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Travel: East London's transformation

Once the domain of Jack the Ripper and gangsters, East London Cockneys now rub shoulders with artists and middle-class professionals



When visitors to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games head from their central London hotels out to the Olympic Park, they may be surprised at how far they have to go.

Yes, they'll still be in London, but they'll travel a good way eastward, to the down-at-the-heels working-class suburb of Stratford (not to be confused with Shakespeare's "on Avon"), which not many decades ago was a mostly noxious light industrial area, and a few centuries before that a farming hamlet off in the middle of nowhere.

Today, it takes half an hour to travel from central London to Stratford on the tube (Central Line) and a little less by rail service.

Fact is, the City of London is using the much-coveted Olympic Games to reclaim and revitalize this unattractive, soil-contaminated and unvisited part of its vast metropolis.

But, in the past few decades, much the same process has taken place in what is commonly known as East London, just beyond the City of London walls (financial district).

It was here, in districts like Whitechapel and Hoxton, that Jack the Ripper made his name, and the Kray twins, Reggie and Ron, perfected a gangster lifestyle that put them in prison for murder and extortion while retaining the devotion of East London Cockneys.

Today the "gates" that once made it clear who lived inside and out (of the City) - such as Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate and Ludgate - are just names (or underground stations). "The meaning of the gates has been carted away with the brickwork," writes Ian Sinclair in his book on a still somewhat anarchist East London, Lights Out for the Territory.

Yes, today East London is hipper than hip. Thousands of artists live in Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Smithfield, Shoreditch, Hoxton and Bethnal Green. And handsome three-storey Georgian houses in the streets around Brick Lane and Liverpool Street station that a few decades ago were derelict, now cost maybe a million pounds. Said a friend from West London over cappuccino at a Whitechapel café: "Twenty-five years ago I'd never have dreamt of coming down here." Yet here we were, preparing to see the sights.

We walked past the Art-Deco Whitechapel Art Gallery (1899), into Brick Lane -still a scruffy commercial thoroughfare filled with curry restaurants and sari and fabric shops. This is Bangla Town, named for its large Bangladeshi community.

At the corner of Fournier Street stands a building "that pretty much tells you the history of the area," said my friend, an amateur historian. Built in 1743 as a chapel for Protestants from France, it eventually morphed into a Methodist church, then a synagogue for Eastern European Jews. Today it's the London Jamme Masjid ("great mosque"), serving Bengalis who mostly immigrated in the 1960s and '70s.