The walk from Hackney Wick to Stratford via Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was enjoyable, even for a cynic. I’d drank an over-priced flat white in a canal-side cafe before setting off, as good a signal as any that Hackney Wick was rapidly going up in the world. On the walk from the station amid streets of small workshops and walls full of graffiti were the inevitable new builds with their grey cladding and wooden slats that looked dull even in the sunshine. And there, behind some Victorian buildings, a corner of the Olympic Stadium loomed suddenly into view. Stratford was somewhere that way, then.
I made my way to the park’s entrance, passing a couple of people on bikes. It was around 11 and there was hardly anyone about and the silence and sudden wide expanse were a pleasant surprise. Although work in progress, the park was attractively landscaped and the new housing blocks – the former Olympic athletes village – that have occupied so much shrieking advertising space in the Evening Standard property pages, seemed a long way off, as did the Westfield shopping centre, touted as Europe’s largest shopping mall. Two cheerful looking women dressed in Olympic volunteer uniforms were a reminder that the Games spirit goes on.
In his book Ghost Milk, Iain Sinclair lyrically documents the communities and landscapes that were swept aside for all this. As a student in the ‘70s, I briefly lived in a house that backed on to the River Lea in a street just before the Bow Flyover and had no desire to explore the industrial reaches of this part of Stratford. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place, which was daily assailed by the noise and fumes from the thundering traffic and the smell from a nearby glue factory. However, I used to attend parties on the 18th floor of Dennison Point, one of three tower blocks on the Carpenter’s Estate.
That day I spied the block jutting out out in the distance just beyond the wavy roof of the Aquatics Centre remembering how I would emerge from it at dawn, no longer tipsy thanks to a breakfast of sardines and Ghanaian hot pepper sauce, and into the welcome but eerie quiet of the High Street, the misnomer for the A118 dual carriageway. The blocks are part of an estate that was once home to 2,000 people and, like much social housing suddenly finding itself bang in the middle of prime land, the Carpenter’s been earmarked for redevelopment by local authority-turned property developer Newham council. However, thanks to the valiant efforts of campaign group Focus E15, its plans are mired in controversy.
Of course, the closer I got to Westfield, the more the feeling of taking a stroll in the country diminished. There seemed to be no way of avoiding the mall and soon I was in the heart of mammon without even the benefit of having money to spend. The concrete jumble of Westfield and the adjacent railway station and bus depot are now Stratford’s beating heart. In any case, Stratford Broadway was made redundant years ago by the first shopping mall, still battling away against its far flashier rival. The road dissects the town like a wide unruly river, with St John’s parish church marooned on a traffic island. The burgundy-painted Theatre Royal Stratford East looks similarly out of sorts in the designated ‘cultural quarter’ (alongside a Picture House cinema and Caribbean restaurant), where it is dwarfed by shiny but uninspiring luxury apartment blocks. Joan Littlewood would be turning in her grave.
Newham was lucky enough to be chosen as the site for the 2012 Olympics after having the good fortune of being able to share in the bonanza of the largest urban regeneration project in Western Europe thanks to former docklands that lie within its borders. Both presented it with the opportunity of transforming its status as one of the poorest boroughs in London.
I hopped on to the first bus I saw, a No 69 going to Canning Town, one of the dockside districts. The bus was soon speeding past the pleasant looking West Ham Park and into nondescript Plaistow, with its streets of small terraced houses and the council estates that replaced many of them following a post-war slum clearance programme. It had been years since I’d been down to Canning Town and my abiding memory of the place were the rows of and rows of tower blocks that stood along the highway like nine pins. While living in Stratford, I would visit a family friend who attempted to set fire to his flat in one of the high rises, Ferrier Point, and ended up in a mental ward in Goodmayes hospital. “It’s enough to drive anyone crazy,” we used to say among ourselves. Whether living in Canning Town had really triggered off his breakdown we did not know for sure, but we were all agreed it was not a place we wished to hang about in.
Many years later, my feelings hadn’t changed much. There were few people about and the main Barking Road had a subdued look about it even though it was Saturday afternoon. A pub, the Ordinance Arms, had been closed down; always a bad sign. However, it was impossible to miss the flashy apartment blocks that had just been put up, their clash of garish colours competing for attention. This was the Rathbone Market redevelopment, its two sections named Vermillion and Aurelia. That alone told you that something was not quite right.
