From Huguenots to Hipsters
It’s 1:45 and I smell crisp sourdough, succulents and sweat – not in order of prevalence, unfortunately. A proper Sunday afternoon in Bethnal Green. It’s a place that I’ve come to regard as a mixed bag – or, perhaps more accurately, a hastily-buckled rucksack of misplaced trinkets, sprayed with designer perfume and slapped with a Fair Trade™ sticker. I’m with Zuz and Tom and Juan, transplants from different countries, all spending a late winter afternoon in this colorful chaos. Location: Columbia Road Flower Market. Definitive accessories: iPhone 7, beard, loose-fitting monochromatic pants.
I’m in the young creative paradise that I was promised upon entering The Big Smoke. Still, it’s not completely homogenous. Standing out from the international accents are the grumbling voices of the flower salesmen. “Two forah fivah! This is ah last call, two forah fivah!” they yell, their expansive tones matching their fisherman’s sweater-clad bellies. I feel like I am much further from the vendors than the two lavender-filled meters that separate us. My London friends tell me that I’m hearing an East London accent – described varyingly as “working class,” “Cockney” and “real London.”
Bethnal Green is one of the many neighborhoods of East London – the place to be for young people, I’ve been told on more than on occasion. There is HuffingtonPost article that explains the characteristics of 48 of London’s neighborhoods. Bethnal Green features the following buzzwords: Street Art, Artistic, Multicultural, Lively, Boutique Shops & Hotels, Trendy Lounge Bars & Club. Sources from the nineteenth century, however, tell a very different story. A JStor query for “London East End” will give you articles like “Nutritional Anaemia In The East End Of London,” “Among the Disposable,” and “The Distress At The East End of London.” It’s a bleak picture of a neighborhood seems so vibrant today.
How did the transformation of Bethnal Green begin?
Bethnal Green is one of the many cities that make up East London – an area immediately north and east of the historical City of London, corresponding roughly with the Borough of Tower Hamlets. As the site of Roman villages and seventeenth-century country homes, Bethnal Green was not always the urban enclave it is today. It has been a haven for immigrants since the sixteenth century, when Huguenot refugees migrated to the area. (The Huguenots happened to have a penchant for gardening, evidenced by the annual Bethnal Green flower competitions – not a far cry from what I had seen at the Columbia Road Flower Market.)
While Bethnal Green was home to a large weaving industry, by the nineteenth century it was also one of the poorest neighborhoods in London. Living conditions were abysmal; one survey concluded that Bethnal Green households included 8.3 inhabitants on average. In his late nineteenth-century account of the neighborhood, civil servant George C.T. Bartley reported on the widespread alcoholism and “ignorance” of the area.  “One boy, 10 years old, who had been at school for some months, was unable to inform us where London or England were; he had never heard of either.” Others, like one doctor who wrote in the 1868 British Medical Journal, painted more pitiful portraits of Bethnal Green in the late nineteenth century. “In one room, we found a man, with three children, starving. The mother and wife lay dead on a straw mattress – the only article of furniture, indeed, in the room.” The rampages of Jack the Ripper, who murdered his way through western Bethnal Green, only abetted the perception of Bethnal Green as a savage “other” in the context of London neighborhoods.
The literature of this era also plays into the “otherness” of Bethnal Green. In A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s characters remark in their typical smug tone about the “unhappy” people of East London. (Lord Henry responds: "I can sympathize with everything except suffering… It is too ugly, too horrible, too distressing.”) Dickens portrays East Londoners in Our Mutual Friend through Six Jolly Fellowship Porters – a public house for the waterborne ruffians of the east. When Gaffer Hexam is falsely accused of murder and is banished from the community, he is emotionally crushed and resolves to kill himself. Nonfiction accounts surfaced in the same years. Jacob Riis, Jack London and George Orwell highlighted the poverty and violence of the neighborhood in some of the earliest examples of investigative journalism.
Either because of or in spite of the living conditions, residents of Bethnal Green possessed a tight sense of community. In Dicken’s mind, Gaffer Hexam’s violent reaction to his exclusion is evidence to the fact that residents considered nothing quite as important as those people with whom they passed their time. Even to newcomers, Bethnal Green could be a welcoming place: a constant theme in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is that for every hardship in the area, there was an instance of friendship, a helping hand extended from the poor to the poorer. Trade unions, social organizations and educational reformers remained as active in Bethnal Green as in any other part of East London. After a wartime period of migration and population loss, Bethnal Green was noted as a place where nuclear families could thrive, despite the high levels of unemployment in earlier years.
Historians recall the prosperity in Bethnal Green in the mid-twentieth century, some describing it even as 'some sort of Utopia.'” Yet like many community across the world, Bethnal Green’s postwar boom was followed by post-industrial problems. The Borough of Tower Hamlets continually ran out of money for building developments. While poverty did not reach pre-war levels, jobs remained somewhat scarce and housing prices stayed low. Fueled in part by affordable housing, immigrants came in droves. By 1981, immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and elsewhere made up 30% of the population of Bethnal Green. By the late twentieth-century, Bethnal Green was stable but solidly lower-middle class, cosmopolitan but also the site of consistent racial violence.
