. But London's center of gravity -- the real one, not the soap opera one -- is shifting east, and who can complain?

As a third-generation East Ender, Monica Hearne has seen it all.

Night after night early in World War II, she hid with her mother in a shelter under a Thames wharf as the German blitz laid waste to much of the East End. She saw industrial pollution trigger a flight to the suburbs after the war. The ports that survived Hitler's onslaught collapsed under the weight of modernization and militant unions, leaving thousands of dockers jobless.

In the blitz, the East End became a symbol of British fortitude. Few gestures boosted the nation's morale more effectively than King George VI visiting the wreckage. Hearne says her father refused to go into the bomb shelter, seeing it as cowardice.

Today, the East End remains filled with urban folklore, stories about its spirit of defiance, and the matey togetherness of its extended families and tight-knit neighborhoods.

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