So where was the famous Rathbone Street Market that I had heard so much about? I stopped an old lady pushing a trolley to ask where I might find it. “Over there, love,” she said pointing to a handful of stalls just across the road. “That’s all that’s left of it.” There it was in front of me, dwarfed by the new blocks on what is to become the new market square. A council estate and shops had been demolished to make way for the development, which would comprise more than 600 homes.
Later I looked up the cost of a one bedroom flat and they ranged between £325,000 and £400,000, A number of flats had been set aside as affordable but what they really meant was shared ownership, which is euphemism for getting on the property ladder without ever owning the property. There were also some to be let at market rent through housing associations. Only 40 had been earmarked for social housing, probably aimed at those displaced by the redevelopment. The other tenants had been rehoused elsewhere. No wonder the place looked so dead. “At first we supported regeneration because the area needed a lot of improvement, but it hasn’t gone the way we expected,” said the old lady shaking her head. “They don’t want working class people round here, just people with money. They’ve broken up the community, they really have.”
I walked down towards the station, passing more developments nearing completion that repeated the pattern of social cleansing. New retail units are being planned for the ground floors, and these would no doubt be reserved for high street chains so that Canning Town would end up looking like everywhere else. The big brands would put the final nail into the coffin of local businesses, which looked like they were already struggling for customers. The only sign of animation was at the tube station where the Jubilee line platform was packed solid with passengers. Was everyone trying to get to Westfield?
I took a bus instead to Silvertown, where I noticed streets of housing incongruously jammed between City Airport one end and the Tate&Lyle sugar refinery on the other. This being a Saturday, the airport was closed, a welcome break from the noise and pollution of aircraft. However true to form, Newham council has been pressing for its expansion against the wishes of the local community.
Then it was on to the North Woolwich, where the wind swept off the murky looking waters of the Thames and blew down Pier Road. There was not a soul about and I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweed rolling down the street. This was well and truly the end of the line. Further up, though, I noticed the long queue of cars waiting to get onto the Woolwich ferry, and the odd quaintness of the scene was emphasised by the redbrick tower of the entrance to the North Woolwich Foot Tunnel and the Italianate architecture of the former North Woolwich railway station nearby. Then small groups of people started arriving to catch the ferry, which had just left the south bank, at the same time as a family emerged from the foot tunnel laden with bags of shopping from the Primark in Woolwich Arsenal. I turned back, coming to the Royal Victoria Gardens, looking pretty in the late afternoon sunshine. The park leads on to a riverside path, where a group of young boys stood throwing stones.
Save for a small modern block next to the old station, now sadly bordered up, there was very little evidence of regeneration here and, despite its abandoned air, North Woolwich seemed all the better for it. I walked down to King George V DLR station through streets of low rise sixties housing. Though unremarkable they looked no worse than many of the newly built houses and flats being sold for a small fortune nearby. At least there was evidence of real life, people going in and out of shops and, that rare sight, children playing out. If I was going to stay anywhere in the former docklands, it would be here, warts and all.
I got on to the DLR, trundling past stops I had never heard of but that had become a vital lifeline to communities living there. That is an example of true regeneration. The train passed two derelict local landmarks, the Millennium Flour Mills and George’s Diner, a famous truckers’ pit stop. Although massive building work was continuing apace along the former docks, with Vermillion and Aurelia-style apartments hugging any available piece of waterfront, there still seemed a lot of heavy industry going on. These days it is a lot easier to make money out of real estate than machines and manufacture. Would these be one day swept aside in the name of regeneration, too, I wondered.
I moved into Forest Gate in the ’70s as a student and even then it was an area on the move, though what direction depended on which way you were looking. Opposite where I lived on Green St, the greengrocer was glumly telling his customers he was one of the few English-run shops left on the block. The customers frowned and tut-tutted, glancing out on the street where a group of immigrants, mostly Asians and Africans, was passing by. Just like them, “these people” had been attracted to the district by cheaper housing and jobs in the docks and local factories.
I had very little to do with the natives as they were not particularly welcoming. After all, as far as they were concerned I was just another foreigner and, in my experience, no amount of telling them I was born in Britain and in any case half white would have made any difference. I became very friendly, though, with the smiling young woman who ran the launderette below my bedsit. The hot pipes from the launderette kept my room so warm during the winter that I didn’t need much additional heating, but were a nightmare during hot summer days, so I often went downstairs in between revising to catch some breeze and chat with her. She told me she came from the Punjab and that the launderette was owned by her husband who looked after a shop nearby. She had two young children whom I at first mistook for girls – it turned out they were boys whose long hair was tied into bun in the Sikh tradition. They had huge eyes and lovely long lashes and despite the grey trousers and big shoes I still could not think of them as anything but pretty.
