Social Policy: From the Victorians to the Present Day
Susannah Morris

Session 4 Regeneration in the East End

Intro Session 1 Session 2 Session 3 Session 5

The urban landscape of the East End has been shaped by the aims and aspirations of different waves of migrants, social reformers and investors. Property has a longer lifespan than those who build it or live and work within it; thus its physical presence often outlives its social usefulness. Either the building is adapted to meet the changing demands placed on it, or it descends into a state of decay and dereliction. Some of Spitalfields' old buildings have survived to fulfil new purposes, while others have been demolished to make way for modern buildings that in some cases are designed to meet old needs in new ways.

The Soup Kitchen in Brune Street was erected by the Jewish community in 1902 to provide charitable support for Jewish immigrants to the area. Its ornate fašade testified to the wealth of some sections of the Jewish community, offering inspiration to their less fortunate co-religionists that with hard work and determination their living conditions could be improved. The poor of the area were not the only constituency for whom this building was intended. It also testified to East End Gentiles that the Jewish community could provide for its own, acting as a rebuttal to accusations that each new wave of Jewish migrants, fleeing the persecution of the pogroms, equated to an extra penny on the poor rates. Once their economic prospects improved and many Jewish migrants had moved away from the area, the building stood empty for years--a ghostly shadow, quietly reminding passers-by of the earlier residents of Spitalfields.

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enlargeIllustration of an East End Soup Kitchen.

Soup kitchens were common in the East End of London. The were mainly run by charitable organisations such as the Salvation Army or individual Jewish charities. The Soup Kitchen in Brune Street was erected by the Jewish community in 1902 to provide charitable support for Jewish immigrants to the area.

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enlargeThe Old Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune Street

The ornate fašade of the Soup Kitchen testified to the wealth of some sections of the Jewish community, offering inspiration to their less fortunate co-religionists that with hard work and determination their living conditions could be improved. Today, the elegance is being exploited in favour of highly paid City workers, looking for somewhere to live.

In the late 1990s, however, a commercial developer spotted the potential of the Soup Kitchen, realising its elegant fašade and proximity to the City provided a prime location for exclusive and expensive flats. Thus this old building has a new message about the community of interest between investors seeking development sites in and around the City and highly paid City workers who have discovered the convenience of Spitalfields as a base from which to walk to work. Whether such schemes will aid the regeneration of this area in the medium to long term, however, depends on the extent to which the relative affluence of these new residents can be shared with the majority of the existing community descended from the previous waves of migrants to the area.

Regenerating the community
Bangladeshis make up over 60 percent of the population of Spitalfields, an area in which there is an unemployment rate of over 30 percent. Without employment, the newly discovered desirability of the area is a mixed blessing for existing residents. Demand for housing from affluent young-professionals and demand for sites for commercial development combine to force up property prices.

The Manhattan Loft Corporation has purchased a group of buildings, including the former Catholic Shelter for the homeless in Gun Street, as part of a redevelopment scheme to provide office space close to the financial heart of the City. While such schemes may contribute to the local economy in terms of the need for local food and office supplies, they may only provide direct employment for a limited number of the unemployed residents of the area. A significant minority of the Bangladeshi community lack the qualifications and language skills required to gain the comparatively high-paid office jobs needed if they are to afford to live in newly desirable developments such as the Brune Street flats.

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enlargeThe Brune Street Estate

Opposite the old Jewish Soup Kitchen on Brune street is the Brune Street estate: modern council housing for East Enders. Regeneration has overhauled the soup kitchen on the other side of this road, which also provides accomodation for wealthy private investors. Nevertheless, the new more privileged occupants of the soup kitchen have a constant reminder of how most live in their area.

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enlargeSigns of the Bangladeshi community

The Bangladeshi community came to the East End and settled in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. For the most part they took over existing residential and industrial structures, carrying on the tailoring workshops of the previous Jewish settlers. Bangladeshis make up over 60 percent of the population of Spitalfields, an area in which there is an unemployment rate of over 30 percent.

Without careful management, redevelopment schemes can act as a divisive force, creating inequality not cohesion. This is the potential paradox of regeneration: investment in the area may encourage migration to the area from more affluent groups, raising prices and thereby placing good property even further beyond the reach of the existing population. Regeneration is thus a multi-agency task that needs to include voluntary and public sector agencies to ensure that residents are provided with the skills and resources they need to seize the economic opportunities that may be provided by private sector investment in an area. To this end, the local authority, central government and the European Commission are all working with community groups and private investors in this small part of the East End.

While some old buildings have been granted new leases of life by switching from commercial to residential use, or vice versa, the continued need to provide low-cost housing in the area has resulted in the demolition of many old dwellings to make way for new housing.

The economic factor
Economics is therefore one determinant of whether a building lives or dies in the long run: Does it cost more to pull it down and start again or to refurbish and adapt? Property, however, is more than simply a financial investment: it provides shelter that shapes the lives of those who dwell and work in and around it. This dual dimension of property--its characteristics as both an investment and consumption good--may result in conflict between the competing interests of capital and community.

Thinking Points
  • To what extent do you think social problems are social constructions?
  • Do you think social problems are combated most effectively individually or as part of a wider policy against social exclusion?
Spitalfields Market provides us with a prime example of the difficulties inherent in meeting the competing interests of commerce and the community. There has been a market on this site for centuries; the present building was opened in 1928 as a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, supplying food for the East End as Covent Garden did for the West End. As with Covent Garden, this market relocated out of the centre of London to connect to the transport infrastructure needed to meet the needs of the geographically dispersed population of London. The building left behind was gradually adapted to fulfil a new use, providing arts and crafts shops, bars and stalls, a sports pitch and the venue for an annual arts festival. These facilities are enjoyed by the local community and others who flock to the bustling market which again occupies this site at weekends.

However, the City Corporation, as the freeholder, also has designs on Spitalfields Market. To consolidate its position as the financial heart of the City, in the light of the threat posed by the development of Docklands, plans have been drawn up to provide new offices and trading floors for the institutions of the City, including the London International Financial Futures Exchange. Local residents and others who enjoy this community space have objected to the demolition of the market buildings and waged a campaign to save Spitalfields as a community market, rather than develop it as a financial commodities market.

regeneration in spitalfields
Sarah Leach, LSE

The area around Spitalfields Market has witnessed considerable regeneration. The reflection in the office blocks opposite the community market, shows land being cleared for construction of yet more office blocks.

The local residents who make use of this space have objected to the destruction of the market and set up a campaign to save Spitalfields from what they perceive to be the wrong kind of regeneration.

Recognising that some degree of redevelopment may be inevitable, they have commissioned an alternative plan to erect a development above the existing buildings so that both the City and the community can continue to enjoy this space. Some argue that the costs of such an adventurous design may be more than offset by the benefits this design could bring to the local community, maintaining and enhancing the social and cultural life of the area while still meeting the needs of their neighbours in the City. Thus regeneration of the area involves a careful balancing act if both social and economic conditions are to be enhanced.

Session 5