If you were looking for monuments to global trade, you could do worse than the site in east London playing host to the G-20 summit this week. To the south of the ExCel conference center, where the meeting will take place, lie the vast Royal Victoria docks, built on marshland in 1855 to accommodate the biggest ships of the day and boost the city’s capacity for maritime trade. Look to the west, and you can’t miss the towers of Canary Wharf, totems to London’s more recent role as a global financial capital.
Walk a few blocks from the summit site, though, and the symbols of globalization quickly make way for gloom. Canning Town and Custom House, as the neighborhoods around the ExCel center are known, may have played spectator to the city’s trade-driven growth, but they have seen little of its benefits. Dogged by poverty, poor health, and low education, both neighborhoods rank among the most deprived areas in Britain. Almost a fifth of the local working-age population receives welfare benefits. Half have no formal qualifications. For leaders of the world’s most advanced economies, the area offers a stark reminder: the short-term aim of the G-20 summit might be to revive the global economy, but the longer-term goal needs to be making it fairer.
Past governments have had their chances. Lured by good rail and river links, new industries poured into Canning Town in the mid-19th century. The Thames Ironworks Ship Building and Engineering Co. opened a 30-acre site at Bow Creek in 1846, bashing out ships for much of Europe. Eager for jobs, workers from all over the country poured in. The seasonal or casual work on offer meant few could afford comfortable places to live, though; landlords, well aware of the fact, threw up cheap housing without toilets, bathrooms and oftentimes drinking water. The over-crowding and disease appalled visitors. Behind one row of houses, Charles Dickens noted “a cesspool, bubbling and seething with the constant rise of the foul products of decomposition.” The grubby, “consumptive-looking ducks” swimming upon it, he wrote in 1857, resembled “the human dwellers in fould alleys as to their depressed and haggard physiognomy.”
A short walk from the site of the one-time cesspool, Lewis Calado’s well-kept home, with its bushy pot plants and white flowering tree out front, stands out on a grotty housing estate littered with boarded-up properties. Life on the estate has improved in recent years, he says still sporting the luminous vest from one of the two truck driving jobs he holds down to meet his mortgage payments although petty crime remains a blight. The windows of his neighbor’s new car were smashed recently. “You can’t leave anything inside,” Calado says. “Even a GPB 3 pair of sunglasses.”
Just ask DHL. Bosses at the courier company’s local depot halted deliveries in the area in 2005, for fear of drivers being set upon by local youths. On Stephenson Street, around the corner from the depot, houses thrown up in the time of Dickens have long since made way for barbed wire-laced industrial units, the grinding of saws behind closed doors drowning out the faint crackle of the power lines overhead. Inside a tiny corrugated iron shell, the air thick with the smell of fried eggs and sausage, Ahmet Yucetan’s café relies on the local laborers for its trade. Business is down 30% in recent weeks, and he’s already laid off one member of staff. But he’s holding out little hope for help from the G-20. “People,” the burly 50-year-old says, “are left to fight for themselves.”
The local government has plans for a big overhaul, a $5.3 billion regeneration of Canning Town and Custom House over the next few years that will provide 10,000 new homes some on the estate of Calado’s transform the two town centers, and create jobs and community facilities. In a new pink and green building nestled next to the concrete flyover launching traffic into central London, locals can view competing designs for Canning Town’s next town center. The building also offers locals help with job searches, skills training and a weekly police surgery.
Back at the ExCel center, official posters tacked near its entrances tempt passers by with the bold words “STABILITY, GROWTH, JOBS”. But for anyone looking for a way out of the blight, it’s another disappointment. The local footbridge to the center will be shut during the meeting of the world’s most powerful. Once again, Canning Town will find itself cut off from what lies beyond.
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