As a parent I find it important to show my children that the world is not just clean and easy and comfortable. They need to remember that there are also more difficult places around us, some of them just a couple of steps from where we walk every day.
I find that London is a city where you can do exactly that – in a fun and positive way. The city is big enough to be the home to a wide variety of people: royals and millionaires live here side by side with beggars, criminals and outcasts. It is easy to make out the first, just take a tourist bus and you are shown exclusive and unaffordable areas like Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea.
The Evolution of Shoreditch
However, take the tube and head to the East End for a very different experience altogether. Don’t worry, it is fairly safe to do so. In fact, with rising rents and a dynamic economy the eastern parts of London seem to gentrify at a neck-breaking speed. Mind you, my children didn’t notice this swing towards a more affluent way of living when we visited. You could clearly make out their discomfort at the sight of piling trash bags, rotten backyards, and clearly disfunctional people around them.
I did say that you can provide this well-rounded picture of London in a fun and positive way, didn’t I? It is quite easy to do. The best way to explore these grittier parts of the British capital is by going on a hunt for street art. Because creativity and poverty tend to go hand in hand. And Shoreditch in London’s east is probably one of the best places on earth to discover some amazing street art.
There is no direct tube route to the core of Shoreditch, so we start our journey from Liverpool Street Station. Which is nice as it slowly introduces us to the borough, the atmosphere of urban decay with a few glimpses of hope. We come past a street market – Petticoat Lane Market – nothing fancy by any means but a wonderful collection of extremely wearable clothes. We see shirts and skirts for less than five pounds, walk past exotic street food vendors, marvel at the mix of people that shine in their different skin colours.
The Best Street Art around Brick Lane
Our base will be Brick Lane, that old thoroughfare which has always been the home of refugees and outcasts, the poor and the disadvantaged. Yes, you can see how times are changing here. Indian restaurants appeal to the tourists with their multi-award winning menus. The local church has long been transformed into a mosque, the – Old Truman Brewery – is now a market and a hipster’s paradise. Yet, the changes are subtle, the aura of a poverty stricken, struggling neighbourhood is still felt everywhere.
We work ourselves up from south to north, weaving through the side streets like on a shuttle across a loom. For the children, it is an exciting treasure hunt. Street art can be big and bold – we see massive murals that cover whole house fronts and backyard walls. It can also be hidden away from view, daring you to enter secret alleys and overcome your fears of invading more private spaces. A lot of artwork is tongue-in-cheek, funny or itsy-bitsy small: the kids are the most talented in making out these evasive pieces.
A Community Garden Beyond the Tracks
We end our exploration with a trip to the Nomadic Community Garden. It is just behind the train tracks, through an unassuming gate and locked away from the traffic and noise of the big city. It’s a touching community project, one that is only temporary and that may be gone as early as next year. Like a fragile flower it stubbornly plants its feet firmly on the ground, against the odds and in silent protest to further development of the area. We enjoy a piece of cake in this urban garden, the kids play on the beached boat that now has a second life as play equipment.
Further into the garden, we see flower beds and veggie patches. Local artwork, put together with cheap material found in the skip bin. Handmade benches and stools, little cabins to store tools. The kids from the area hang out here, under the grey July skies, smoking pot and enjoying each other’s company. My children don’t recognise the pot but they see that these people love their neighbourhood. They do whatever they can to transform a derelict and neglected place into something that everyone can enjoy. It is heartwarming to see.
We finish our visit to Shoreditch with a dinner at a local curry house and a walk across the Old Spitalfields Market which is now no longer old but shiny and new and posh. Developers have certainly arrived here and have sucked out all the soul and spirit by replacing it with concrete, glass and generic modern architecture.
The children feel more comfortable here, but they have learned some important lessons along the way. I hope to see them grow into kind and caring individuals.