And then the hipsters came. One article from The Independent sums up the transition quite concisely: “In just over a decade, east London has gone from being synonymous to outsiders with Cockneys and pie and mash – to edgy artists, gentrification, hipsters and luxury flats.” The housing market boomed. Home prices in Bethnal Green are up 22% from 2014 alone, a year that is well into the period of gentrification. It’s a product of the “Olympic Effect” – house prices rose significantly after the 2012 London Olympics – but also the cafes, boutique hotels and “wide range of unusual shops” at places like Columbia Road Flower Market.
Bethnal Green feels like a community to a 20-something nomad like myself. Yet I can’t help but consider the costs of this new Bethnal Green. For each outsider that is brought into a place like this, how many longtime residents are displaced? I’m clearly not the only one who is worried. True to the organizing capacity that residents of Bethnal Green had in the nineteenth century, protestors have continually called attention to the gentrification of the area. The most famous example involves Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
In December 2014, Alan and Gary Keery launched a store along the Shoreditch-Bethnal Green border called Cereal Killer Café – a dubious name, given the legacy of Jack the Ripper in the area. They faced immediate backlash. It was a result of their smug demeanor, their five-inch beards and the fact that they sold small bowls of specialty cereal for £3.50. Criticisms culminated in an all-out assault on the café by a group of protestors, angered by their communities being “ripped apart.” The description of a Facebook event for the protest read as follows: "We don't want luxury flats that no one can afford, we want genuinely affordable housing. We don't want pop-up gin bars or brioche buns - we want community."
Op-ed columnists eagerly picked sides in the fight. Some called attention to the fact that nearly fifty percent of children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty, and that expensive cereal is an insult to the “true population” of Bethnal Green. A writer for the conservative Daily Mail noted that the leader of the protest lives in a £600,000 flat himself. I could not find any articles by anybody who had grown up in Bethnal Green. Scouring pages of Google search results, I felt as if I were walking through Columbia Road Flower Market all over again.
In some ways, this piece feels like a sort of epilogue to the story of Bethnal Green. The postwar inhabitants have largely left, and now even the creatives that lived in the area at the beginning of the wave of gentrification are being kicked out. Bethnal Green is no longer the underground alternative haven that it once was. (One commentator noted that Bethnal Green has been dead since 2010, when Prince Harry was spotted at a warehouse rave in town.) Nevertheless, in a town of immigrants, it’s hard to ascertain who the real natives of Bethnal Green were in the first place. Perhaps that’s all right. The neighborhood is no stranger to change, and if history is any indicator, Bethnal Green will remain the resilient and cosmopolitan place it has always proven to be.
 “48 London Neighborhoods: A Quick Reference Guide”, Huffington Post, June 12, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eating-europe-tours/48-london-neighborhoods-a-quick-reference-guide_b_7557148.html.
 John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 59.
 John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 78.
 John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 60.
 George C. T. Bartley, One Square Mile in the East-end of London, 1870, http://www.jstor.org/stable/60246232.
 "The Distress At The East End Of London." The British Medical Journal 2, no. 415 (1868): 616-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25215663.
 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (Methuen: 1915), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/174/174-h/174-h.htm.
 John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 181.
 "Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions after 1945 Social and Cultural Activities," in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, ed. T F T Baker (London: Victoria County History, 1998), 135-147. British History Online, accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol11/pp135-147.
 Kashmira Gander, “East London pre-hipsters: The photographers who documented Lea Valley before gentrification,” The Independent, 3 February 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/east-london-hipsters-lea-valley-gentrification-2012-london-olympics-effect-photographers-photos-a7559851.html.
 “House Prices in Bethnal Green, East London,” Rightmove, 31 January 2017, http://www.rightmove.co.uk/house-prices/Bethnal-Green.html.
 Rupert Jones, “Gentrification fears loom over rise in east London ‘property millionaires,’” The Guardian, 17 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/17/gentrification-fears-east-london-property-millionaires.
 “Columbia Road Shops & Flower Market: History,” Columbia Road, 28 February 2017, http://www.columbiaroad.info/.
 Susannah Butter, “Cereal Killer Café owners: What it’s like to be the most hated men in London,” Evening Standard, 1 October 2015, http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/cereal-killer-cafe-owners-what-its-like-to-be-the-most-hated-men-in-london-a2970776.html.
 Caroline Mortimer, “Cereal Killer Café Attacked with paint by anti-gentrification protestors,” The Independent, 27 September 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/anti-gentrification-protesters-attack-cereal-killer-cafe-with-paint-a6668886.html.
 Will Harvey, “I was part of the Cereal Killer café protest – here’s why,” The Guardian, 28 September 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/28/cereal-killer-cafe-protest-gentrification-poverty.
 Thomas Burrows, “Cereal café riot leader who protested against the working class being priced out of London lives in £600,000 flat built on the site of former city council block,” Daily Mail, 4 October 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3259726/Cereal-caf-riot-leader-protested-against-working-class-priced-London-lives-600-000-flat-built-site-former-council-block.html.
 Richard Godwin, “Death of the hipster: why London decided to move on from beards, beanies and fixie bikes,” Evening Standard, 16 April 2015, http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/death-of-the-hipster-why-london-decided-to-move-on-from-beards-beanies-and-fixie-bikes-10178615.html.