Hopes for an East End on the mend

FUTURE LONDON – Life has imitated art. The postcode for the new area is E20, the same one scriptwriters created for the TV soap EastEnders.’

ON A sunny Saturday afternoon in an east London high street, a voice wafts over the shoppers’ bustle. A pleasant cockney tenor is singing, at the top of his lungs, “It won’t be a stylish marriage, we can’t afford a carriage . . .”
The serenade is coming from a young man on a bicycle. He is dressed in a grey suit with a red carnation in his buttonhole, and his legs are pedalling furiously. In front of him, in a brown box on wheels propelled by his bike, sits his Daisy. She is fully frocked: white bustier wedding dress, bouquet, wisps of baby’s breath in her hair. She holds her hand to her face, blushing and laughing, torn between embarrassment and delight.
The moment is an ode to cockney joy — albeit in gentrifying Islington, where the middle-class has encroached upon an old working-class suburb. Even so, the flashing vignette captures what are seen as the traditional strengths of the inhabitants of the East End, London’s struggle-town: resilience, inventiveness and good-humoured cheek in the face of hardship.
That airbrushed view of the East End — the good hearts and grittiness of the battlers in the 1967 film To Sir with Love, or the strong group loyalties in the long-running soap EastEnders — represents the subculture of a predominantly white cockney enclave existing now only in pockets. Today the people of the East End are among Britain’s most diverse, with 70 per cent of its residents coming from non-English backgrounds. Traces of the cockney sing-song are mostly merged with lilting Caribbean rhythms or clipped Bengali vowels — or, more recently, the accents of migrants from the Horn of Africa. But while different groups have come and gone, over hundreds of years one thing about the East End has never changed: it has always been a sinkhole of poverty.
Many times philanthropists and governments have tried to tackle its disadvantage but it has proved stubbornly hard to “fix”, lagging behind even when the rest of the city was booming. Around Britain, at least 21 per cent of children live in poverty. “The highest classification of over 40 per cent exists in a swath across the East End,” says Donald Hirsch, head of income studies at the centre for research in social policy at Loughborough University. “It’s not just a pocket. It’s whole boroughs [municipalities] with four out of 10 children in families where there are either no jobs or very low incomes. It’s the biggest concentration of poverty in the country, which is interesting because it’s in such a rich city.”
In some East End suburbs, the rate is more than 70 per cent. Children in the East End have a smaller chance of reaching university. Health is poorer, and death, on average, comes sooner than for other Londoners. The physical fabric is run down. Buildings are scarred by traffic fumes and marred by peeling woodwork; open doorways often reveal tired paint and shabby carpet. Grim council towers rear, the legacy of slum clearance and the need to rebuild after the Blitz. There is little open space for play; one of the few small parks is dedicated to Altab Ali, who was murdered there in 1978 in a racially motivated attack.
As Britain’s economy has flattened and tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared, many in the East End believe the fight has been lost before they have even entered the ring. “Youth employment opportunities have absolutely shrivelled over the last few years,” says Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics, who conducted a 10-year study of East End families. “Young people see the people around them losing jobs, they hear the job market is competitive and if they’re not doing well at school, they lose hope.”
Now East Enders are being offered a sliver of light. London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics based on three promises: that this would be the greenest Olympics; that the Games would spearhead efforts to encourage Britons to exercise more; and that Olympic construction would focus on urban regeneration.
The result has been an accelerated transformation of the most dismal and polluted East End suburb, Stratford. The site chosen for the Olympic Park was home to great mounds of rubble from the Blitz, contaminated soil and dumped garbage. Stratford had few transport links and was almost isolated from the rest of London, says Dan Hawthorn, head of the London 2012 team for the Greater London Authority. “It was virtually cut off from the rest of the city.” Now it is getting new train lines, an Olympic Park and athlete’s village, and the largest shopping mall in western Europe (16 hectares on a 72-hectare development, at a cost of £1.5 billion ($A2.3 billion). Australian company Westfield is behind the gleaming glass-and-granite shopping mall and hotel complex, known as Stratford City, which opened in September.
Life has imitated art. The postcode for the new area is E20, the same one scriptwriters created for TV soap EastEnders.
The Olympic Park is not yet finished, with workmen and jackhammers still vying with the newly established grass and wildflowers, but it will be stunning. Award-winning architecture is set in vast, graceful gardens planted with 4000 trees and criss-crossed by newly revived rivers and streams. “It’s very English,” says Julian Sutherland, director for sustainable development at Atkins, the engineering firm for the Games. “The park here is like other parks in London, a very relaxed, landscape feel. We wanted to create the atmosphere of a summer festival.”
It is as foreign to the concrete and cramming of the old East End as a spaceship from Mars. It is hoped the attractions that will stay when the Games are over — the velodrome, the BMX track, the aquatic centre and the ball games centre — will pull people into the area, along with the twisty red tower of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, built purely as a quirky landmark that tourists will be able to climb. West Ham football team is one of the bidders to be a tenant of the stadium.
An Olympics-legacy company has been set up to oversee the conversion of the park into the core of a new community. The village for 15,000 athletes will be converted to private housing, and the huge media centre for 30,000 Games journalists and broadcasters will become retail and office space. The gardens, and the canals that have been dug out from under tonnes of foul landfill, will offer places to walk, cycle, play, fish and canoe.
“The Games will be just 72 days in a 40-year reconstruction of East London,” Sutherland says.
