My history professor tends to over-sell stuff. He made Belgium seem like a foodie paradise, and while the food was good, the sausage that made me sick was at his recommendation. Even so, I had heard from multiple people besides him of the glories of Brick Lane’s Sunday market. I was determined to go before I left the city.
My professor had given everyone in my class a three page walking tour of the market, explaining the ins and outs of all the goodies and treats contained within and down various side streets. His guide made the place seem like an underground, little known piece of London. Somewhere where real Londoners go and you can still find cheap hidden treasures. You can probably see where this is going…
He didn’t mention that, while Brick Lane is certainly not as touristy as Portobello Road, in some ways it’s certainly getting there, especially if you enter though Spitalfields Market: a modern, refurbished mecca of pricey craft goods, mixed with Chinese knockoffs. Then, actually on Brick Lane proper is the market contained within a glass fronted former car showroom that is comprised of an amazing variety of food stalls (everything from Ethiopian to Mexican to Japanese) and craftier, hipster-y stalls. If you continue walking down the street you’ll encounter simply beautiful street art and countless vintage stores, all full of obnoxiously cool hipsters doing their weekly shopping.
Don’t get me wrong. It was fun walking past those artsy-fartsy stalls and admiring the cool, chic jewelry and handmade clothing. The smells from the food stalls were amazing and I only wish I could eat there every day. I had a blast ogling the vintage (which was mostly from the 80s) and wishing I had more money and room in my suitcase. But I still felt like my professor was describing something that didn’t exist anymore. That this little bit of “real London” was really just some part of an imaginary past.
But then I walked down Sclater street, and things were pretty much exactly as he described:
“On your left it is a bit complicated to explain (you’ll see why when you get there) because folks are selling everything from stolen bicycles and pornographic DVDs…and there’s masses of electrical and hardware stuff…and thereabouts you’ll find household stuff…If by now you’ve managed to resist buying anything and becoming mega obese by munching your way through the food you’ve encountered, go further along Sclater Street, past the stalls selling tools, electrical garbage, fishing rods, and seafood, to Fruit and Vegetable land, actually a BIG stall, selling (at £1 per bowl) MASSES and MASSES of fruit and vegetables…”
It was definitely much poorer there. The stalls were grittier, more haphazardly put together. The things they sold were secondhand, but not in the cool, hip sense. By secondhand here, I mean things that are used and bent and torn. You see people from Brick Lane, the tourists and the hipsters, wandering down here but they stick out amongst the poorer people who are trying to get a deal not because they can but because they simply don’t have much money to their name.
The thing with Shoreditch, the neighborhood in which Brick Lane sits, is that it is a neighborhood in transition. The locals are slowly being priced out and the hipsters are slowly moving in. I’m from Austin, Texas, which is increasingly becoming the hipster capital of the south, so I know what I’m talking about. It’s gentrification pure and simple. But it’s happening gradually, so you got these little pockets of the old Shoreditch, with its dirt and its poverty, right next to hip vintage stores and cafés that sells only organic cups of coffee.
Now that I think about it, in general, my professor was right in describing this place as a piece of the real London. You simply can’t get this same mixture of diversity and tourist anywhere else.