The East End

It was very cool seeing familiar locations in the East End today, from Spitalfields to Shoreditch High Street (the area chronicled in Morrison’s A Child of the Jago). What I found most interesting about the East End is how it’s developed from the near-uninhabitable squalor of the Victorian and Edwardian eras into something that’s not only inhabitable, but actually thriving. I guess this is a common story, really. “Bad” neighborhoods in major cities tend to be the cheapest areas to live in (for obvious reasons). Consequently, immigrants, artists, writers, etc., often end up living there—which in turn gives the neighborhood a degree of cultural capital, which in turn gives the neighborhood more material capital value, which in turn prices out the immigrants/artists/writers/etc. who imbued the neighborhood with that value in the first place. It’s the classic Cycle Of Gentrification: it’s happened all over New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. It’s happening in Atlanta; it’s happening here.

What makes the East End such a striking example is that when it was squalid, it was really squalid: the kind of inequity and squalor that make social-realist novels like Jago feel a bit over-the-top. I remember Morrison’s foreword to Jago, in which he equivocates about the “realist” label others have apparently pinned onto his work. He reluctantly accepts the label, deciding that he’d rather focus on telling stories than thinking about how other people will classify those stories—and meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Wait—this seedy melodrama is realistic?” But maybe it is. At the very least, accurate or not, it’s an invaluable document of how the Old Nichol neighborhood was perceived in the late Victorian Era.

It’s also interesting and frustrating because we were visiting the neighborhood in what seemed to be the midst of its gentrification cycle. The copious street art works as a kind of microcosm of this process: there’s a lot of work by current, up-and-coming artists who I’d imagine come from (relatively) disadvantaged circumstances, which lends a real sense of vibrancy and hipness to the neighborhood. But I wonder about some of it. I think of Banksy, who came up in the 90s Bristol street art scene before eventually making millions off their own anticapitalist Decoder-Ring-Symbolist art—and the subsequent commercial feeding frenzy surrounding him, Shepard Fairey, et al. I don’t think Banksy “sold out,” necessarily, even though I’m not a huge fan of their work. I do think their anticapitalist message gets a bit muddled when there’s so much money involved, and when their work invariably brings bourgeois art tourists to gawk at whichever (likely underprivileged) neighborhood they’re working in. But on the other hand, it’s encouraging that there is an audience for this stuff, and I’d imagine Banksy also finds that tension a bit stifling. It’s like the Clash vs. Crass all over again, I guess: communicating subversive messages to a larger audience vs maintaining ideological purity at the expense of any accessibility whatsoever.

Something inherently countercultural and “lower-class” started to accrue real cultural and material value, in the process turning into something else. (Something similar-ish happened in downtown New York in the 80s, with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy, and we all know how easy it is for underprivileged people to live in New York now…) A lot of the street art in the East End is remarkably cool, but it’s hard not to see some of it (or at least the hype surrounding it, including, uhhhm, tourism) as an inadvertent preamble to the bad, late stages of gentrification.

A few of us also got to visit the British Library later in the day. Frankly, I don’t have the words to express how that felt–not right now, at least. Completely overwhelming. I had to stop to catch my breath every few minutes. I mean, Wow.


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