The just-completed Olympic Stadium is on a central axis with the eastern end of the Roman Road market which continues in an almost straight line for two and a half miles westward to Shoreditch Station. It is framed by the street and rises above the modest Victorian shops and stalls. This is part of the 8 bus route and was to have been the route for the Olympic Marathon until someone decided that the East End was not what they wanted in the background on world tv after all.
Wasn’t the Olympics meant to regenerate the East End?
Part of the more recent character of the Roman Road is that there has been no supermarket there for seven years, the nearest one is a mile and a half away on the Blackwall tunnel approach. In 2003 Safeways was taken over by Morrisons who sadly didn’t take the trouble to understand the needs of their customers, they went down-market instead of up and closed the following year. After seven years the Supermarket site is now to be taken over for housing and a mini Tescos- I for one, won’t be going there.
I do most of my food shopping from the market stalls on my daily cycle ride between home and studio. Cycling east to west, there are four traditional street-markets :- Roman Road, Globe Road, Bethnal Green and the overspill from Brick Lane at Shoreditch. Although the Roman Road Market is renowned for its cheap designer-label clothes on Saturdays the stalls are neither smart nor gentrified and mix with fruit and veg, cds and birthday cards and everything else. These markets are the everyday shopping of local people who want to shop on foot, with pushchair, by bus or by bike.
And who are the East Enders? According to Tower Hamlets Core Strategy ‘around 110 different languages are spoken by our school pupils’ and over 75% of schoolchildren in the borough speak English as a second language. This is almost double the average for London and beyond comparison with most of Britain.
Over an astonishingly brief period, I have watched the traditionally all-white East End stallholders in one of the markets embrace their multicultural customers. Now they have a constant queue, why turn customers away?
Parts of Hackney are gentrified in a way that Tower Hamlets will never be, perhaps it is historically embedded in the Victorian housing stock of larger family homes. When the middle classes started buying property in the East End 30 odd years ago, a richer middle class went to Hackney because there was no tube there and you had to have a car. Some Hackney street markets near Tower Hamlets borders have been gentrified and become village-like and I can divert my cycle ride into Shoreditch and Hackney for cheese, organics, bread and specialties.
Let us now make a returning sprint from West to East along the route that was to have been the Olympic Marathon. The new Shoreditch Station has already provided a life-changing north/south connection and is an arrival point. At Redchurch Street and Brick Lane there is a buzzing thriving community with cinemas, cafes, bars and boutiques. A superb renovation of a Georgian Terrace is underway on Bethnal Green Road to the east of this junction which was, I believe, funded by money from Section 106, English Heritage and Tower Hamlets. And there it stops. A further two miles of rundown dilapidated shops and houses continuing for two miles all the way to the end of the Roman Road and the Olympic Stadium.
At 459 Roman Road, octogenarian Mr Arber applied for a small grant from the Council and personally renovated his original shop frontage last year, he for one is ready for the Olympics, but is he alone?
Even though the marathon has been diverted to showcase picture-book London. It seems to me there is an opportunity here right now. Why not make a continuous global, multicultural market all the way from Shoreditch Station to the Olympic Stadium? Surely there is Section 106 and English Heritage money for this? Put money into the markets and the shops will follow. They should not be tourist markets but real everyday shopping for the resident East Enders, 110 cultures. It could be a celebration of Nations- isn’t that what the Olympics are all about?
Published in RIBA Journal April/May 2011 © Susanna Heron 7 April 2011 rev 9th February 2012