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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: London 9: East End

London's East End, like Manchester and Liverpool, has the reputation of being a disaster area, not only run-down but full of people who are vulgar at their best and dangerous at their habitual worst. If you have any doubts on this score, try reading Theodore Dalrymple. The reality, as you might guess, is much less extreme.  See for yourself on this two-mile walk from Aldgate through Whitechapel, Stepney, and Tower Hamlets. From there, we'll turn south and walk a mile to the Thames where, safe at Canary Wharf, we can regain our bourgeois nerve and celebrate our steely courage.

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We begin Sunday morning at Petticoat Lane Market, where the constable on patrol advises that you hold your bag close.

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A couple of blocks away, the street and block pattern feels centuries old, as it probably is.

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Cool Britannia isn't far away, however: here's 135 Bishopsgate, as silly a venture into postmodernism as you're likely to find, though less boring than many others.

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A few blocks to the east, a flash from the past. We're on Whitechapel Road at the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor, dated 1902. Russell and Lewis's map of Jewish East London, from 1900, shows that within a radius of several blocks from the corner of Commercial Street and Whitechapel Road at least 90 percent of the residents were Jews.

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Are we kinder nowdays, when we say "disadvantaged"?

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Abandoned for many years, the building has now been converted into apartments for neither the poor nor the disadvantaged.

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More philanthropy: on the right, the Whitechapel Library and Museum of 1892, funded by a gift from Passmore Edwards; on the left, the striking Whitechapel Art Gallery of 1901, funded by Canon Samuel Barnett and designed by C. Harrison Townsend. The gallery has no permanent collection but has staged some major exhibitions, including Guernica in 1938 and later exhibitions of Jackson Pollock, David Hockney, and Lucien Freud. Easy to get to, too, with the Aldgate East tube station right there in the adjoining library.

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In an echo of Andrew Carnegie, the newspaper editor Passmore Edwards built two dozen libraries in England, including this one. In his autobiography, from 1905, he explained his gift this way: "When I was a boy I should have jumped with joy if I could have found a corner in a reading-room for an hour or two a day, or have been enabled to take books home as boys and girls can do now where public libraries exist."

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A surviving inscription from the Four Percent Industrial Dwelling Company. What was it? Here's the answer from movinghere.org.uk: "In 1885 Lord Rothschild and others formed the Four-Percent Industrial Dwellings Company, which aimed to charge fair rents and build flats that were large enough to house families in more than one room. The largest of a series of tenement blocks built by the company were the Rothschild Buildings on Flower and Dean Street, clearing an area known as 'the foulest and most dangerous in the whole metropolis'." The name came from the belief of the developers that they could provide decent housing at modest prices yet still generate a return of four percent for investors in the project.

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The Company's buildings have been replaced, but the founding organization still exists in a modified form and is known as the IDS, or Industrial Dwellings Society.

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An original street name survives.

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Here, on the other hand, you're closer to what you expect in the East End. The "No Ball Games" warning is a nice reminder of British regimentation, delivered here in English and Bengali.

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Triligual, with Urdu added. The name Toynbee Street is a reminder of yet another philanthropy, Toynbee Hall, which opened in 1884 and was named not for the Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee (1852-83) but for his uncle, Arnold J. Toynbee. The Hall was an effort to teach England's elite about the Other Half. As Disraeli had written in Sybil (1845), in England there were "two nations: between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws." By having the elite live among the poor, the founders of Toynbee Hall hoped to bridge the gap. And who were the founders? None other than the same Samuel Barnett who, with his wife, would later fund the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

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Not as appalling as myth suggests.

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Something closer to what you might expect: Commercial Street near Whitechapel Road.

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The apartment building has a name. Any guesses?

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The residents are Bengalis, the dominant group in the neighborhood today.

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The ethnic shift has been almost total. Less than a block away, and close to the light-colored London Muslim Center is the old Fieldgate St. Great Synagogue, rebuilt in 1950 but first built in 1899.

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The foundation stone was set by Charles Rothschild, and the first president was the banker Samuel Montagu.

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Clothing for the local market.

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The Royal London Hospital became "Royal" in 1990, on the 250th birthday of what had been the London Hospital, founded to serve the working class. The outpatients department dates from 1903.

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Gwynne House, built in what has been called the ocean-liner style.

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Not encouraging.

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Council housing.

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Council housing with a hint of neighborhood money.

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Clichy Estate, named in 1957 for its French twin, Clichy-la-Garenne.

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Entrance to Stepney Green. Unlike the parks in London's "better" neighborhoods, keys aren't required.

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The adjoining parish church of St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.

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Nave.

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British tombstones are often hardly more than names and dates, but the Empire stimulated the narrative impulse. Here, the record of a 26-year-old killed by Sinai Bedouin in 1882.

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A Guiana death.

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En route to India, a 28-year-old dies and is buried at Alexandra in 1852.

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A few blocks to the east, the Regent's Canal at Ben Jonson Road. Canary Wharf is straight ahead, to the south.

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Looking north from the same bridge. New London emerges from the Old.

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Row houses at Bow Common Lane.

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A typical lineup.

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A slight upgrade, with bay or oriel windows.

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South Grove School, 1904, hideous but saved by the blue sky.

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View from the rear.

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Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.

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Ennerdale House, rising from the dead.

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Canary Wharf seen behind Bartlett Park and St. Saviour's court, marked by a thin spire.

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The Stratford Parish in Poplar church now houses the Nigerian-based Celestial Church of Christ.

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To the south, apartments in the East India Buildings.

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Another view of the East India Buildings.

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Canary Wharf from Dingle Gardens. The three tallest buildings are HSBC, designed by Foster and Partners, and the Citigroup and One Canada Square Buildings, both by Cesar Pelli. The elbow-high building nuzzling HSBC houses Credit Suisse and the Bank of America. One Canada Square tenants include Burlington Resources, Hartford Life, KPMG, Maersk, and Novartis.

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A surviving bit of the West India Docks, with the West India Quay on the left; at its far end is the Billingsgate Fish Market.

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The High and the Mighty: One Canada Place, flanked by HSBC and Citigroup.

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Fieldgate Mansions, Romford Street.


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