PRINCE CHARLES IN SPITALFIELDS
Charles Clover is surprised
to hear his neighbourhood described as appalling
THE day Prince Charles came to Princelet Street I left for work at 7.30 a.m., like all good yuppies. So it came as a surprise to read in the paper the next day that he had been in Spitalfields and that conditions in the street close by my house had appalled him. It was not so much that he had been moved by the poverty of the Bengali sweatshop workers, or the dignified Mrs Meharu Nnessa, a seamstress, living in one of the ramshackle houses in Rampart Street, that surprised me. It was that he had chosen to launch his inner city crusade here in Spitalfields at all.
For Spitalfields, as I have known it now for eight years, is untypical of the inner city. It lacks precisely the things which one thinks of in Liverpool 8, St Paul's, parts of Brixton, Peckham, Stoke Newington, even bits of Notting Hill as characterising the 'inner city'; a kind of hopeless delinquen- cy, exclusively public (and neglected) housing, poor education and unemploy- ment.
Spitalfields indeed does have housing which is Dickensian in its decrepitude, much of which is fast being improved (as I write the house shakes with the piles of more housing association flats going in). The streets are usually full of rubbish and rat-infested squalor. It is the traditional
home of the wino and derelict. But on the day Prince Charles arrived, I gather, the streets had been cleaned and the usually impassable Brick Lane was strangely emp- ty of cars. So Prince Charles missed some of the signs that Spitalfields has things which other inner cities do not. It has employment, dynamism, and for many of its Bengali and yuppie inhabitants alike, a kind of hope.
Spitalfields is a shadowland, a place at the margins, and it has been one for 300 years. It has existed without, recently despite, public housing, urban regenera- tion, or the Rent Acts. But enormous social mobility has taken place. First it was a ghetto for the prosperous Huguenot silk merchants in the 18th century. Then came the Jews, in a steady flight from the pogroms of central Europe. The benefac- tors inscribed on the walls of the 18th century synagogue in Princelet Street in- clude most of the most important Jewish families in England. Nearly all the Jews took the road to St John's Wood long ago.
A current source of tension, according to Prince Charles, are the yuppies — though this would be a misnomer for the artists, Georgian obsessives and high church homosexuals who have led the private regeneration of 18th-century Spitalfields, an area of only five streets. The yuppies, as strictly defined, looked in later — after the colour supplement articles and the pictures of Gilbert and George in the Market Cafe — to be seen off by the prices and the five years it can take to repair a house and still be out of sight of completion. As one who bought here eight years ago I can vouch that the 18th-century terraces were largely uninhabited, derelict and being allowed to fall down by landowners waiting for the City to move East. 'Yuppies' did not displace residents, as you could argue they have done in docklands, despite the mut- terings of local councillors and 'community leaders'. It is the eastwards pressure of the City which is likely to be hard on the Bengalis.
Until now it is the area's very poverty, and anarchic lack of enforcement of health and planning regulations, which have given the Bengalis a foothold. Like the Jews, the Bengalis, whose conditions so appal Prince Charles, have strong family bonds and work obsessively hard. The vast majority in Spitalfields are from Sylhet, a district in What was once part of Assam, now re- garded as the most culturally backward, if not the poorest part of Bangladesh. There are other Asians from the sub-continent in Spitalfields, Sikhs and Gujuratis who run warehouses in the fruit market, but the Sylhetis make up 95 per cent, and they tend to have the lowest aspirations. An acquaintance who speaks Slyheti tells me he stayed with a Sylheti landowner recent- ly. He paid his farm workers between £60 and £105 a year. Here the conditions, for those who have not got into the impressive array of housing association flats, being constructed off Brick Lane, are very similar. Frequently, as in their villages, families will share a room, or a bed. Frequently they will work six days a week on shifts until all hours, for those a little further up the social ladder. There are cases of extreme hardship like Mrs Nnessa, and the women as a rule tend to be unfortunate. Sylheti women are not even allowed out to do the shopping. And yet it is the picturesqueness of Spitalfields' squalor which leads it to be misunderstood. It looks like a slum, much of it is a slum, but it is a slum of a very different kind to that found in other workless, hopeless inner cities, or half a nule to the north or east. Social mobility among the Bengalis seems as good if not better than in the West Indian community, and among poor whites elsewhere. Educa- tion is rudimentary, but teachers who work here are committed, in either a political or religious sense, so turn out children who can muster the three Rs and speak in a Cockney accent. Money is made, by some, and, except for the odd quarrel, it is peaceful.
It is an unfortunate fact that the condi- tions currently in Spitalfields would be unlikely to be reproduced in any brave new East End built by Rod Hackney, Quinlan Terry or anyone else. That does not seem to prevent Prince Charles from suggesting that they will. Or getting his ideas about social problems and architecture hopeless- ly confused by backing the Quinlan Terry classically inspired scheme for the rede- signed market against another by a group led by Richard McCormack. In fact, Quin Terry's scheme is entirely comprised of offices and private housing, with, I gather, no housing association homes at all for the Bengalis. And McCormack's design was assisted by Ted Cullinan, once described by the Prince as 'my kind of architect'. There is a certain confusion in the Prince's mind as to what he is about. His crusade has started off in three directions at once, which, given the track record of crusades, is what you might expect.
Charles Clover is environment correspon- dent of the Daily Telegraph.