It was called “outcast London” for its squalid slums in Victorian times, has the dubious reputation as the haunt of Jack the Ripper and one of Britain’s most polluted rivers runs through its long-derelict shipyards and warehouses.
It’s no wonder that for a long time, east London has been all but ignored by tourists who stick to the West End, the home of blockbuster musicals, royal palaces, Harrods and Oxford Street.
This year, those prejudices are likely to change as the Olympics inject huge investments into changing the face of the East End.
Massive redevelopment works in the area have already given it a dramatic makeover. In Stratford, a former marsh and one of the city’s poorest areas, a pristine Olympic Stadium, a gigantic new shopping mall and upgraded train links are already in place. In less than six months’ time there will be cycle paths, green spaces, and cleaned up riverbanks.
All that will bring new interest to a part of London that, though long neglected, has recently become recognized for growing its own elite fashion, arts and high-tech business communities.
And so, if Brick Lane is the farthest east you have ever ventured, now is the time to visit the city’s fastest-changing corner — you will be pleasantly surprised.
What’s to see? Start from Brick Lane, but perhaps skip some of the famous, but overpriced curry houses. Instead, wander northeast up to the Shoreditch and Dalston areas for their weekend markets, vibrant nightlife, diverse ethnic cuisine and trendy vintage shops.
The area’s lower rents have long attracted young artists and musicians — although in recent years gentrification has hiked property prices, drawn in celebrities and hipsters, and pushed struggling artists to seek out warehouse spaces still farther east.
Even so, there is still a bohemian, appealingly scruffy vibe about the place. Unlike in the West End, development in the east has been uneven and spontaneous. A couple of cutting-edge boutiques would turn an unassuming side street quite suddenly into the city’s trendiest spot, and high-concept art spaces often sit right next to fried chicken takeaways and dollar stores.
One of the biggest obstacles to visiting the east used to be the lack of easy public transport connections to central London.
That’s not a problem anymore: Along with improvements to the rundown Tube stations and creaky trains all over London, authorities have installed brand-new, comfortable trains that now connect the city center with communities in the East End, with nine transport lines feeding into Stratford, the Olympic hub.
A high-speed train, called the Javelin Shuttle, will link Stratford with St Pancras, the renovated Eurostar terminal.
East London’s canals, long notorious for their murky, shallow waters and all-around shabbiness, will also be cleaned up. The backbone of London’s commercial activity before the railways took over, these overlooked waterways used to be a magnet for rubbish and muggers.
With the Olympics, though, they — along with the polluted River Lea, right next to the Stadium — will be in the spotlight. Officials want spectators to walk or cycle to the games site, and the towpaths along the waterways, snaking from the west to east along Victoria Park, are ideal.
A mass volunteer campaign is under way to engage Londoners to tidy up the network, hopefully finishing by July. One charity, Thames21, is trying to recruit 4,000 volunteers, many of them schoolchildren, to pick up the litter, remove weeds, and plant flowers to beautify the canals.
That’s a work in progress, just like the Olympic Park itself — an impressive sight worth making a trip for, even though it still resembles a giant gray puddle studded with some gleaming, empty new buildings. In a few months, it will transform into what officials called the largest new urban park that Europe has seen in 150 years, a haven complete with “broad sweeping lawns” and wildlife habitats for birds and bees.
For the local residents, all this is just the beginning of an ambitious regeneration plan — and many years of disruption. According to planners, the Olympic building project is expected to continue to deliver thousands of new homes and jobs in the next 25 years.
No one is sure whether the so-called “Olympic legacy” will develop smoothly. Worriers say that Stratford could easily become another Canary Wharf — the affluent skyscraper-studded redevelopment, also in the East End, that’s sometimes criticized for its indifference to the poverty in its surrounding community.
In the meantime, one building project has certainly brought more revenue to Stratford. Right across from the games site is the Westfield Stratford City mall, a glossy retail palace said to be the biggest in Europe with 300 shops, a casino and its own faux “streets.”
For some, it’s a tasteless monstrosity, blaring pop music from every corner and flashing dazzling images from multiple giant screens. However, for many young locals who have long looked enviously at the West End’s shopping conveniences, it’s a godsend.
“This place used to be so malnourished,” said Cicero Fernando, a 29-year-old trainee doctor walking home with groceries from the mall’s upmarket Waitrose food store. “Thank goodness I can now shop in my favorite stores.”
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