Thursday, 10 September 2009

Where have all the hipsters gone? East London, every one.

I moved away from East London nearly four years ago and despite working in the area, I guess I haven't explored it much recently. Yesterday evening I decided to walk through Shoreditch to my favourite old curry spot, Sweet & Spicy on Brick Lane. And I have to say: in the ten years since I moved to London, the changes in the area I saw last night were the most drastic I've seen in the city in such a short space of time.

Sweet & Spicy was always a very relaxed, unrefined canteen with vats of curry and rice behind the counter to choose from, lassi tins of water on the table and their speciality, the 95p kebabs. That price might sound foreboding but they really were good. When I say kebab, I believe the technical term is a shawarma. Strips of spiced meat, with shredded vegetables and a red sauce. I've enjoyed many of them in my time, as I used to live on the same street as Sweet & Spicy. They went especially well with a drink, sitting on the curb outside the excellent Pride of Spitalfields pub.

So, I set off in search of my kebab. I took a left turn onto Boundary Street and got my first surprise of the evening. Until recently, say six years ago, this was a fairly forgotten back street and home to scruffy Bangladeshi butchers and grocers and a great pub called Owl and Pussycat, which had a bar billiards table and served up huge Sunday carvery roasts. 

But the first thing we saw on Boundary Street was a smart-looking restaurant called The Albion that had popped up. It sells itself as a caff with a ridiculously overpriced shop and bakery: £3.45 for a bottle of apple juice, anyone? (Although there were some delicious looking cupcakes for 75p which I will definitely be making a return visit from my desk for.) Don't get me wrong: I have been more than guilty of visiting this kind of place in the past and will no doubt will go back to The Albion, it was just a bit of a shock as it had completely changed the face of the street.

The Owl and Pussycat of course had closed down. Either for a suitably blandifying refurb or forever, who knows.

Onwards down Redchurch Street towards Brick Lane. There was still a Bangladeshi community centre, but most other traces of the community that had lived there had gone. A fondue place had popped up on a corner. (Again, it looked delicious and cosy and I'd probably like to go there.) Galleries, bars and design studios filled the rest of the buildings.

Down Brick Lane itself, huge swathes of warehouses that formerly housed second-hand furniture and clothes shops had, well, disappeared. The East London Line is being extended to include a station for Shoreditch High Street, and the structure supporting the elevated railway cuts right across Brick Lane, running uncomfortably close to houses along Grimsby Street, which now face out to the track itself, no more than twenty metres away. (I need to go back and explore, but there are streets that I'm imagining are no longer there, according to the path of this railway line.)

So, with mixed feelings about the hasty development of the area, I walked down Brick Lane, starting to panic that Sweet & Spicy might not even be there anymore. We passed a brand new bowling alley, a coffee shop that had been there as long as I remember that had closed down, huge new bars that had sprung up. The second half of Brick Lane, towards Whitechapel, seemed to be unchanged, with the same curryhouses in place, but for how long?

And then Sweet & Spicy. The same awning was there, but inside it had succumbed to the inevitable refurb. Its ancient tiles, scuzzy proper caff tables (unlike The Albion - pah!) and frankly strange framed pictures of Indian wrestlers had gone, smart new tables put in and - the worst blow of all - the kebabs had gone up to £1.95. But thank the lord, it tasted the same. A pleasantly greasy morsel of comfort, albeit at a 100% price increase.

Wandering to the end of Brick Lane, the area around the tube station brought the biggest shock of all. The entrance to Aldgate East tube station used to nestle between The Whitechapel Gallery and Whitechapel Library. It was a stretch of road that could never claim to be salubrious; the station itself was a pit. Whitechapel High Street was lively, to put it nicely. (Bear in mind, this is where you go to see the sites where Jack the Ripper used to mash up his prostitutes. And things hadn't improved much over the years.)

But now? Oh, now the Whitechapel Library has gone. I used to be a member there, and it was a good old traditional library, wooden bookcases, tickets, free books, the works. Now there is the big, bland and ridiculously-named Idea Store further along the Whitechapel Road which still does the whole free books thing, but I was quite fond of the old dusty books joint.

And what has replaced the library? Why, a restaurant, of course. Not enough of those around there. A nice, shiny-looking, expensive one.

Maybe it was seeing Sweet & Spicy, a brilliant cheap and cheerful place with a load of character having been refurbished to blandness that did it. (Or maybe it was the  new manager of the place who was shouting at all the staff, including the perfectly polite guy on the till who was always polite even when he wasn't being shouted at by the boss.) But seeing a part of London that I love for its character being blanded out and poshed up really got my goat.

Years ago, I did a tour of the St Pancras Hotel and was told that in the 1960s the building narrowly escaped demolition. That building was one of the first I remember noticing when I came to London and the thought of it not being there was shocking. Of course, the city is full of ghost buildings that none of us ever saw. But the blandness and banality of what I saw taking over East London last night made me think that maybe we should pause and think about what is happening to this city next time we go out to buy our overpriced bottle of apple juice from the hipster shop.

[Anyway, go check out the kebabs at Sweet & Spicy, 40 Brick Lane, London, E1.]


  1. A bowling alley? Gracious.

    If you want some consolation, next time you're in E1, take a stroll down Bethnal Green Road, E2. Now there's a part of East London that don't go changing to try and please ya - the Pleasure Unit is now the Star of Bethnal Green, but the rest has barely changed in ten years.

    They still have the handwritten sign on the fruit and veg stall opposite Tescos saying "why buy it over the road when you can buy it here with a smile?"

  2. Yay, good old Bethnal Green Road. Although when I moved away from there I did sing 'Goodbye Bethnal Green Road' to myself and feel quite happy to be leaving.

    That shoe shop that has a sign that says 'shoes like your dad used to wear' is still down Cheshire Street too.

    And let's not forget: 'Trendy Scum, Dress to Look Cheap'. We should reinstate that.

  3. CJW - that shiny restaurant in the library is the Whitechapel Art Gallery cafe-cum-restaurant. the Gallery expanded into the library last year. Sid.

  4. Such a shame to see the Owl and Pussycat close. I did hear a rumour that the brewery that owned the pub have sold it. And despite a recent refurbishment, I see the pub is now closed with work going on inside — no doubt turning into another generic chain pub.

  5. I *hate* idea stores! Couldn't they just have added the stupid idea stores on as information centres annexed to LIBRARIES? A proper library is a glorious thing.