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East London

I consider myself to be a "Southeast Londoner" but one of the most interesting areas of London is the East End. For a long time, the East End was reputed to be the cockney side of London, where the streets reeked with crime, squalor, and poverty, a la Dickens. No doubt about it, the East End has been a turbulent part of London, but it has come a long way in recent times. You might say it is a gentler, more domesticated place, but certainly not dull, and it has not quite shaken its reputation for being a bit rough around the edges.

East London has become home to wave after wave of people immigrating from abroad. It has become a melting pot of immigrants, transients, and native English who have been there for generations. From French Huguenot's in the 16th and 17th century, to Jews, Irishmen, gypsies, and various European's, to Common Wealth citizens from India, the West Indies, Africa, and Bangladesh, each have added something to the cultural mix. A striking example of this can be found on Brick Lane, between Whitechapel Road and Bethnal Green Road. There is an old brick church building that has changed from a Huguenot Protestant church, to a Methodist church, to a synogogue, to a mosque (London Jamme Masjid). Brick Lane has transformed over and over, from medieval times as a brick and tile center, to silk weaving, to brewing, and now to "Banglatown," where Indian food was first introduced to the London palate in the 1920s-1930s, which is now common place.

While much of London is rather cosmopolitan in its own right, the East End seems to embody cultural diversity a little more bluntly, and has been at it longer than other parts of London. My first impression of East London was influenced by what I was told: that it was dangerous, and that it was poor. I didn't want to go there, so I didn't question that impression. For most of my first two years in London, my only exposure to the East End was changing trains at Whitechapel tube station to go West--I never went up to the street level--just changed trains underground and that was it (although I did go on the "Jack the Ripper Bus Tour" with my flat mates in 1987, which stopped at a few choice locations). Well, one day in 1991, I decided to go up to the street and look around. This made me curious about Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney and other parts, so I went there to explore, to walk around a bit. It turned out not to be such a bad place after all and I went back on several subsequent visits to wander the streets and markets to learn my way around.

East London has a fascinating history and has had more than its share of characters. Everyone has heard of "Jack the Ripper," right? Well, part of the reason he murdered women in East London was because it was so overly populated with prostitutes and criminals that he knew he could get away with it. For this reason, the Salvation Army was started in East London, because it was considered to be morally destitute. Other East London residents have included the "Elephant man," Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Caine, and Angela Lansbury.

A little known fact is that the original meeting of the Bolshevik Party was at a corner shop on Whitechapel Road. Lenin, Stalin and other Russian dissidents (at the time) where living in London and were able to move around freely in London's East End because it was an easy hide-out for revolutionary and subversive types!

One of the most popular TV shows in Britain is a show that takes place in a fictional East End square, called Albert Square, in the fictional township called Walford. The show is Eastenders and it has been on TV since about 1985, and is acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of life in the East End. In some ways it is accurate and in some ways it does not quite live up to the real East End, but the East End is made up of several townships and the show tries to incorporate a lot of stereotypes. The result is a highly rated show year after year which suggests that the East End is a location that still sparks a lot of curiosity and intrigue in the television audience. As an outsider, I have definitely found the area to be interesting (like many, many individual areas of London) and I wouldn't mind going back again one of these days.

Update: I returned to the East End in July 2004. We drove through Whitechapel and Brick Lane and had dinner at an Indian Restaurant. Whitechapel still looks a bit trashy, but Brick Lane has cleaned up its act. It was very hip; we saw a lot of young people eating-out there, and we felt safe. The East End is still very crowded, and back streets are hard to navigate, but the population seems very youthful. Read about our trip at London Trip 2004.

Update: We returned to East End in June 2008. We took the DLR and tube to Aldgate East, and walked around, to Brick Lane, and to the Salvation Army Hostel on Old Montague Street. The hostel has been built since our last visit in 2004, and is on the spot where the previous hostel was located, where Linda stayed in 1990, on her first visit to London. We walked on to the Whitechapel Bell Foundery, and then to Royal Whitechapel hospital, where Linda attended an interview in 1990. Then, we crossed the street to Whitechapel tube station and went back to Greenwich, where we were staying. Read about this trip at UK Trip 2008.