Spitalfields New and Old

 

I’ve been meaning to visit Libreria in Hanbury Street since it opened in February this year.  The bookshop is the brainchild of Rohan Silva, a former civil servant and government policy advisor, which was designed by the Spanish studio SelgasCano, also responsible for the design of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2015.  Silva’s tech start-up company, Second Home is housed in a converted carpet factory on the other side of the street.

My approach from the Commercial Road end of Brick Lane made me wonder if rumours of unfettered gentrification in this area had been greatly exaggerated, but on turning into Hanbury Street I found myself on the border between the old East End of London and the new world of coffee shops and purveyors of personal grooming products and services.

Libreria is intended to present book buyers with an experience which is as far removed from Amazon as can be imagined.  It’s compact and cosy, with the books stored on warm, amber –coloured, wooden shelves, which extend from the floor almost to the ceiling.  The far wall of the shop is covered with a mirror which gives the illusion of a greater space and brought me face to face unexpectedly with a slightly disorienting reflection of myself.  There are comfortable spots for browsing your choice of books, provided with mismatched items of furniture to sit on.  Phones are not allowed.  I felt very much at home.

Books are arranged according to themes, for example, “family” and “enchantment for the disenchanted” with the result that biography, fiction, poetry and travel sit side by side, rather than being divided according to the categories usually employed by traditional bookshops, opening readers to the possibilities of serendipitous discovery.

Still, if you arrive with a particular book in mind, the very helpful bookseller I spoke to reassured me that the computerised system she uses would enable her to identify its location straight away.

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Before recent developments like Libreria, Hanbury Street was a place of shuttered facades which no amount of colourful street art could reanimate.  In an area previously inhabited largely by small businesses and light industrial sites, Libreria is an obvious sign of gentrification.

The first wave of gentrifiers arrived in Spitalfields in the 1970’s and was made up of artists and bohemians.  Gilbert and George, the interior designer Jocasta Innes and Dennis Severs all recognised the potential of the 18th Century Huguenot silk weavers’ houses and set about their restoration.

With the edginess of the area blunted, private developers began to move in on the district and inevitably conflict followed.  The most recent row broke out over the future of Norton Folgate, a district lying just north west of Hanbury Street, between the developer, British Land, The Spitalfields Trust and the borough of Tower Hamlets.

An initial proposal for developing Norton Folgate was rejected in 2011.  British Land produced an alternative.  The Spitalfields Trust mobilised a highly publicised campaign against it, eliciting support far beyond the area to be affected.

The Trust opposed the plan on the grounds it would destroy the existing street plan, which has evolved over hundreds of years, replacing it with a “monoculture of city office plates”.  They made a counter proposal which would preserve the current street pattern, restore historical buildings and fill in gaps with new buildings in the same vernacular.

British Land argued that the Trust had misrepresented their plan, as it was their intention to “focus on sensitively designed buildings and public realm improvements, driven by an appreciation of the rich character of the local area.”

Eventually, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, “called in” the planning process from the borough of Tower Hamlets.  Johnson used this tactic whenever he feared that a local authority would block developments which he viewed as essential to the future of London.

The Trust responded by going to the High Court for a judicial review of the way the plan had gained approval, but the judge ruled in Johnson’s favour in May 2016.

The process of regenerating deindustrialised city zones has triggered similar disputes all over Europe, Canada, the US and Australasia.  Too frequently victory seems to go to the party with all the money, leaving those more in favour of conservation feeling angry and helpless.

Any conflict which arouses strong feelings, tends to push people into polarised positions.  When it comes to regeneration, it’s easy to find oneself defending everything old and opposing any kind of change.

Those against gentrification, for example, point out that, as rents rise,  the original population is forced out, while a few who were lucky enough to buy their properties take the money and head for suburbs, resulting in the “blandification” of the city.

However, different contexts create different stories.  There’s no doubt some people of the East End are being driven out of London as it becomes unaffordable, but in previous decades many Cockney and Jewish residents  were glad to go in search of a new life in the suburbs and counties surrounding the capital.

Many who still live in the East End endure severe social deprivation.  Poverty, atrocious slum dwelling, disease and poor health were endemic in the East End in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but they existed side by side with industry and thriving docks on the Thames which provided thousands with the means to earn some sort of living.

After the Second World War, the docks fell into a swift decline, industry disappeared and aspirant East Londoners moved away.  The East End became a place of dereliction and grime.  Bomb damage left by the war created open spaces littered with heaps of nameless dreck.  Travelling through the East End of London from the suburbs in the family car presented a dark and scary sight to my childish eyes.  A time-travelling visitor from the late 1960’s simply would not recognise much of today’s East London.

In an ideal world, local authorities, residents and private developers would collaborate to turn our cities into places where people of all ages, classes and races could live, work and play together according to a rational scheme.

As it stands, inner city boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets, struggle even to house their less wealthy residents, hampered by legislation which only allows them to provide new, permanent accommodation in cooperation with housing associations and private developers.

The regeneration of the East End has not been the result of carefully co-ordinated planning, a reflection of the history of the rest of London.  Gentrification and private development have undeniably played a positive role in creating a place whose attractions now extend far beyond going on the trail of Jack the Ripper.

Jane McChrystal © 2016.