Redevelopment Ravages Cockney Community : Time Erodes Tough Corners in London East End

Times Staff Writer

With a quick smile and light banter, Ruby Joseph flashed a glimpse of the moxie needed to survive in the heyday of London's fabled East End.

Joseph, who has long since moved to the suburbs, leads tour groups on "cockney walks" through her old stomping grounds, but she admits that today, the East End--the heart of cockney London--is fast becoming history.

"Just about everything I point out to people, it's either 'was' or 'used to be,' " she sighed.

Although a true cockney should be born within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow--a church now in the heart of the city's financial district--London's cockney East End is usually more loosely defined to include the grime-coated tenement neighborhoods and drab industrial pockets that sprawl well east of Bow's bells and north of the Thames River.

The famous Petticoat Lane market remains, jellied eels (a favorite cockney street food) are still sold and the remnants of some cockney communities still exist, but population shifts and massive redevelopment have transformed the East End. As the financial district spreads slowly eastward, commercial areas that were once havens for London's small family trading businesses have been targeted for redevelopment.

Change has also overtaken the East End's waterfront communities like Wapping, Shadwell and the Isle of Dogs, where Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine resettled in the last century, joining locals to build and service the British Empire's merchant fleet.

The last East End dockyard closed six years ago, and now, the vast stretch of urban decay half the size of Manhattan is the center of the world's biggest inner-city renewal project--about $15 billion of high-rise office space, high-tech industry and 25,000 upscale residential housing units.

Run-down neighborhoods and seedy warehouses along the Thames have suddenly been transformed into luxury apartment complexes snapped up by well-heeled young professionals willing to pay up to $500,000 for a river view and a short walk to work in the nearby financial district.

Where hucksters and fruit vendors--more colorfully known as costers, costermongers or barrow boys--once hustled business for their next meal, yachting marinas and windsurfing clubs have sprouted.

A spokesman for the London Docklands Development Corp., which administers the huge project, describes the new residents as mainly DINKYS--standing for dual income, no kids yet.

The government expects to pump about $1 billion into the project for improved roads, a recently opened international airport and a rail rapid-transit system that links the area to the city's extensive subway network, but it is private enterprise that has provided the bulk of investment.

The much-publicized $6-billion Canary Wharf development in the old West India Docks, the showcase of the Docklands project, will offer 10 million square feet of office space when completed in the 1990s.

Native East Enders are generally unimpressed by the razzle-dazzle publicity and unsettled by the scale of development. Certainly few of those who lived there regret the passing of depressing slums, outdoor toilets and the damp winter cold. But the sense of camaraderie and shared hardship has left a strong, bittersweet nostalgia among those who experienced it.

In some areas, such as on the Isle of Dogs (an island once separated from the shore by marshland and now by the docks), veteran residents still fight a rear-guard action against redevelopment in an attempt to save that sense of community, but the pace of change points to their eventual defeat. The Isle of Dogs, because of its relative isolation, is the only cockney area where any sense of community remains.

"You can't put a value on strength of community feeling, but when it's destroyed, you can't replace it," said Ted Johns, a former longshoreman who now speaks for a group of old cockney residents, including those on the Isle of Dogs. "We'll hold on as long as we can. That's the East End way."

The East End's history is rich and varied.

Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have written several of the early Canterbury Tales while working in the area. America's Liberty Bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the 1730s.

But it was in the middle of the last century, with British imperial trade at its height and the start of the Industrial Revolution, that the East End took on its distinctive character.

As architects John Nash and Thomas Cubbit carefully laid out London's fashionable parks and squares of Belgravia and Westminster to the west, successive waves of immigrants from Ireland and the Continent settled to scrape out a new life in the sweatshops and along the docksides of the East End.

"It was a melting pot," said Aumie Shapiro, a native East Ender who now runs the Springboard Education Trust, an organization that supports the few Jewish residents who remain in the area. "There was a struggle to achieve, to get out."

For generations, the East End exuded an irrepressible verve that extended far beyond its own back alleys and side streets, bringing fresh energy to the more leisurely, genteel English existence that surrounded it.

"The cockney has a spark that doesn't exist elsewhere," said Ruby Joseph's husband, Adam. "If there has been one area of nonconformity, of unfixed opinion in this country, it's cockney London. This is where the maverick was born."

