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Life on the Edge

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Jonathan Claridge
University of Bath | UK
Life on the Edge is a dissertation which traces the growth of the East London neighbourhood of Spitalfields, in order to understand the connection between its diverse streetscape and its complex social history. The dissertation aims to stitch together historical accounts, building surveys and a myriad of maps and photos into a cohesive story; to understand how the memory of the past has influenced the present, and to analyse how Spitalfields became the place it is today.

Characterised by its position outside the walls of the City of London, Spitalfields has historically been home to some of London’s poorest communities. Since the 17th century, three principle migrant groups have settled here – the French Protestant Huguenots, the East European Jews and the Bangladeshis. The layering of single communities has created a complex social history, which has undoubtedly influenced the morphology of the streetscape, and in turn, encouraged the arrival of more immigrants. It is a seemingly perpetual cycle which has made Spitalfields a unique place. However, whilst the physical conditions have changed over time, the issues faced by each migrant group, as well as the pressure from the City of London, has remained unremitting. With the modern realities being economic, the City continues to bear down both physically and symbolically.

By dividing the main body of the discussion into urban themes, with each adopting a chronological approach, the dissertation explores how this turbulent history has been manifested in the streetscape. Marked by the transient existence of its inhabitants, the notions of segregation, community and identity emerge as running themes throughout the dissertation. Positioned precariously on the edge of poverty, society as well the city itself, the dissertation reveals the evolution of a streetscape which has, by turns, sheltered and exposed some London’s poorest communities.

Jonathan Claridge

This dissertation offers an original reading (almost a biography) of the charged neighborhood of Spitalfields in London, using original maps and reports. It traces the historical development of the area, from the medieval to the contemporary, and focuses on its ‘edge’ condition. What emerges is a picture of the neighborhood as a non-conformist ghetto, and as a home to communities who never quite ‘fit in’. Immigrant communities settle in Spitalfields, acquire wealth and, time and again, move on. The threat to the area posed by the ever-encroaching City, and the large commercial office buildings which bear down on the area, are a powerful metaphor for this historical transient condition.

The dissertation illustrates Spitalfield as a vibrant community, with its Hawksmoor church as a fitting symbol for its ‘strangeness’. In its conclusion the dissertation provides a vivid and original context for the debate over the controversial future of the market hall. The dissertation is important because the author has successfully illustrated the significance of intangibles such as ‘community’ and ‘heritage’, and reminded us of how fragile these are and how difficult they are to ‘preserve’. Communities are threatened as much by wealth as by poverty, as this work makes abundantly clear. The work is well researched, well written and well structured, and is of a publishable quality.

Prof Vaughan Hart
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