Sunday, September 7, 2014

East Village to the East End: Limehouse (Part 1)

There are so many parallels between the Lower East Side and London's East End that sometimes I feel like I'm just through the looking glass. 

When I say the Lower East Side or LES, I usually mean the entire area from Pearl to 14th, though lately, I've been trying to remember to distinguish the East Village from the Lower East Side so as not to confuse newcomers. And because yes, terms do change, boundaries shift. 

The East End is similar that there's some confusion as to what's what. Basically, it's the boroughs of Tower Hamlet and Hackney. It was the area to the east of the medieval city walls of London, bounded by the Thames to the south and the River Lea to the east. (Can't seem to find any agreement on the northern boundary...) Tower Hamlets, the borough to the south, was known as an industrial area of docks and factories, denigrated for being an overcrowded slum. Hackney to the north was seized by the crown during the Tudor period and became a retreat for nobility. This is where the first theaters were built. So there's already a parallel in the history. It's like the slums of Five Points meets the bucolic Bouwerie of the Stuyvesants. 

There's also the immigrant history of the East End, which predates the huddled masses of the Lower East Side by a couple of hundred years. In the 1870s, there were more than 150 synagogues around Whitechapel. In the early 1900s, more than 40% of all the Chinese in England lived in Limehouse. The Jews and Chinese have mostly decamped, and now the area is full of Bangladeshis, who started to arrive in the 1960s just when Puerto Ricans started to arrive in the Lower East Side. Tower Hamlets is 32% Bangladeshi according to the 2012 census. I kind of think of the Bangladeshis as the Puerto Ricans of London. Though Bangladeshis don't blast music or spend all day washing their cars. 

Like the LES, the East End has also always been a hotbed of radicalism. The gunpowder plot was first exposed in Hoxton. Peter Kropotkin founded the anarchist Freedom Press in Whitechapel and Sylvia Pankhurst fought for women's rights in Bow. And a lot of people still consider it to be dangerous. Prostitutes prowled the East End and so did Jack the Ripper. The East End is where most of London's gangs operated, though they seem to have a penchant for gambling rather than illicit substances. 

But there are some big differences. One of them is that the East End still bears the scars of World War II, when nearly 50,000 houses were destroyed during the Blitz. Over 2,200 people died. The area was devastated. Most of the newer housing you see in the East End was built over a bomb site. Although, come to think of it, maybe the Lower East Side could be considered similarly devastated by white flight in the 1960s and 1970s. It's no comparison to being bombed, but buildings did go up in flames and there were a lot of deaths from drugs and mayhem when the LES basically devolved into the Wild West. There was even a 1970s indie film that compared the burned out buildings of the LES with what Dresden looked like right after the war. (Can't seem to find the name of the film for the life of me, anyone know it?) 

Another difference is that the East End is kind of an alternate history of the Lower East Side. There are still half a dozen banging street markets selling everything from fabric and flowers to vintage clothing and artisanal food. All the street markets in the Lower East Side were erased in the 1930s by Robert Moses, that imperious potentate of public works. The only reminders are the market buildings on Essex Street and on First Avenue, which were created by Moses to house the pushcart peddlers who used hawk on the street right in front of those buildings.  

And then there's Regent's Canal, which gives the East End a whole other dimension that blows the Lower East Side away. It makes me wonder what New York would have been like if that canal cutting through 8th and 9th Street had been preserved and linked to Collect Pond. Wouldn't that be an amazing alternate Lower East Side, with a canal running all the way through Chinatown to the courthouses? Instead, we're left with just a couple of willow trees to mark where the canal still runs under the pavement. 

Until last week, I was living about a five minute walk from Limehouse Basin, the old working port of London where the Thames meets with the Regents Canal and the River Lea (via the Limehouse Cut, another canal). It seemed nearly every weekend, I was walking the two or three miles along Regent's Canal to Victoria Park or Broadway Market. In the other direction, there's Canary Wharf and Wapping. But Limehouse is its own interesting area.

Limehouse Basin. 
The Grapes, a pub that's been around since the 1600s. Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diaries. Dickens wrote about it. Sherlock Holmes was here in a Conan Doyle story. 
Wonder what a Ship Store sold.  
Love the weather vanes on the buildings. 
Must have been a pub once? Get a load of that eye-popping blue! And the angel!
Detail of the angel on the building. It's holding a pyramid for some reason.
And glaring at the plant. Maybe it's a Masonic angel? That doesn't like vegetation?
The old JR Wilson building from the front. What an amazing balcony thing. 
St. Ann's Church, which has the highest bell tower in London. I wonder who attends service since the area is now primarily Muslim. 
Wonder what this was. 
Limehouse Cut, going up to the River Lea. 
I worried about what these kids were catching. Hope they weren't going to try to eat it. 
Apparently they are called coots. When I was at Oxford, I didn't have the internet
and couldn't look them up so I called them Harlequin Birds. 

Coot times two.   
The boating club where house boat inhabitants get a buzz on. 
This guy seems to have a pretty nice life. 
Seriously sweet set up. 
Sunset in Limehouse Basin. 
Amazing roof garden of tomatoes and herbs. 
Detail of the houseboat roof garden.  
Football over Limehouse Basin. 
Love the way the brambles are growing over this building. 
Away from the basin, Limehouse is obviously working class. Here's Commercial Road, across the street from where I was staying. Hung Tou is actually pretty decent for a take out. But it's another place that glares at you if you speak Mandarin. 
Popular Cafe doesn't look too popular. 
There's an amazing row of storefronts with hand-drawn signs on Commercial Road. They're all squatted apparently. 
Cable Street is known for a big confrontation against fascists in the 1930s. Now, there are two fantastic music venues. Jamboree is a block from where I was staying.  Here's an amazing cornet player (and a cheeky fiddler) at Ewan Bleach's Thursday night shindig, which not only features fantastic jazz but also terrific hoofers that  blow away any swing night I've seen in NYC. 
Jamboree is part of the Cable Street Studios, a gated complex of artist studios. 
Striped snogging couple across from Jamboree. 
Scene on another night at Jamboree. See the Peel Away on the wall? Can't help but think about my ex putting Peel Away on the transom window above the hallway in my old 11th St pad to remove the paint and forgetting to peel the damn thing away, so the transom looked even worse for the next five years. Probably the same thing happened here.

On the other end of Cable Street closer to Whitechapel is Wilton's Music Hall, the only music hall from the 1850s still standing. The place survives because of massive community effort. This is the gorgeous stage area. 
Here's a view of London's weird skyline on the way to Canary Wharf from Limehouse. Looks like something illustrated by Dr. Seuss. 

Canary Wharf scene. 

Canary Wharf basically feels like an upscale area in California. Too manicured for my tastes. Here's a selfie in front of a restaurant sign proclaiming "Since 1248." I suddenly imagined Monty Python-like knights stopping for chicken on their way to the Crusades. 

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