Wrote the distinguished British journalist Louis Heren, himself a cockney, about his spiritual brethren: "They gave London its special flavor, which still sets it apart from the other great cities."

It was in cockney London that Charlie Chaplin gave his first public performance and that Abe Saperstein got the first taste of a hustle that later helped him succeed with the risky idea of assembling a clowning, all-black basketball team known as the Harlem Globetrotters.

Saddled with a grating, often incomprehensible, accent in a country where the manner of speech is often more highly valued than its content, cockneys stood near the bottom of Europe's most rigid, class-conscious society. So hustle and a strong sense of humor were essential for survival.

Heren, in a recent interview, recalled how a teacher at his Shadwell school once stopped his explanation of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory and, with a wry smile, commented to the class, "But then, I don't have to tell you about survival of the fittest."

Solidarity was valued, so cockneys worked, drank and vacationed together.

"We may have been hungry but never lonely," commented one local now in his 80s.

The well-known cockney rhyming slang evolved mainly to enable East Enders to joke with impunity about their bosses and influential socialites.

Later, this slang entered the home so that a cockney talking about "trouble and strife" was referring to his wife, while something left on the "apples and pears" would be found on the stairs.

Many trace the beginning of today's transformed East End to the Nazi air raids of early World War II, which turned the docks, according to one eyewitness, into "a lake in hell." But, as British propagandists boasted at the time, the attacks failed to dent the cockney spirit.

Ripper a 'Reformer'

Noting that it was Jack the Ripper's horrific attacks on prostitutes in the dingy alleys of Whitechapel in the late 1880s that prompted improved street lighting in East End slums, one local jokingly referred to Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper as the East End's two principal reformers.

War damage, the loss of an empire and the advent of freight containerization all accelerated the decline of the East End's docks, which finally closed in 1981.

An era had ended, and so had the work. The skilled workers began drifting away.

In commercial areas such as Whitechapel, Jewish immigrants, their horizons broadened by evacuation during the war, moved up and out, taking their businesses to cheaper, more amenable suburban surroundings.

In the old Jewish enclaves around Whitechapel, once swollen by immigrants fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, only 6,000 mostly elderly Jews remain of a community once 20 times the size.

Today, another wave of immigrants, this time from Bangladesh, holds sway. What was once the area's biggest synagogue is now a mosque; kosher butchers have given way to halal meat shops, and Bengali is the new language of the sweatshops and narrow back streets.

The Docklands development and the influx of white-collar affluence have further damaged the strong cockney pride and threatened the fabric of the few remaining communities.

"You've got luxury houses on land worth ($6 million) an acre next door to run-down council (public) housing," said Tony O'Regan, an official for the area's local government body, the Tower Hamlets Council. "There's a lot of resentment because there's very little in it all for local people."

Former longshoreman Johns says that the development has forced out much of the area's remaining traditional industry and that most of the new, high-technology jobs coming into the area are beyond the reach of locals.

A confidential study carried out by Peat Marwick Consultants Ltd. for the developers reportedly found that of the 48,000 jobs envisioned for the redeveloped dock lands, locals could qualify for only 1,800, mostly in cleaning and catering.

Looking out from public housing units onto $500,000 homes and their owners' BMWs parked outside also angers many longtime residents.

Wall graffiti urging "Yuppie scum out," or bus-stop posters suggesting "Mug a yuppie," reflect this tension.

The yuppie-locals conflict has even become a backdrop for one of the country's most popular prime-time television soaps, "East Enders."

Government authorities have launched job-training schemes for locals to improve their job prospects. The Docklands Corp. also has offered many of its housing units to local residents at subsidized prices, but with land prices skyrocketing, many of these subsidies have become meaningless for anyone not already earning good money.

"This is one of the last cockney villages in London, and the kids of those who have lived here all their lives can no longer afford to start off here on their own," said Johns.

But not all feel as Johns does.

Martin Kennelly, a 34-year-old taxi driver, reminisced about the special feelings that characterized the dockers' monthly social club evenings he attended as a teen-ager, but he seemed to welcome the change.

"Sure there's a lot of resentment about what's going on, but the alternative was to let the place rot," he said. "Besides, who would think five years ago that you could water ski and windsurf in the East End docks?"

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