Do this gritty district's art galleries and cheap curries a tourist hot spot make? Erin O'Dwyer finds out.
When The New York Times recently rated London's gritty East End as the next tourism hot spot, Britain's broadsheets and tabloids alike were aghast. The original story spawned a dozen more, as city-beat reporters were sent down to take a fresh look at the "Sauhf Eest", foreign-correspondent style. “Might as well book two weeks all-inclusive in Kabul," quipped one East Ender to The Times.
“All I can say is I hope they like hoodies, muggers and junkies,” said another to the Daily Mail. “Mind you, I suppose it might remind them of the Bronx.”
Before the cashed-up New Yorkers got wind, the East End was best known as the scene of Jack the Ripper's dirty work. Australian backpackers know it for its Brick Lane curries and cheap rents. But, mostly, it is recognised for its simmering racial undercurrent – a melting pot of Afro-Caribbean rude boys and Bangladeshi refugees.
On the hot brightness of the high street, it's not immediately clear what all the trouble is about. The iconic Whitechapel Art Gallery has just undergone a £13 million ($23 million) makeover and even on weekdays, the Old Spitalfields Market is busy with "pop-up" designer shops and "cafs" that charge £10 for pie and mash.
But around the corner is Deptford. It's a place where unemployment is twice the national average and violent crime is 20 times worse, too. Here, a pie and mash costs £2.30 and anything edgy must have something to do with a knife.
During just a few hours in the East End I see scenes I would have thought more fitting of the former East Berlin. A woman in grey marl tights sitting on the pavement on a patched leather armchair checking her emails on a laptop. A hand-stencilled sign hanging from a second-floor artists' co-op: “If you think you're art enough, upstairs now.” And two Muslim girls in headscarves walking past a graffitied wall that reads: “A dedicated follower of nothing.” Poetically, it sums up the whole situation.
Like change anywhere, there are winners and losers. Former London spin doctor Kevin Caruth is one of the winners. His spanking new walking tour company, Urban Gentry, employs local artists to run small groups around the East End, pointing out galleries, retro-rag traders and good food going cheap.
The artists may yet be the losers. Long before gentrification, the East End was a hub of new art – producing the Young British Artists movement that made Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst famous. But the postwar warehouses once rented for a pittance as artists' studios have become increasingly unaffordable. Unless, of course, you are Gilbert & George, who still live on Fournier Street, as Caruth points out.
There is something oh-so-calculated about all this gentrified edginess. And in between the clamour of Indian stores – spices, sweets and silks – and the rows of renovated Huguenot terraces for lease, both me and my camera feel hugely out of place. I make the mistake of suggesting this to Caruth as we wander down Brick Lane on his three-hour bespoke tour.
“It's as if by being here, on a walking tour, that I'm part of the process of gentrification,” I say. Like watching the marginal people. Like being an agent of change itself.
A tall black man with charm, intelligence and good looks aplenty, Caruth would be at ease in anyone's neighbourhood. But he doesn't get my sentiment. Or doesn't want to. He simply shrugs and heads towards another retro boutique, this one stocking the designs of Posh Spice herself.
Still, Caruth's tour is worth the price of admission. There's often little in the way of fanfare to the East End's exciting slew of hole-in-the-wall galleries and Caruth provides an instant open sesame. We stop at Hotel – a one-room art space accessed through an open garage door. Its only signage is a white A4 sheet of paper, printed with a bubble jet and taped to a concrete pillar. It reads: "Hotel, Current Exhibition, Carter." It's all in 10-point type.
Urban legend has it that Hotel began as a city home away from home for artists working on lengthy projects. Back then, it was run by entrepreneurs Darren Flook and Christabel Stewart in their home in nearby Bethnal Green. Now, in new digs just off the Whitechapel High Street, it retains a lived-in look. We stop by but don't stay. A New Yorker, Carter works in monochrome. Outside, it's a glorious London day.
There are about 100 art galleries dotted across the East End. Many are homespun operations, with proprietors who have day jobs so open only on the weekend. If in doubt, make a beeline for the Whitechapel.
Since 1901, the iconic London gallery has introduced to the international art world would-be household names. In 1939, it showed Guernica – Pablo Picasso's terrible depiction of the Spanish civil war – which went on to become one of the most recognisable images of that century. In 1958, it was Jackson Pollock; in 1961 Mark Rothko; in 1970 David Hockney and Gilbert & George. Through the 1980s and '90s, Frida Kahlo, Lucien Freud and Jeff Wall all showed there first.
It's hard to imagine a time before Picasso, Rothko and Kahlo were famous. But there was. It's this thought – that somewhere out there might exist the next international art sensation – that lends a little of the gamblers' quiver to our tour of the gallery. In the first exhibition since its refurb, Berlin sculptor Isa Genzken has been given top billing. She is little known outside her native Germany and her work is either sublimely breathtaking or ridiculously challenging, depending on your take.
In the gallery's foyer, a pair of golden glassless window frames stand three-metres high. They are crafted from steel, concrete and epoxy resin. The accompanying tag explains that Genzken did not want her art to consume space, rather her empty window frames create space. On the second floor is a room full of mannequins dressed in space suits and clutching at zimmer frames. The artist explains: “With its concealed or decorated weapons ... the work echoes the medieval concept of the Dance of Death.”
To me, at that moment, it makes perfect sense. But as I'm scribbling down these pearls of wisdom in my Moleskine diary, my companion walks past muttering: “I can't believe the stuff they write on these things.”
I shuffle my Moleskine, a gift from Kevin Caruth, back into my bag. I don't know whether to praise him or curse him for making me a tourist in London's East End.
The writer was a guest of VisitBritain and British Airways.
British Airways flies daily from Sydney to London. Round-trip fares for travel until the end of the month from $1444, including taxes. See ba.com.
Check out London's hippest art scene with Urban Gentry's insider tours. Three-hour walking tours from £149 ($268) for small groups of four in the East End. See urbangentry.com.
Hotel, 77A Greenfield Road, open Wednesday to Sunday, noon-6pm. Phone +44 20 7247 8625, see generalhotel.org.
PRaven Row, a non-profit gallery showing emerging contemporary artists, open Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm,
56 Artillery Lane. Phone +44 20 7377 4300, See ravenrow.org.
Whitechapel Gallery, open Tuesday to Sunday, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street. Phone +44 20 7522 7888, see whitechapelgallery.org.
The Old Truman Brewery has more than 200 fashion designers, graphic artists, architects and photographers with studios in an artists' precinct that covers two city blocks, 91 Brick Lane, use Aldgate East or Shoreditch tube stations.
Check out the Old Spitalfields Market for antiques, jewellery and vintage fashion. Stalls open Thursday to Sunday, 105 Commercial Street, Spitalfields. See visitspitalfields.com.