Green St itself was a very long road packed tight with small shops of every description and leading eventually to East Ham. There were three major landmarks on its route, the underground station at Upton Park, Queen’s Market and West Ham football stadium. Off it lay rows and rows of small terraced houses built I suppose for dock workers, and I spent a good deal of the next two years moving in and out of them as accommodation was easy to come by then. The seemingly endless grid of streets was depressingly monotonous and often lined with deformed-looking trees, which I discovered had been pollarded..
Across the main Romford Rd, where Green St began, the housing was more substantial, becoming grander the closer one got to the wild expanse of Wanstead Flats that suddenly opened up a few minutes walk from Forest Gate train station. I lived over this way, too, lodging for a time with a very large Nigerian lady and her family. She would annoy her English neighbours with the awful smell of boiling tripe but then manage to placate them by inviting them to her lively parties where she would serve them the same tripe cooked as part of a pepper soup.
Although I enjoyed my stay in Forest Gate it was more a case of despite rather than because of. The place was too far away from the centre of London for my liking and felt as dull as it looked, so when I left for the even shabbier but more interesting Whitechapel there was no looking back.
I have only recently returned and found Green St busier than ever and alot smarter. Someone talked of it being “little Southall” for the number of Asian shops, including several restaurants, some of them very upmarket looking. But for one Tesco Local, it appeared to be a chain-free zone and there was not a Starbucks or a Cafe Nero in sight. The surrounding streets looked the same, except for the ubiquitous PVC windows and satellite dishes, and cars parked bumper to bumper, so narrowing the roadway. In the posher part of Forest Gate north of the Romford Rd things were certainly looking up thanks to the imminent arrival of Crossrail. It is now one of those frequently gushed about property hotspots in the Evening Standard’s Homes and Property section and has been featured in the Let’s Move To… column in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine.
My return was prompted by a startling BBC documentary in May, The Last Whites of the East End, which was focussed on the Green St area and described how the indigenous white population was taking flight to the greener pastures of Essex just across the border. As a result, the London borough of Newham, where Forest Gate was located, had the lowest white population in England. Going by the film footage of people on the street, Muslims appeared to be the main problem, identified by their hijabs and skullcaps, though five minutes on Green St will tell you that Newham is a lot more ethnically diverse than that. But the programme chimed in so perfectly with the current EU referendum-fuelled panic over uncontrolled immigration that perhaps this was taken as a given.
Last Whites waxed lyrical about the “Cockney tribe” which has lived in the area for hundreds of years but over the last 15 has decreased by half. Upton Park at the southern end of Green St now looked more like Baghdad, according to the manager of the East Ham Working Men’s Club. Meanwhile, Leanne, whose family had lived in the area for five generations, was tearfully preparing to follow the well worn route from the East End to Essex so that her two small sons could “stick to their own”, leaving her mother and sister behind to batten down the hatches. “I want to be back to the old East London, to how it used to be, being there with our own people and fitting in again,” she added for good measure.
Even Tony, half Jamaican but very much the Englishman, had joined the white flight to Essex, although he admitted that people were giving him and his Romanian wife “that look” when they were flat hunting in Hornchurch. No doubt he would be quick to reassure them that he was one of them, despite appearances. We were meant to see such people as victims, but of course no one is forcing them to leave. The point was made half way through the programme, when at last an immigrant was allowed to have their say. Well, not an immigrant as such because Usmain was fifth generation British, his family having migrated from Bangladesh in the 1930s. Describing himself as a “proud East Ender”, he recalled how, despite the racism he suffered as a youngster, he managed to make friends with local white boys, who had now left the area. “I miss them,” he said wistfully before asking reasonably, “Instead of just migrating to Essex why don’t [they] stay here and fight for it? But they just throw their toys out of the pram [saying] everything’s been taken over by the Asians and Africans so we’re leaving!”
One of the effects of white flight is that the elderly were being left behind to fend for themselves. “My son was frightened his children weren’t getting a good education so he decided to move to Essex,” explained one woman. “Now there’s no one left to look after us.” Foreigners got the blame for everything, from pubs closing – “Muslims don’t drink” – to loss of manners and rising crime. “When you shot someone you’d apologise for it,” quipped one gent harking back no doubt to the good old days when the Krays terrorised their way round East London with their looting and shooting. “All that has totally gone now with multiculturalism,” said another.
