The New London

It’s pop quiz time: How well do you know London?

By: By David Swanson


The 142-room Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf was one of the first hotels in the revitalized Docklands area. Delivering the requisite Four Seasons essentials — oversized rooms (by London standards), black walnut accents, swank bathrooms and deferential service — the location is quiet and relaxed compared to the frenzy of hotels sitting in the heart of London, yet just a 25-minute ferry ride from Waterloo station; the West End is also a 20-minute tube ride on the Jubilee Line.

Rates are considerably lower than comparable hotels in central London.


Graffiti artist Banksy's artwork on display in Shoreditch // (c) David Swanson 2008It’s pop quiz time: How well do you know London?

The O2 — the arena formerly known as the Millennium Dome, where Prince played a 21-night stand last summer for a capacity crowd of 20,000 nightly — is located where? What part of London is loaded with the city’s trendiest clubs and bars? Celeb chef Gordon Ramsay chose what neighborhood for his latest venture? And in what part of London will the 2012 Olympics be concentrated?

If you answered the East End to any of these, you’re ahead of the game.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with the area. Maybe they recall a reference in the 1980’s Pet Shop Boys disco hit, “West End Girls.” The song’s refrain gestured to the sharp distinction between the working-class East End and the sophisticated West End, home to Buckingham Palace.

True Anglophiles know the East End as squalid Jack the Ripper territory.

The area’s emergence on the tourist map is actually a renaissance of sorts. In the 1790s, when London was the busiest trading port in the world, the wharf at the Tower of London was a logjam of delayed shipments prone to piracy. A series of docks was created at a marshy bend in the river two miles downstream from the Tower; thus Canary Wharf was born.

Immediately north of the wharf, London’s East End evolved into factories and slums, while Canary Wharf thrived as a vital port until the 1960s, employing upward of 50,000 people. But when the manufacturing industry moved out of the East End and newly developed shipping container methods proved impractical on the Thames, the wharf shut down. By 1980, the surrounding area went into swift decline, a period captured in the taut Bob Hoskins-Helen Mirren gangster film, “The Long Good Friday.”

Like many cities in America during this time, London was forced to focus its sights on its blighted inner city.

“The British attitude was ‘Let’s figure out a way to repurpose the existing infrastructure and find new employment for the people living here’,” said Howard Dunbar, strategic advisor for Canary Wharf Group.

The government started the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1980, and new roads, the Docklands Light Railway and — eventually — an extension of the Jubilee Tube line went in. Architect Cesar Pelli designed Canary Wharf Tower, Britain’s tallest building, and a new financial services district emerged, with tenants such as Citigroup and Credit Suisse. A Four Seasons hotel opened in 1999, and next door, famed chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (of Nobu) debuted his second London venue, both of which boast glorious vistas of the Thames.

“In 1999, there were 15,000 people working in Canary Wharf,” explained Dunbar. “Today there are 95,000 people, with plans for 220,000 employed here by 2025.”

The London City Airport, which opened in 1986, now carries 2.5 million passengers a year. The short runway in close proximity to the city means only short-haul flights within Europe are provided, but British Airways plans to offer all-business-class service to JFK (made possible by a 40-minute outbound refueling stop), starting next year.

With the announcement that London — East London in particular — will be hosting the 2012 Olympics, guidebooks that formerly ignored everything downriver from the Tower of London are being revised to acknowledge the East End. They are encouraging readers to discover once-shabby markets like Spitalfields, where Madonna and Johnny Depp have been lured to the Friday fashion stalls, and the Museum in Docklands, which is hosting a Jack the Ripper exhibit through Nov. 2. And foodies are headed for Ramsay’s new gastropub, The Narrow, where traditional pub fare gets a spirited recharge against a backdrop of the Thames.

Guidebooks suggest getting off the Tube at the Old Street station, where one is plunged into Hoxton and Shoreditch, the heart of London’s contemporary art scene and home to dozens of art galleries led by White Cube (representing the likes of Damien Hirst and Chuck Close). The area around Hoxton Square sparkles with playful graffiti art — paintings and brick wall “canvases” by the elusive Banksy are being collected by pop stars like Angelina Jolie.

Venture east of Liverpool Street Station for London’s trendiest clubs. Loungelover, a former meatpacking warehouse, has been converted to a campy bar with a heady cocktail list. I ordered a Chili ‘n’ Chocolate martini — a bracing dessert — and wallowed in the quirky decor. Junior sophisticates may appreciate East Room, where a smart wine list is dispensed by the glass from “enomatic machines,” designed to protect character and flavor of high-end Australian and other New World wines.

No wonder Lonely Planet’s 2008 London City Guide calls the East End the “real” London.

“A few years ago, the West End had a lot of the draw cards for Londoners and visitors alike. Now its position is being challenged on every level,” writes author Steve Fallon.

Look out West End girls. East End boys are about to become all the rage.