I recently returned home to London’s East End, an area widely known for its slums and extreme poverty. This area was heavily bombed during WWII. As a young teenager in the 1970s, when IRA bombs were exploding all over Britain and the Sex Pistols were causing havoc, I played on bombsites infested with rats the size of small cats. I was not cognizant of the fact that families had lost their homes and lives in the rubble beneath my feet.
I would kick the dirt with my Clarks shoes, part of the unofficial school uniform of the kids in my neighborhood. Me, and my friends, were working-class, and poor, mostly children of Irish, African, Caribbean, and Indian immigrants. We kicked the earth together and rarely kicked each other. We knew we were in this together. We ran into the railway arches, as our parents screamed our names to get inside, our ears clipped as we did.
The East End was our home. Our only investment was our survival. I lost touch with the friends on my street, as the bulldozers came demolishing our homes officially branded as slums by the local government. We were re-housed into Council estates and faraway places, like Essex. I wonder where those friends are now and what stories they would tell of our childhoods, scuffing up our shoes on playgrounds of a lost history now buried under expensive condos.
I bought my first home, not as a financial investment, but as a necessity to get my children out of the slums. The converted loft, in a four story Victorian, cost a hefty sum of 36,000 pounds in 1985. My husband and I had 3,000 in savings, which covered the down payment. Our new home, unlike the one we left, had an inside bathroom and central heat. A luxury. Interests rates were low, making our first-home purchase possible. Margaret Thatcher ruled with an iron fist. The nation witnessed the police brutality enforced on the striking coal miners. Their blackened faces, and infected lungs, reminded the rest of us of how lucky we were, especially the ones, like us, who had obtained mortgages. Within a year interest rates had risen to 18%. Property speculators moved in with a vengeance, buying homes once belonging to working families. We scrabbled the payments together and avoided foreclosure until a couple of years later.
I reflect on the changing face of the East End, as I click my heels at the edge of the pedestrian crossing at the end of my mum’s road. A car immediately stopped, a brand new Bentley, one of the most expensive cars in the world. Driven in an area where many children are still living in poverty. The End Child Poverty website states, “Hackney has one of the highest rates of child poverty in London. It is ranked as the most deprived borough in London. Moreover, it is the most deprived nationally. Particular issues that Hackney faces include high levels of unemployment, crime and a poor living environment.” Hackney and Bethnal Green are listed under the top 20 Parliamentary Constituencies with the highest levels of child poverty in the UK: in 2013- 41% of children in Hackney and 49% of children in Bethnal Green were living in poverty.
My mum lives in a house worth “a million squids,” as my father used to say. She doesn’t own it, because she could never afford to buy, even when houses were, “as cheap as chips in the East End.” A three-minute walk from her house is London Fields, which is filled with hipsters, and their barbeques, on beautiful English summer days. A friend from childhood remarked, “ya can’t even see a blade ov grass, wev’ all those ‘ipsters who look like they’re in Al-Queda, or somefink, wev’ their long beards!” In 2010, on one of those lovely sunny afternoons, a sunbather was seriously injured while picnicking in the park; the park I stroll to the organic café for my almond milk latte. The Guardian’s headline read, “ London Fields shooting likened to Los Angeles gang wars.” The crime and poverty will never deter the investors, or myself, because the East End will always be my home.