To see new Montmartre, take a trip to -- Hackney?

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 15, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The chattering classes had themselves a bit of a giggle when the inner-city borough of Hackney -- poor, cockney, multicultural and the erstwhile home of "the loony left" -- announced the appointment of a tourist director.

London tourist routes generally fall within a well-trodden territory marked roughly by Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, Harrod's luxury department store, West End theaters, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London.

One old guide says the most interesting place in Hackney is a former swamp. Hackney's most famous resident is an elementary school principal who passed up a chance to let her students see the ballet "Romeo and Juliet," saying it was too violent and too narrowly heterosexual.

But Maureen Taylor, the smart new tourist director, is undismayed. She's bright, buoyant and bullish about Hackney. She used to be the borough's director of leisure, a pleasant occupation now abolished in a fit of municipal belt-tightening.

"I've danced in the nightclubs as part of the job," Ms. Taylor says with enthusiasm. "I used to run the arts and entertainment section. I've eaten in the restaurants. And I've walked in the parks. I've promoted the arts community here -- which is very strong."

Hackney is really the arts and culture quarter of London, she tells a visitor stunned by her rainbow visions. She tends to say "arts" as if someone is examining her tonsils: "aaahhhrts."

"It's really like Greenwich Village," she says. "It's very like Montmartre used to be. I'm pretty serious about that. Like Montmartre at the turn of the century.

"We've got lots of artists here," she says. "Not all of them struggling. We've got first-class artists. It's got that wonderful mystique of a vibrant arts community."

Ms. Taylor produces the brochure of a design and craft exhibit held at Hackney's Geffrye Museum. The Geffrye, a former ironmongers' almshouse, is dubbed the "museum of the living room" because it exhibits drawing rooms and parlors and family rooms from the 1600s to the 1960s. Two stars: Worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide says.

Some tourists already have found Hackney. They come in fairly large numbers to the Burberry Factory Outlet.

"The West End hotels charter coaches to bring them to Burberry's and then they take them back," Ms. Taylor says. "I want to persuade the hotels: 'Don't take them straight back. Have a day in Hackney. You can see wonderful things in Hackney.' "

But Hackney's premier heritage site is Sutton House, a 16th-century Tudor courtier's home, which Ms. Taylor says is "the oldest domestic residence in the East End."

Hackney is a harmonious, relaxed, multicultural, multiracial community, Ms. Taylor says.

The borough has substantial African, Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian populations, not to mention traditional East London cockneys and the center of London's Orthodox Jewish Hasidic community.

"We've never had a race riot here," she says. "Our communities are relatively stable, established communities. I think there is a respect and honoring of differences."

She recommends a trip to the Ridley Road Market: "It absolutely encapsulates the cosmopolitan heart of Hackney."

"You can eat your way around the world in Hackney," Ms. Taylor says. "We've even got an American restaurant, Mulholland Drive."

She concedes Hackney's problems: the highest unemployment rate in London, a consistent rating as the "most deprived" borough in London, income rates less than three-fifths of the London average, a third of its households with an income under $7,500 (half the number in the rest of London), nearly half its households living in public housing, much of it run-down.

"We've just blown up our first [housing project] in Hackney," Ms. Taylor says. She's acutely aware of the effect of housing on people. She once taught "architectural psychology."

Hackney has a high crime rate -- 1,500 "notifiable" offenses a month -- and a reputation as a threatening place to live, let alone visit.

But Ms. Taylor remains optimistic: "We can only get better."

And anyway, she says, "Danger can be marketed, can't it? Some people will look for a walk on the wild side."

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