Alan Dein, East End Shopfronts 1988
“In my twenties, I’d been doing a number of oral history recordings, working for the Museum of the Jewish East End which was very active recording stories of the life of Jewish people who had settled here.” explained Alan Dein, broadcaster and oral historian, as we sat together in the yard of the Toynbee Hall while he outlined the background to his fascinating collection of more than a hundred photographs of East End shopfronts.
“My photographs of the derelict shopfronts record the last moments of the Jewish community in the area – the bustling world of the inter-war years had been moved into the suburbs, and the community that stayed behind was less identifiable. In the nineteen eighties they were just hanging on, some premises had been empty for more than five years. Like a mouthful of broken teeth, a boxer’s mouth that had been thumped, with holes where teeth once were.”
Feeding both his passions, for taking photographs and for collecting, Alan took these pictures in 1988 while walking around the streets of the East End at a time when dereliction ruled. Although his family originate from the Jewish East End and his Uncle Lou was a waiter at Blooms, Alan was born elsewhere and first came here to study “I became a student at the City of London Polytechnic in Old Castle St and spent a lot of time hanging out here – though the heart of the area for me at that time was the student common room and bar.”
“Later, in 1988, I moved back here to live in a co-operative housing scheme in Whitehorse Rd in Stepney and then I had time to walk around in this landscape that evoked the fragmentary stories I had heard of my grandparents’ lives in the East End. My family thought I was mad to move back because when they left the East End they put it behind them, and it didn’t reflect their aspirations for me. The eighties were a terrible time for removing everything, comparable to what the Victorians had done a century earlier. So I photographed the shopfronts because this landscape was not going to last and then I put the pictures in a box.”
“It was important they were in colour. A lot of memories of the East End were in black and white reflecting the political oppositions of Left and Right, and hard work and poverty, but I have always loved peeling paint, paint that has been weathered and worn seafront textures. This was just at the last moment before these buildings were going to be redeveloped. In the eighties my grandmother died, and the story I heard from her generation was of the ‘monkey parade’, when once people walked up and down the Mile End Road to admire the gleaming shopfronts and goods on display.”
In many of these photographs, there is a visible contradiction between the implicit ambition to present a confident facade and the narrative of disappointment which time and humanity have written upon these once proud frontages. This is the source of the emotionalism in these images, seeing faded optimism still manifest in the choice of confident colours and sprightly signwriting, becoming a palimpsest overwritten by the elements, human neglect and graffiti. In spite of the flatness of these impermeable surfaces, in each case we know a story has been enclosed that is now shut off from us for ever.
Alan no longer lives in the East End, though today he returns to record oral histories. Beyond their obvious importance as an architectural and a social record, Alan’s library of photographs of shopfronts are also a map of his exploration of his own cultural history – their cumulative heartbreak exposing an unlocated grief that is easily overlooked in the wider story of the movement from East End slums to better housing in the suburbs.
Yet Alan sees hope in these tantalising pictures too, in particular the photo at the top, of Lipmans Kosher Poultry Dealer, in which the unknown painter ran out of paint while erasing the name of the business, leaving the word “Lip” visible. “A little bit of lip!” as Alan Dein terms it brightly, emblematic of the undying resilience of people throughout the turbulence of social change.
Great Eastern St
Relocated to Edgware…
Whitechapel High St
Photographs copyright © Alan Dein