London has learnt from the refurbishment of the former docks area of Canary Wharf, where office towers and grand apartments did little to benefit the poor already living there. As part of the Stratford development, Westfield agreed to provide social benefits. Construction teams hired local unemployed and offered apprenticeships. In the shopping centre, 2000 out of 10,000 jobs were earmarked for local unemployed, and 35 per cent of 5000 homes built into the master plan must be affordable, says John Burton, director of Westfield Stratford City.
“The value of community benefit is £200 million across the whole of the master plan, not just Westfield,” Burton says. This includes an “academy” based in the shopping centre where people without skills are trained in retail, hospitality, security or other roles that would make them attractive to employers. “We train people who have never been in a job to make them fit for an interview,” Burton says. “It’s about trying to break the vicious cycle. In some families there are three or four generations on welfare.”
It is hoped the developments will bring new work, new homes and new wealth. If the plan succeeds, it could be a model for urban renewal in future Olympic cities. If it doesn’t, Stratford’s arenas will join the white elephants of Olympics past in cities such as Barcelona, where a diving pool is overgrown with shrubs, or Athens, where pigs snuffle through the 20,000-seat weightlifting stadium.
“There’s a history of Olympic villages having a hard time turning into anything else,” says Doug Saunders, a journalist and author of the book Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World, which has a chapter on the East End.
For those East Enders who have won a job after struggling for years on the dole, life has been transformed. Burton says he was staying in one of the development’s hotels where a young woman served him. He learned that she was a 27-year-old single mother and this was the first job she had ever held: “She said the proudest day of her life was when she [went to the dole office] to sign off and say: ‘I no longer need benefits.’ ”
For Hugh Preedy, 53, it has meant his first job in nearly two years. He sent off more than 300 applications in that time and won only eight interviews, despite having had a solid 17 years in the wine trade, and 10 years before that in toys and games. Now he works at Stratford City selling glass and china in the John Lewis department store (Britain’s equivalent of Myer). “I think the whole thing is incredibly positive,” he says. “I have lived all over London, and the East End has suffered from a catastrophic lack of investment for 30 or 40 years. Some people who have been here for a long time [think:] ‘Nobody loves us, they don’t care.’ ”
For every Preedy, there are many more who missed out. John Lewis at Stratford advertised 800 jobs and received 13,000 applications. The store normally has a 15 per cent dropout rate with new recruits; here, the rate has been zero. East Enders are desperate for work.
The mayor of Newham, the borough in which Stratford sits, is delighted by the twin developments of Olympic Park and Westfield but has no illusions about the oceanic need. Sir Robin Wales says there are six boroughs in the East End, and his own has to find jobs for 20,000 people just in order to lift itself to the same jobless rate as the rest of the country. “Eighteen thousand people here have never, ever worked, out of a population of 300,000,” he says. “Give me six Westfields and I will change East London.”
But even those East Enders who don’t win a job from the immediate transformation will be able to enjoy outdoor space in a way that has never before been possible. Professor Power’s study found East End families were worried mostly about money, but that second to that was the lack of activities for their children.
“Because of the shortage of money, [some families’] kids would take it in turn to go to the school football club,” she says. “They are living in a rich city, so everything is very expensive, which means they can’t access a lot of things.”
Parents’ fear of the streets — that their children would be attacked or pressured to join gangs — made them reluctant to let children outside, she says. “But it’s physically impossible to keep teenagers locked in a small flat. That’s why you get gangs in the street. They are just groups of young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do — with an adult population that’s afraid of them.”
So the open spaces of the new park are welcome, says Power, as is the possibility that locals might be trained for jobs maintaining the gardens and facilities.
She is concerned, however, about how the changes have already had “a knock-on effect” in terms of rising East End property prices. She said a small house in Hackney was recently offered for £600,000: “There’s no typical family that would come within miles and miles of that.” Prices were already going up for other reasons, including the demolition of council housing towers: “The councils are displacing large numbers of poor people, so in that sense, too, the East End will be transformed.”
It is the eternal dilemma of urban regeneration: make a rundown area more desirable and suddenly the poor can no longer afford it. But Power reserves her most scathing comments for the shopping mall. “I absolutely hate that kind of development,” she says. “They destroy dozens and dozens of small, ‘get-by’ businesses that everybody used. Each time you get a mega-development like that in a poor area you destroy so much.”
Power can see the big picture because she knows of the studies that lie behind this prognosis. For Preedy and other locals who have clambered aboard the new lifeboat, there is only the glow of the present — and the fear it might not last.
“The greatest local concern is what will be the post-Olympic legacy?” he says. “What will happen when the crowds and the spotlight of the world turn away and go somewhere else?”
But experts say the transport links that have been created to move hundreds of thousands of spectators to and from the Olympic Park will forever change the East End for the better. It now has 10 railway lines including an international one. “Stratford is now one of the best connected places in London, including a [rail] connection to Europe,” says the Greater London Authority’s Dan Hawthorn.
“That will bring benefits for decades to come,” says Paul Johnson, an economic historian who specialised in the East End before becoming vice-chancellor of Melbourne’s La Trobe University. He says the benefits will be localised to Stratford at first but will begin to seep through the other boroughs. The new area “will bring people in, there will be major sporting events, concerts, exhibitions. It will begin to change Londoners’ minds about the East End.”
Hawthorn hopes it will also change the mindset of East Enders themselves. “We want to bring the quality of life up to the London average, so that the East End can imagine itself as having as much chance to succeed as the rest of London.”

First published in The Age.