London’s ‘Berlin Wall’ and the two-for-one city

Berlin has all the ingredients required to be one of the world’s greatest capital cities – a fascinating history, brilliant museums, expansive parks, public transport that works and nightlife that it is hard to beat.

In a sense visitors to Germany’s capital today get two cities in one. More than 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, there is still sense of West Berlin and East Berlin – seen in buses routes that don’t cross over where the border used to be, a contrast in Western and communist building styles, and a duplication of public services.

London, another great capital city, may not have had an imposing wall running through its centre, but you still get the feeling of ‘two London’s’. Taking a walk around the Houses of Parliament in Westminster would leave visitors with a different impression than if they explored the neighbourhoods in and around Olympic Park to the east of the city, where industry is very much still in existence.

You can see this in London’s wealth divide. New official figures show that central and west London residents generated nearly £100,000 a year more for the local economy than people living to the east of the City.

Some of this could be down to the fact that, despite regeneration of the so-called ‘Olympic boroughs’ that came with the 2012 Games, an enormous amount of foreign investment is flowing into places like Piccadilly and Knightsbridge.

But the divide between the east and the west in London is in fact nothing new. More than five hundred years ago when settlement spread beyond the City walls, you had the smelly, dirty and unhealthy industries (like tanning, brewing and clothmaking) being established in the east and the wealthy setting up lavish homes to the west.

You only need to look at the squares, like St James’ and Berkeley (home to the rich and famous), that have been built over the last 500 years – they are oriented very much firmly to the west.

But why this black and white arrangement?

Natural factors can help provide an explanation. Quite simply the Thames flows from west to east, so as the wealthy didn’t want to be on the receiving end of water pollution they settled west. Industry (and the poorer people who worked for it) were left with the east.

And little has changed over the years.

Clearly, having a divided and unequal city is a worry. You can pick up a newspaper pretty much any day to see that many are struggling to get by, while others on the other side of the capital are quite literally swimming in cash.

But for a visitor to London, having a distinctive west and east London is a real bonus. I love walking around the likes of Royal London and Westminster on one side of the city, yet also enjoy the numerous attractions that the other side of the capital has to offer – the likes of Spitalfields, Whitechapel and the docks.

You can’t see London’s ‘Berlin Wall’, but you can feel it. And it certainly makes the capital a more exciting place to visit.

Categories: Society

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