The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand...
In the absence of past lives, particularly those that were not recorded in any way, it is the streets and buildings of a city that offer up any clues about bygone eras. Which is why the destruction of these streets and buildings is so damaging. It is not just a physical presence that is being eliminated, but history too. And sadly, in most cases, what replaces the old is cheap, unsightly and increasingly on a scale that reduces human lives to an administrative statistic.
Ever since the utopian visions of a new space-age-Britain, rising from the ashes left by the Luftwaffe, morphed into turgid concrete lumps, there has been no excuse other than greed for the wrecking-ball policies that blight our town centres to this day. When town planning departments seem to lack any plan more complex than selling to the highest bidder it's no surprise that the results are frequently ugly. More often than not these days it also means that owners of London real estate are foreign, and as such hardly likely to take on board the sensibilities of the locals. Pubs disappear, and useful shops needed by life-long residents are usurped by ones catering exclusively to middle class tastes and middle class pockets. Just because something isn't eye-catching doesn't mean it isn't worth preserving.
One current hunting ground is the East End. After the architectural free-for-all that has blitzed Stratford one can only wonder what delights we have in store for the area surrounding Spitalfields. Actually we don't have to wonder as plans for various projects have been released and none of 'em are particularly pretty. The latest thing, in case you have been asleep the last few years, is upward projection. It might make economic sense to extract the maximum amount of rent from your footprint but the rash of phallic architecture that is slowly poking holes in the London skyline not only offends the eye of many beholders but also denies existing tenants the light that once shone down from above, condemning them to a future, quite literally, in the shadows.
It is all in the name of the juggernaut laughingly named progress, and so the mantra of jobs and homes is reeled out in a manner that suggests debate on the small print is somehow unpatriotic. Crumbs of appeasement are arrogantly tossed down in the form of that other ill-conceived architectural trope of recent times – the preservation of the facade of the building that is otherwise destroyed. This bizarre memento mori fashion sums up the modern world and the politics that drives it – all surface and no substance, a simulacra, the Emporer's New Clothes. It is a fate in store for the Fruit and Wool Exchange and Queen Elizabeth hospital in Hackney. As you may have picked up from my cynical tone thus far I'm a glass-half-empty type of guy when it comes to trusting politicians and their puppet masters to do the right thing, but fear not for more positive souls in the form of the East End Preservation Society are circling the wagons and gearing up for the fight.
Conjured into existence almost overnight, its inaugural meeting last November at the Bishopsgate Institute in Liverpool Street saw a range of speakers talk passionately about their concerns for the East End and the corporate cuckoos flocking in to nest. Long-term Spitalfields residents Dan Cruikshank and Will Palin, who together with the Gentle Author are the driving forces behind its launch, talked about the destruction of architectural heritage. Palin made good use of archive photographs to show just what has been lost post-war and the predictable banality that replaced it. Matt Johnson gave an indication of the sheer monstrous scale of the buildings planned, and the increasingly anti-social nature of the bar-crawl culture spreading throughout Shoreditch, while Saif Osmani gave, what was to my mind, the most resonant speech, in detailing plans for Whitechapel that could well destroy local livelihoods rather than mere bricks and mortar. Osmani who has experience of the grass-roots approach (the successful protest against the planned destruction of Queen's Market in East Ham) offered a pertinent reminder of the human cost of regeneration – gentrification - and one hopes the Society will heed any advice he has to offer because if they don't engage with local working class communities they can be sure that the corporate behemoths will. Ensuring that everyone understands that what there is to lose extends beyond architectural heritage is the only way of uniting what could amount to a sizeable force of opposition against this invasion of money that threatens to wreak far more devastation to the fabric and more importantly the spirit of the city than the Blitz ever did.
Meanwhile the wave of lesser, but still significant money rolls Eastwards, displacing people further as property prices rise in places like Walthamstow and Leytonstone. Meanwhile, people in boroughs like Newham are quietly being shipped out of London altogether, and behind the scenes the plans to remove council tenants from central London continue apace. It is the current malaise of a world where bent money runs riot.
The Society has already organised a number of speaking events. Rather than mention those forthcoming in February it might be more useful for anyone interested in this issue to check out the links at the foot of this article and sign-up for ongoing updates and e-bulletins. Make no mistake, this is a serious issue on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that London is fast losing the very vitality that has made it such an attractive proposition globally in the first place. A real city with a real diversity of people is in danger of being replaced by a simulation. If this is the logical conclusion to Western society's current state of hubris then history might suggest that we are doomed to such a fate, but fuck it, we may as well go down fighting.
Report on launch night with video from Spitalfields Life by the Gentle Author
EEPS for those who like to tweet
Related issues at the Shoreditch Community Association site