East London oozes trendy like no other part of the city. Young, hipster, with a vibrant start-up scene, it’s the San Fran of the Capital. Of course the inexorable force of gentrification exerts its insidious influence here like everywhere else in London, driving rents through the roof, but the edgy cool vibe endures. By night, party places in the East have much more charm and character than, say, the soulless, overpriced, tourist-ridden meat markets of the West End.
The youngsters walking down the street of the East are all one of two brands of stylish: either thoughtless and casual cool, or quirky kookster. Graffiti (or should I say, street art) and political slogans are splashed colourfully over the walls. Third-wave hipster cafes line the streets. Every morning when I walk from Shoreditch High street station to the shared start-up office space where I work, I pass by Box Park, a shipping container converted into a multi pop-up shop, with stores hocking everything from independent fashion to food to manicures.
Not three years ago I was just a few blocks down the road, working in the highfalutin, suited and booted “City”. I know, it’s confusing. There’s the city of London, capital of England, but then there’s the City of London, with a capital C. Also known as the Square Mile, the City is the area in central London generally considered the financial hub, where you’ll find a concentration of large corporations, beautiful old architecture nestled amongst skyscrapers, and lots of busy, important people dashing around in smart office wear.
I was once one of them, when I was a new grad working in consulting (minus being important – I wasn’t). It was a strange paradox for us fresh new young professionals: we’d play it straight-laced and business-like by day, but, not being high enough on the economic ladder to make it rain in the fancy clubs, we’d party in the hipster spots at night… which, to be fair, still weren’t exactly cheap – this is London we’re talking about.
Whereas then I was in a gigantic conglomerate working for The Man, now I’m working for just one man – the CEO of the language learning start-up where I’m interning. It seems like everyone and their aunt has a start-up these days, but it is admittedly a fun, young and dynamic sort of scene. Though I’m in an open plan office, I am not surrounded by colleagues, so nobody gives a fuck what I am doing (apart from my boss, obviously). They’re just busy coding away, or whatever it is that they do.
The assortment of people, skills, and business ideas around me is fascinating, and though people definitely work hard, there is a sense of freedom too that I’ve never experienced in an office environment. Entrepreneurs set their own timetables after all. The CEO I work with pretty much taught himself to code, and has built a business out of a website he started tinkering around with about eight years back, going full time with it a couple of months ago.
It’s also great to see the collaborative, community spirit at work. Though everyone’s doing their own thing, people regularly share knowledge, resources and skills, simply because they’re all under one roof and no doubt empathise with their fellow entrepreneurs. It’s crazy cool to work for yourself, but it sure ain’t easy.
Though I stubbornly maintain that South West is best, I only say that out of a blind and lifelong loyalty to the part of London where I grew up. The East almost feels like a different city, and I must admit I feel younger and cooler there. Though that might be more to do with the fact that I now wear trainers and cropped t-shirts to work for the first time since… well, ever. What keeps the place distinctly London, however, is the diversity you’ll see in the streets. Yes, there appear to be more stylish young things than usual, but really there are all kinds of people everywhere you look, and that is and always will be the beauty of London.