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Clare Melhuish reviewsà

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A stroll through the socioeconomic history of Spitalfields

Comic duo Alan Gilby and Steve Wells are at pains to point out that their summer tours of the 'backpassages' of Spitalfields are a very different kettle of fish from the ubiquitous Jack the Ripper walks which prowl the area. Indeed, their walk might more accurately be described as an introduction to the contemporary politics of the Spitalfields area, and the impact of gentrification on a part of the city which was historically always marginal and poor, but offered a degree of freedom from social conventions, where nonconformity could find a refuge and flourish.

As Gilby and Wells point out, Petticoat Lane was originally a Jewish market, and for that reason held on a Sunday, while Silheti sailors used to frequent the area long before the present-day Bangladeshi community found a home there. The Huguenots, fleeing persecution in France, made a good living weaving silk here, building their settlement of model houses around the church, with large windows to light the rooms better and allow the weavers to work longer hours.

An initiative by the Spitalfields Centre, to set up Europe's first museum of immigration at 19 Princelet Street, aims to preserve the memory of Spitalfields as a historic home of free-thinking and tolerance. But all that is being swept away now by the City of London's 'leap over the symbolic divide' - Bishopsgate - which separates the financial heart of London from the East End. Two years ago, according to Gilby and Wells, 'the first cappuccino was poured in Brick Lane', and, although the first fashionable boutiques to open up in Dray Walk, beside the old Truman's Brewery, 'went bust almost immediately', the cappuccino has established itself as the beverage of choice in these parts.

In the 1970s, Gilby recalls, Brick Lane was still very much associated with 'social workers going for a curry on a Friday night', but now even the Ten Bells pub (once briefly and tastelessly renamed the Jack the Ripper by its owners) beside Hawksmoor's Christchurch, has been sold for £1 million for conversion into a bar and apartments.

Similarly, the old Mission building on Gun Street, more recently a shelter for homeless people, is under conversion by the Manhattan Loft Corporation into a 'courtyard office development' and flats. But the culminating blow to the social and built fabric of this area is the resurrection of the spectre of Foster's scheme to replace the western section of the market building with, in Gilby's words, a 'big glass box with people chatting down phones'.

This section of the building has already been fenced off, and its former tenants - artist and community groups - have gone. Large signs declare with impunity that the older, listed section of the building is 'open, open, open', having been 'saved' for use as a market which, although originating as a selling-point for organic produce, is fast developing along the lines of Camden Lock.

The 'Backpassages of Spitalfields' walk, starting at the Bishopsgate entrance of Liverpool Street Station, runs during the summer on Sundays at 6.30pm

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