I give you my last five days and an introduction to my neighborhood in a photo a day:
Wednesday 26 August: Victoria Park. A short walk (or shorter run) from my flat, Victoria Park is one of the largest green spaces in the East End. Alternately known as the People's Park, it was built in 1845 to provide the Victorian working classes with their own parkland. It is a beautiful space, with manicured lawns and gardens woven through with running and walking paths.
Thursday 27 August: Regent's Canal. I don't know much of historic note about the canal, but the towpath is busy with pedestrians, runners, and cyclists, and it is a lovely place for an evening stroll.
Friday 28 August: Brick Lane. Running through Bethnal Green to Whitechapel High Street, Brick Lane is the center of my new neighborhood. It reflects in microcosm the successive waves of demographic change in the East End. The name hails from its past as a district of manufacturing, close to the wharves on the Thames. Jack the Ripper did his ripping in and around Brick Lane, and the narrow streets and architecture reflect its industrial roots.
The 19th century saw increasing Ashkenazi Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe; this period survives in the most popular bagel place in town, the 24-hour Beigel Bake. The bagels come laden with salt beef and gherkins (which are apparently not to be called pickles) and dripping with mustard. As a former New Yorker, I will say the bagels themselves are nothing to write home about-- they're sadly not water boiled, an essential component in getting the right chewy texture-- but let me not quibble with an institution.
Brick Lane in the 20th century became home to London's growing Bengali and Bangladeshi communities, some of the largest current demographic groups in Whitechapel. Brick Lane reflects this today, with street signs in Bengali, innumerable curry shops, and several mosques. The area feels very Southeast Asian, and very Muslim; some of my neighbors, and many in the crowds in Brick Lane, wear djellebas and hijabs.
The final demographic group, the 21st century's contribution to Bethnal Green, consists of people like me: young and often white students, artists, and gentrifiers, drawn by cheaper rent, multiculturalism, and an increasingly trendy art and bar scene. Brick Lane has not quite reached the level of Shoreditch, a hotbed of hipsters one neighborhood further west, but I speculate that it's only a matter of time before current residents get priced out.
Saturday 29 August: ramen. Saturday I met up with a friend from NYU, Megan, who is in London for the next month. We did touristy things (London Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St. James Park, etc). But you don't need pictures of those things-- you've seen them all already, in every movie ever made about England-- and in the interest of providing at least one picture with people in it, I give you our dinner, at a ramen place called Bone Daddies. It was delicious.
Sunday 30 August: Spitalfields City Farm. I guess cramming three pictures into one is technically cheating, but I wanted to show them all, because this was the most exciting place I've been since getting to London. An urban farm and community garden in the nearby neighborhood of Spitalfields (pronounced, unfortunately, Spittlefields), the farm is a lively place. The many concurrent projects include educational and family programs (the farm was crawling with toddlers at a birthday party when I visited); an acre and a half of garden space under cultivation; a community garden specifically for Bangladeshi women to raise culturally appropriate crops; a farmyard bustling with goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, donkeys, and a Shetland pony; apiculture; compost production; wool dying and yarn spinning; and a small cafe featuring seasonal vegetables and cheeses. It's an impressive operation. I'm hoping to start volunteering in the garden, as a way to meet people and to keep my hands in the dirt. I have the feeling that this could be a great place to get plugged in to.
Which leads us to today. It's August Bank Holiday, an annual long weekend, and there's a Caribbean festival and parade on in Notting Hill. It's been raining all morning, but if it clears up a little this afternoon I'll head over. Tomorrow evening I fly to France to spend three weeks in Bordeaux with Pierre; upon my return, school will start, and life will get real.
When it does, I'll keep you posted.