London is a city I still can’t quite put my finger on. Mainly, it’s so enormous that it seems impossible to try to think about it as one solitary entity. I am always shocked by how long it takes to traverse the city on bus or underground, making me evermore grateful for how everything in Paris is relatively close in comparison (people still get lazy in their respective quartiers, but it doesn’t usually take more than 20-30 minutes to cross the city on public transport.) And unlike Paris which has a definitive boulevard péripherique, London has no clear borders. It’s easy to tell that people aren’t always sure whether a certain neighborhood is in or outside of London. Perhaps it’s “outer London”? Not that it really matters. Though I do think that because of its much higher population and the gigantic, nebulous land area that London inhabits, certain neighborhoods can appear much more distinctive when traveling between them. In Paris it’s often just a matter of turning a street corner to find a completely new socio-economic/demographic/cultural makeup; in London you may have to travel farther, but the feeling of coming across a world-within-a-world is more apparent.
The world of central London has often left me a little at odds. Parts seem too commercial, like Times Square, or too bourgeois, like Paris’ Opéra quarter. The national monuments just don’t strike me with the same unapologetic romanticism as they do in Paris. I was eager to find neighborhoods a little off the beaten path that might interest me more. So last time I visited, Gary and I looked for something a little different to do on a (yep) rainy day and settled on a free “alternative” tour of East London. We braved the lightly sprinkling rain as our guide showed us old markers in the road that serve as the border between the City of London and East London (another system of borders I still don’t understand) and off we went to explore Brick Lane and the surrounding area. Besides being the site of what is probably the highest concentration of curry houses in the world, this neighborhood has been home to many different groups and immigrant communities. For one reason or another, it has also served as a chosen canvas for the incredible work of local and international street artists.
The Brick Lane Masjid, or mosque, is a perfect example of East London’s layered mulit-cultural history. Built in 1743 as a Protestant chapel for French Hugeunots who had escaped persecution in France, it was later adopted as a synagogue for Jewish refugees and finally as a mosque for the growing Bangladeshi community.
We saw a few pieces by a Belgian artist named Roa, who primarily paints giant black-and-white animals on the sides of buildings. This recent and particularly haunting piece is in color, though. Gotta wonder if he’s a vegetarian.
This artist whose name I forget does a lot of work in the area. Here he painted a young Bangladeshi girl to represent the community. Gary told me he went back a couple weeks later and was surprised to find the beautiful painting had been replaced with the faces of two men who appear to be yelling. That’s the nature of street art, though. An artist may claim a space by painting an entire wall with a particular image, but once it’s finished, s/he surrenders it to the community–to be interpreted, maybe transformed, maybe destroyed.
A very textured portrait by Portuguese artist Vhils.
We stopped in this parking lot as our guide told us about the dangerous consequences street artists face for their work, even in a city like London where so many people seem to appreciate the art. Many artists have served extensive jail time for doing what they do. He also explained the difference between “street art” and “graffiti” or “tagging,” shown above. He seemed to have very distinct definitions of each, though I’m not so sure the difference is always black and white. (Or in color or spraypainted or pasted on.) Finally, he told us about gentrification of the area and how it is transforming at an incredibly rapid pace. The Olympics are playing a large role in this, as poorer residents are being pushed out to make way for new high-end housing complexes that will house wealthy guests arriving this summer for the world’s largest sporting event. It was true that on our walk there were many buildings under construction. In the above picture you can see the contrast between the shiny new building on the left and the older more rundown building on the right. A community under threat.
It took me months of living in Paris before the various fragments and images of the city I had floating in my head finally began to fit themselves together. I am far from reaching any kind of clear big picture of London. But East London, with its unique history and rapidly-changing landscape, is one puzzle piece I’m grateful to know now.