Alan Dein’s East End Shopfronts of 1988
First published by Spitalfields Life two years ago, Alan Dein’s photographs are now the subject of an exhibition at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives in Mile End, giving history and context to these shopfronts. I am republishing the pictures today to celebrate this show which opens tonight and runs until 12th July.
P.Lipman, Kosher Poultry Dealers, Hessel St
“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, outlining the background to his unique 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. They were like a mouthful of broken teeth, a boxer’s mouth that had been thumped, with holes where teeth once were.”
Feeding his twin passions for photography and collecting, Alan took these pictures in 1988 while walking around the streets of the East End at a time when dereliction prevailed. Although his family came from the Jewish East End and his Uncle Lou was a waiter at Blooms, Alan was born elsewhere and first came to study . “As a student at the City of London Polytechnic in Old Castle St, I 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.” he told me.
“Afterwards, in 1988, I moved back to live in a co-operative housing scheme in Whitehorse Rd in Stepney and then I had more time to walk around in this landscape that evoked the fragmentary tales I knew of my grandparents’ lives in the East End. The story I heard from their generation of the ‘monkey parade’, when once people walked up and down the Mile End Road to admire the gleaming shopfronts and goods on display. 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. But I have always loved peeling paint, paint that has been weathered and worn seafront textures, and this was just at the last moment before these buildings were going to be redeveloped, so I photographed the shopfronts because this landscape was not going to last.”
In many of these pictures, there is an uneasy contradiction between the proud facades and the tale of disappointment which time and humanity has written upon them. This is the source of the emotionalism in these photographs, seeing faded optimism still manifest in the confident choice of colours and the 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. Beyond their obvious importance as an architectural and a social record, Alan’s library 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 social narrative of the movement of people from the East End to better housing in the suburbs.
Yet Alan sees hope in these tantalising pictures too, in particular the photo at the top, of Lipman’s Kosher Poultry Dealers, 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 an undying resilience in the face of turbulent social change.
Mile End Rd
Great Eastern St
Mile End Rd
Relocated to Edgeware
Bow Common Lane
Ben Jonson Rd
New Goulston St.
Whitechapel High St
Alderney Rd, Stepney
Photographs copyright © Alan Dein
After You’ve Gone: East End Shopfronts 1988 by Alan Dein runs from Thursday 17th May until Thursday 12th July at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, E1. You must email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to attend tonight’s launch. Opening times for the exhibition are here. Alan Dein will give a talk on Saturday 9th June at 2.00pm.