Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Many Layers of Bethnal Green: From Murderous Slum to the Up-and-Come

Bethnal Green, London, United Kingdom
When you live in a place for almost four months, you get to know it.
Bethnal Green, in East London, has had a tumultuous history but is on the up-and-up. A decline in the weaving trade led to riots and two weavers being hanged outside the Salmon and Ball pub for ripping off their customers in 1769. This pub is still in business, and I would see it every day I went to the Tube station. Fun fact: 1769 is the year that Captain Cook sighted New Zealand. Funny, how history works.

By the end of 1800's, Bethnal Green was one of London's poorest slums, and Jack the Ripper infamously did his killings here and in the neighboring suburb of Whitechapel. World War II had a huge impact: it's estimated that 80 bombs fell on Bethnal Green, leading to nearly one thousand deaths and injuries, plus terrible damage to homes and businesses.

A memorial has been erected to honour "the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War": the Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster. It's a horrific story of how, on 3 March 1943, an air raid warning sounded and hundreds of civilians rushed into the unfinished Tube station to take cover. There were far too many people crammed in already, and one woman tripped on the stairs, causing the crowds thronging in behind from the stairs to fall as well. This led to a suffocating pile-up in which 173 people were killed.

This was the Tube entrance where the disaster occurred. The memorial has several plaques that share survivor's stories. I'm going to transcribe Margaret Mckay's here as I found it particularly saddening:
"My mother, Ellen Ridgway, was trapped in the crush and her last act was to ensure my safety. She held me aloft above the crush so that a policeman could reach out and grab me. I was the youngest survivor but the emptiness of not having a mother's love and guidance will never leave me."

In the 1950's and 60's, the gangster Kray twins were prominent figures in the London underworld. They were nightclub owners who soiréed with such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, but it all started when they purchased a snooker club in Bethnal Green. (I don't know where the club was, but here's a picture of the main road through the suburb - Bethnal Green Road. While not exactly attractive, it was charming in its own way.) You can even visit the site of their childhood home at 178 Vallance Road, which is just across the park Weavers Fields from where we were living.
In recent years, the suburb has seen an upswing away from slum status, gangster takeover and wartime desolation. Since the early 2000's, Bethnal Green had been in the process of gentrification, attracting more wealthy residents due to its close proximity to the centre of the city. Though you can still see the odd abandoned building as you walk down the street, it doesn't feel like an unsafe place, and actually reminded me of Newtown in Wellington where I lived during my uni years. This feeling is definitely influenced by the rich cultural diversity, which is bolstered by the large Bangladeshi population. Every day, the footpath would be lined with market stalls, vendors selling everything from clothing to vapes to fruit. And there were so many permanent fruit and veggie shops as well! Any time you'd walk down the street there would be a paradise of watermelons, cherries and nectarines that would be calling out to you with their bright colours "I'm ripe! I'm in season! Don't you want to take a bite?"

The street art in the area was next level!

There were also loads of parks in easy walking distance, which were starting to be covered in fallen autumn leaves. The one pictured above is the Museum Gardens, so named as it's right next to the V&A Museum of Childhood, which we forgot to visit. Yannick and I would sometimes shoot hoops at the Bethnal Green Gardens, as they had a few basketball hoops (and I would watch squirrels there too as they squirreled around being adorable). A twenty-minute walk will take you to Victoria Park, which is enormous and popular with dog walkers. It's a good place for a picnic or a go in a paddleboat.
Maybe it's just because I spent so much time there letting Bethnal Green grow on me, but I really think it's one of my favourite suburbs. No, it doesn't have a great food scene, and no, there aren't a lot of events going on there. I can't pinpoint exactly why I like it - there's some inexplicable atmosphere. You'll just have to go and see for yourself.

Today's post was almost called: Never Mind Squirtle, this Park has Squirrels!