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Spitalfields gets into the mix
Spitalfields gets into the mix
Published FT October 6 2006

Eight hundred years ago, London’s Spitalfields was as it was named: fields belonging to the priory hospital just outside the city walls.

It only became part of the capital’s urban sprawl after the Great Fire in 1666, when it was transformed into a thriving Georgian new town with elegant townhouses accommodating 20,000 inhabitants. This was capped off in 1729 by a Nicholas Hawksmoor church built as a part of a scheme to improve dangerously heathen areas of the capital and Christchurch’s spire came to symbolise early 18th-century regeneration.

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By the late 19th century, however, the East End had fallen into decline. In 1903, shortly after Jack the Ripper had notoriously stalked its streets, Jack London described a visit to Christchurch’s garden, or “Itchy Park” as it was then nicknamed, in his book People of the Abyss : “On benches on either side arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity?.?.?.?a welter of rags and filth.”

Still, over the years, Spitalfields’s central location continued to attract waves of refugees from abroad: first French Huguenots, who established a prosperous silk weaving industry, creating extraordinary fabric in attics with long lines of windows for maximum light; later Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe. Most recently, a large Bangladeshi community has settled. The Huguenot church, which became a synagogue, is now a mosque and today Brick Lane’s vibrant curry houses and annual festivals are a tribute to culture imported from Bengal. The area is now officially called Spitalfields and Banglatown.

Since the late 1970s, developers have been circling too, keen to exploit Spitalfields’ proximity to the City, wiping out what has been a historically poor area and replacing it with gleaming office buildings. Uber-plans for the area have centred on the closure of the old fruit and vegetable market, with two other large sites, the Truman brewery and Bishopsgate Goodsyard, often thrown in for good measure.

In 1980, the architect Richard MacCormac took a group of students to the Venice Bienniale with models of possibilities made from sheets of lasagne. He wanted to illustrate layers not of history but of construction – a plea for mixed-use development rather than monoculture. A MacCormac scheme for Spitalfields market did eventually receive planning permission but, due to the early-1990s recession, the current redevelopment bears little relation to it, even after the overhaul of nearby Liverpool Street train station.

While plans were on hold, stall traders made a go of the available market space. The Truman brewery site was bought by a private developer who rented chunks of it to a young, lively fashion crowd. Industrial spaces – the tannery, the tobacco factory, even the old soup kitchen – were converted into blocks of flats that became popular with City bankers. And The Spitalfields Trust continued a crusade launched in 1975, rescuing decrepit houses and selling them to sympathetic private owners with a passion for restoring.

The latest addition to the neighbourhood is more controversial: a new office building on the western end of the market, which will soon be occupied by law firm Allen & Overy. Already its ground floor has filled with swanky new shops, including Oliviers & Co, and restaurants, such as Terence Conran’s Canteen.

Thus, a century after London wrote of a “half a dozen men sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another” in Christchurch’s garden, you’re now more likely to see passing businessmen, trendy shoppers en route to art and design exhibitions or suited concertgoers clutching programmes to the upmarket Spitalfields Festival, which the church hosts in summer.

Has Spitalfields finally succeeded in rescuing itself from poverty?

“People get better coming here,” says artist Tracey Emin, who has her home and studio in the area. “It’s a good place for outsiders.”

Robert Shackleton’s house typifies the area’s 21st-century transformation. When he bought it 18 years ago, “internal doors were all nailed up and in one room we found a whole collection of collapsible top hats and even some matchsellers’ trays,” he says. There was a chalk line up the centre of the stairs so that the two previous owners could negotiate the treads in the semi-darkness, and, across the street, empty houses stood next to bombed out plots. Now, his house is regularly used as a television and film set for period dramas, although he has tastefully kept its air of former shabbiness.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, fresh gloss paint graces front doors and heritage colours adorn the shutters in a token nod to the Spitalfields of old. Inside, houses have been renovated, the panelling repaired and workshop studios in the back gardens transformed into designer kitchens. But echoes of the past linger: Lenin held meetings in the front room of one house; Lionel Bart lived in another. The older homes are “very sought after,” says Jeremy Tarn of Tarn and Tarn, the estate agency, which has operated in Spitalfields for three generations. “I always tell my clients you’re buying a piece of history”.

Those who got in at the beginning have been delighted with their investment. “St George’s was the first big residential developers to spot the potential of the area,” in 1996, selling flats on the north side of the market, says Hardy Sohonpal of Carrington estate agency. “A one-bedroom flat would sell for around £160,000 in 1998, now they’re going for £290,000,” says Narjeet Sohonpal, also of Carrington. Townhouses like Shackleton’s now change hands for well over £1m.

Not surprisingly, more developers are moving in. Hammerson’s has new residential blocks planned and Ballymore is renovating 40,000 sq ft of retail space within the listed Horner Buildings, making the market hall permanen and adding four new pavilions, as well as sponsoring Kinetica, a museum of kinetic art, which opened on Friday. The steel frame of the Broadgate Tower is soaring into the sky and construction of the East London Line extension, which is expected to transform much of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site, is under way, although a listed viaduct at its centre and the dissection by rail lines make parts of it tricky to build on.

For some Spitalfields residents, however, the most recent construction and the sharp increases in housing prices over the last decade are a regeneration step too far. “We can’t let everywhere be taken over by chain stores and offices,” says Jeanette Winterson, landlady to upmarket delicatessen Verde and Co, one of the independent retailers in a Georgian terraced row on the south side of the market. Next door, at A Gold, Ian and Safir Thomas, sell English goods and down the street Peter and Kay Sinden serve home-made food from the Market Coffee House.

There is also tension between the demands of the Bangladeshi community, who require large affordable family units to relieve overcrowding, and property companies who favour more lucrative two-bedroom pieds-à-terre. An £8.5m community payment resulting from the market development project is yet to be spent by Tower Hamlets council and the spectre of Crossrail – an cross-London railway that would involve some demolition in the area – still looms.

Dan Cruickshank, an architectural-historian-turned-television-presenter and local resident, is, in many ways, a founding father of the modern Spitalfields, having helped prevent much of the area from being razed in the 1970s. His book The Rape of Britain , documenting the demolition of historic areas around the UK, moved one reader to donate £10,000 to The Spitalfields Trust and it funded the group’s first purchase of Georgian house on Fournier Street. Now, however, Cruickshank, is worried. “I appreciate the life that has been brought to the area but I’m upset because it could all have turned out so differently,” he says, wincing at new glass-and-steel office blocks that he regards as architecturally crude and insensitive.

As a melting pot of contemporary ideas, Spitalfields is an area unlike any other. Sipping coffee in the newly opened Patisserie Valerie, looking out across the well-scrubbed granite paved corporate plaza, one can still – just barely – imagine the fires that tramps kept going with wooden palettes from the former vegetable market, the monastery hospital with its charnel house and before that the fields.

Tarn & Tarn , tel, 44 (0)20 -7377 8989

Carrington , tel: 44 (0)20-7247 4002
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