LONDON — "'Ello, lovey. 'Ow about buying some of me roses? You'd pay 15 quid in the West End; I'll let you 'ave these for 5."
The pink-cheeked, white-haired flower seller proved as colorful as the blooms at the Columbia Road Flower Market, one of London's largest. It turns out that 5 quid, or pounds (about $7), is the magic number for all the market's flora, whether bedding plants or banana palms. The motto here: "Everything for a fiver."
The Sunday Columbia Road Flower Market is but one of the attractions in London's East End, an area with no defined boundary — it's generally thought to begin east of the 1-square-mile City of London and continue on to Stratford, principal site of the 2012 Olympics, which open Friday — but with a well-defined personality.
That personality is by turns hip, edgy, multi-cultural, artistic and gritty. Even the place names — Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Isle of Dogs — suggest its boisterous beginnings and how far removed it was, in lifestyle if not geography, from the genteel West End enclaves of Mayfair, St. James and Belgravia.
The West End had aristocrats; the East End had Cockneys, said to be born within the sound of the bells at St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. West Enders fought using Marquis of Queensberry rules; East Enders were street brawlers. The West End had gentlemen's clubs; the East End had opium dens (where many of the West End "gentlemen" could frequently be found).
A rich history
Because of its proximity to London's docks, the East End has always been home to immigrants. They came in waves: 17th-century Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France; 18th-century Jews fleeing the same in Eastern Europe. They were followed by immigrants from China, Bangladesh, Somalia and countless other countries in search of the tolerance for which London has traditionally been known. By official count, 126 languages can be heard on the streets of East London today.
This was the London of Charles Dickens' innocent Oliver Twist and Sax Rohmer's evil Dr. Fu Manchu: fascinating fictional characters who could hardly hold a candle to the East End's real-life residents.
The most famous, of course, was Jack the Ripper, who over four months in 1888 killed five prostitutes in increasingly grisly fashion. Lesser known, but superseding the Ripper in their reign of terror, if only because they terrorized for longer, were the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie. Boxing champions turned racketeers, they were the British equivalents of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano, with a dollop of Tony Soprano and a pinch of John Gotti thrown in.
The undisputed leaders of the city's organized crime scene in the 1950s and '60s, the twins gained notoriety after publicly executing a rival gangster in front of startled drinkers at the Blind Beggar Pub in Whitechapel, the Ripper's old neighborhood. In a twist of irony, it was the same pub where the Salvation Army had been founded half a century earlier.
Now thoroughly gentrified, the Blind Beggar remains a popular drinking spot for residents and tourists alike. The same holds true for the nearby 10 Bells, allegedly where the Ripper trolled for his victims and now the final stop on London Walks' wildly popular Jack the Ripper tour.
A new lease on life
During World War II, much of the East End was reduced to rubble during the ferocious bombing by the German Luftwaffe, intent on crippling the commercial docks. The nightly strikes were so punishing that after an errant bomb damaged a wing of Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, famously remarked, "At last I can look the East End in the face."
The first serious attempts at redevelopment began in the 1980s with Canary Wharf. The former West India Docks on the marshy Isle of Dogs was transformed into the European headquarters of Barclay's, Credit Suisse, MetLife and Morgan Stanley.
Along with the gleaming office towers came million-dollar condos, restaurants, shops and a marina crammed with sailboats. Suddenly, Canary Wharf bankers and Shoreditch artists were sitting side by side over mocha frappuccinos at posh coffee bars.
The bankers might have been newcomers, but the East End always has been an incubator for creative types: David Hockney, Damien Hurst, Tracy Emin and the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy, whose colorful murals tweak the establishment. Lovers of contemporary art flock to galleries including the White Cube and Whitechapel Gallery to see the latest in cutting-edge art.
If you want a personal experience with an artist, stop for a pint at the Golden Heart, around the corner from Spitalfields Market, where Emin is a regular. I've been told that if she isn't there, leave your phone number and she'll ring you back.
You also might stop in at one of East London's great historic pubs, The Grapes, on the bank of the Thames in Limehouse. The pub, built in 1720, has some colorful stories attached to it. Dickens was a regular patron, and tales abound of watermen who waited for tipsy drinkers to stagger out before drowning them in the river and selling their corpses for medical dissection.
Today, the most famous thing about The Grapes, aside from its award-winning fish and chips, is one of its owners: actor Sir Ian McKellan.
The Olympics and beyond
The London Olympics will only accelerate changes in the East End. Overlooking the venue is the $2.75 billion Westfield Stratford City mall, an indoor/outdoor shopping center anchored by John Lewis, an iconic British department store.
Then there's the skyline, which is beginning to take on a distinctly Manhattanlike feel, with skyscrapers including Canada Square in Canary Wharf and 30 St. Mary Axe, which Londoners affectionately refer to as "the gherkin" because of its pickle shape.
Dominating the landscape is the tallest building in Europe, The Shard, which resembles a sliver of glass and steel stabbing the sky. The Shard is home to luxury condos, restaurants, shops, businesses and, coming in 2013, a Shangri-La Hotel.
Despite all this progress, rest assured that the East End hasn't lost its color, cultural richness and quirky charm. You can meander down Brick Lane to the Victorian-era Truman Brewery, once the world's largest. It now houses a cornucopia of independent galleries, shops, bars and restaurants.
Known locally as the "Curry Mile" because of the proliferation of Bangladeshi restaurants, Brick Lane is an excellent place to enjoy an inexpensive lunch.
Spitalfields Market, the oldest in London, dates to 1638, when Charles I approved a license for fish and fowl to be sold here. Today's incarnation has neither fish nor fowl, but it combines the old market, with 150 covered stalls, and the modern addition, with its glass-fronted shops. Just next to the market is Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by 18th-century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.
A 10-minute walk takes you to a Georgian townhouse, one of London's unique museums. A California artist, Dennis Severs, bought the house and set about transforming it into the home of the fictional Jervis family, 18th-century Huguenot silk weavers.
As visitors tour the 10 small rooms with their nooks and crannies, lit only by candles and firelight, they are asked to maintain silence and step back in time to see one family's fortunes and travails spanning several centuries.
Many visitors who know nothing else about the East End know about Petticoat Lane Flea Market. If you're trying to find it, don't look for Petticoat Lane on a map; there isn't one. There used to be, but the Victorians, thinking the name indelicate, dropped it.
Today, you'll find Petticoat Lane, a 10-block cluster of shops and stalls, between Wentworth and Middlesex Streets.
A street market named for a street that doesn't exist; a building called after a pickle; a historic pub owned by Middle-earth's most famous wizard — just a few of the things that make the East End London's quirkiest area.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.