Despite the nostalgia on display, Last Whites preferred to stay firmly in the present. For more than a century and a half, the docks had defined East End life as Britain reaped the rewards of its empire. Now they were the Docklands whose towers of steel and glass had cast a shadow over the area since the 1990s, and still do as more and more former industrial land is handed over to the private sector. The spirit of free enterprise as trumpeted by Maggie Thatcher, the prime midwife of the docklands redevelopment, has hardly touched locals by way of employment opportunities, housing and amenities, but not a word was said about this. No mention was made either of the loss of jobs and cutbacks that have taken place over decades, or the dire effects of more recent austerity measures on living standards and services.
Poverty and hardship are no strangers to East Enders, so little wonder that they have always been on the move. In the early 19th century districts like Forest Gate were regarded as pleasant suburbs that those with the means could escape to from Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Stepney. In the 1920s and ’30s the exodus to Essex began following the creation of vast housing estates like Becontree near Dagenham, and after the war to new towns like Harlow, the disruption to the neighbourhoods left behind famously documented in Young and Willmott’s Family and Kinship in the East End of London. The trend was bound to continue as dock trade dwindled in tandem with Britain’s economic decline. Run down and cheap to live in, Newham became a magnet for immigrants from the old Commonwealth in the 1960s and ’70s, and today to migrants from all over the world. But Last Whites made it appear that the newcomers were just a faceless mob who were driving the English out with their backward ways.
However, programme makers could not ignore West Ham Football Club’s decision to leave its hallowed Boleyn Ground at the other end of Green St for the Olympic Stadium. Given the central role the club plays in the life and economy of the community, the move was regarded as yet another nail in the coffin for Cockneydom and its remaining places of refuge like the aforementioned working men’s club and popular cafes like Nathan’s Pies and Eels. But Last Whites couldn’t delve too deeply into this as it would have diluted its central message about immigration. Fans, though, were well aware that the move was all about big money and deeply resented it. It would come as no surprise when violence broke out at West Ham’s last match at Boleyn and several times at the new stadium.
In the meantime, the leader of the Newham council, Robin Wales, has given his blessing to a plan to redevelop the Upton Park ground into more than 800 flats, hailing it as a chance to regenerate the area. The unspoken aim of regeneration is to attract a better class of people into one’s realm and this is borne out by the fact that there will be few homes in the scheme affordable for local people. (A few years back, Wales’ proposal to redevelop the more than century old Queen’s Market near the old West Ham stadium to make way for a 31 storey apartment block and supermarket chain Asda was quashed following local opposition.) I would take another walk down there the following year to find the stadium in the final stages of demolition to make way for Upton Gardens – ‘An exciting new destination with an impressive sporting heritage’, announced developers Barrat on their hoardings.
North of the Romford Rd, thanks to Crossrail and the housing bubble, gentrification is gathering pace and its ripple effect might one day spread south to the Green St area, further squeezing locals out. The truth is, Last Whites’ focus on immigration only told part of the story, preferring as it did to reinforce a number of racist tropes, allowing all sorts of ridiculous claims to be made; for example, “it is hard to find someone who speaks English in Newham” or to “find English people between Aldgate and Barking”.
On the other hand, you couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of those interviewed. They were genuinely upset about their loss of community, identity even, and being swept aside by events they felt they had no control of. It must be hard to be old and see your neighbourhood change beyond recognition. Unfortunately, with programmes like this to keep them in the dark they are natural voting fodder for the populist right, whose ultimate aim is to trample all over them anyway.
Whatever anyone says, Green St is still a corner of England, that much was evident as I got on the no 58 bus and travelled the two miles down to Barking Road in the slow moving traffic. The pavements were packed with shoppers that could have come from anywhere in the world, including from around the corner. The ‘lost whites’ only see foreign faces, not realising that half of them were born in England, like my Punjabi friend’s sons all those years ago, while another quarter want to make England their home.
At the bustling Queen’s Market, a fixture in Green St since 1904, there were plenty of traditional English fruit and veg traders amidst the tropical food stalls and the loads more in between selling all manner of goods. You could hardly move for all the people looking to get their bargains and it is clear the market owes its survival to residents and traders coming together to save it from the wrecking ball, not just the last whites of someone’s rose-tinted imagination. These were more likely to be in evidence on the terraces of the old West Ham stadium making monkey chants back in the day. This is England and no amount of Union Jacks and St George’s flags hanging from the odd window will change the fact that it is no longer a monocultural society. Very soon, it will not just be whites fleeing to Essex but their erstwhile neighbours, perhaps of a darker hue, wanting to move up in the world or get more for their money in terms of a roof over their head. And then what will happen? Just ask Tony.