You can't travel through London these days without a sense of the tensions, the rippling contradictions of metropolitan life in a global age that sometimes pop to the surface. Young British teens recruited off to ISIS by Internet posts, for instance. Or the growing, growling separatist urges of the Scots and the Welsh. Or the gleaming and empty Russian-oligarch palaces in the city’s fanciest areas. You get the feeling that the omniscient, omnipresent CCTV cameras stuck at ungainly angles to the ritziest Georgian buildings are watching more than you or me as we pace past. They are watching globalization, loaded with contradictions.
But this has always been a city where those sorts of tensions have played out. Today it remains a smashing-up pot of all the different instincts of cultural collision, good and bad—and no place quite captures the wondrous possibilities of that energy better than Shoreditch. The neighborhood began blossoming out of its postindustrial roots a couple of decades ago for a strange reason: It was plopped midway between the rave neighborhoods of King’s Cross and the financial center of the City, which made it sort of a cheap, hipster stopping-off place for exhausted ravers looking for food. It became cool enough that Londoners now invariably refer to some freshly hip part of town as “the new Shoreditch,” but really the new Shoreditch is still Shoreditch.
By day, the area presents a gray, even grim, façade, but a bit of poking around along Brick Lane reveals a cluster of terrific galleries, coffee shops, and start-up fashion companies. (Nearly every British street-style blog seems packed with shots from one Shoreditch lane or another.) And while you may go to bleeding-edge galleries like Lazarides in Fitzrovia to buy the work of some hip young street artist, Shoreditch is where you see their work displayed. It is a museum of graffiti and underground posters and even impromptu sculptures. A street-art tour—several galleries arrange them—will deliver a more memorable afternoon than nearly any British museum.
Nighttime is when Shoreditch really shows off the famous energy of its mixed-culture soul. Bars like ninetyeight (98 Curtain Rd.; ninetyeight-bar-lounge.co.uk) or Zigfrid von Underbelly (11 Hoxton Sq.; zigfridvonunderbelly.com) pride themselves on turning out cocktails that combine all the ethnic ingredients of London into the most traditional drinks. Take ninetyeight’s Green Blazer, which is like a tour of British-colonial tastes: Caribbean rum with a kick of cinnamon that evokes India. The food scene, once dominated by chip shops, has been revolutionized. Clove Club’s (380 Old St.; 44-20/7729-6496; thecloveclub.com) surgically spiced food, for instance, won the restaurant a Michelin star last year. HKK (88 Worship St.; 44-20/3535-1888; hkklondon.com), which serves high-end Chinese dishes, has become a landing pad for Hong Kong financiers. And L’Anima (1 Snowden St.; 44-20/7422-7000; lanima.co.uk) is doing some of the most innovative twists on Italian.
Perhaps Shoreditch’s most enduring export, however, has been electronic dance music, or EDM. Plastic People, a long-loved, recently closed club, was the center of the birth of EDM, which has since become a multibillion-dollar business. EDM reflects the sort of cultural fusion London does like nowhere else. To listen to the newest stars of that world—all of whom sharpened their skills commanding dance floors at Queen of Hoxton (1–5 Curtain Rd.; queenofhoxton.com) or Cargo (83 Rivington St.; cargo-london.com)—is to get an aural fix on what happens when worlds collide successfully. It’s the sort of reminder we seem to need these days.
Photo Credits: Rasputin