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London's 'East End': From haven for gangsters to Olympic showcase

An actor from gangster movie "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" is giving walking tours of old gangland haunts in east London, where this month's Olympic Games are being held. NBC's Theresa Cook reports.

LONDON - A tall, menacing actor famous for playing gangsters waits in a bar named The Blind Beggar, once the scene of an underworld revenge killing. Welcome to East London, the diverse and often eyebrow-raising home of this month's Olympics.

Forget the usual tourist honeypots of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben: Most of the 300,000 additional international visitors expected in London during the Games will see a district that is still evolving from its impoverished, industrial past into a vibrant and appealing part of Britain's capital.


The main Olympic Park is well inside London's sprawling boundaries, only four miles from the city's heart. Athletes will live on the site but thousands of team officials, visitors and VIPs will travel each day from central hotels and through East London to the Games.

"I don't know what they'll make of it," said Stephen Marcus, who played dodgy dealer "Nick The Greek" in Guy Ritchie's locally filmed 1998 gangster movie "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."

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During the Olympics, Marcus will be giving guided walking tours, offering athletes and ticket-holders the chance to re-trace the steps of the real-life 'East End' mobsters who terrorized London in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is more relevant than you might think: Escaping from poverty, sometimes by criminal means, has been East London's back story over the past five centuries.

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"Its downriver position on the Thames made it the city's gateway during Britain's maritime era and the industrial revolution," said Professor Miles Ogborn, head of the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London. "There were docks and sailors in the area, and everything you'd usually associate with that."

Filthy slums
With Britain's prevailing winds blowing industrial smog toward the east, London's 17th and 18th century developers headed in the opposite direction – establishing parks, theaters, royal residences and handsome squares in the west.

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In contrast, the 'East End' descended into filthy slums for the diseased and destitute, earning a reputation as a den of immorality and inspiring many of the wretched characters in the novels of Charles Dickens. Not that its horrors were fictional: In 1888, five women who had turned to prostitution were murdered by a serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. The pub where he met his victims – the Ten Bells – is now a regular port of call for London walking tours.

"What is perhaps most shocking about those crimes, when you learn more about them, is the depth of poverty to which these women had fallen," said Ogborn. "This really was a terrible place to be."

But East London's darkest days came during the Second World War. Between September 1940 and May 1941, the German air force destroyed more than one million homes and killed 20,000 people in a bombing campaign known as The Blitz. The east, whose docks and factories made it a strategic target, bore the brunt of the attack.

'London's equivalent of Al Capone'
Instead of local redevelopment, post-war planners relocated many families to newly built towns and suburbs in the countryside. With the docks also in decline, derelict areas became a playground for career criminals, including the Krays – fearsome twin brothers and boxing champions who ran a casino and night-club empire on the back of protection rackets until finally convicted in 1968.

"They were London's equivalent of Al Capone," Marcus said. "They had celebrity guests and celebrity friends. They would've loved the Olympics, I'm sure ... they'd be at the opening ceremony in a VIP box."

Among the Krays' victims was rival gangster George Cornell, shot dead in front of drinkers in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel in 1966. The bar, which sits on one of the main thoroughfares between central London and the Games site, will be the starting point for Marcus' tour.

Social improvement began with Victorian-era philanthropy – the Salvation Army was founded outside the Blind Beggar by Methodist preacher William Booth – and has since been tied up with major urban regeneration.

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The 1980s saw vacant docks transformed into Britain's second-largest financial center, complete with blinking 770-foot office tower One Canada Square and a light rail system. Canary Wharf is now home to the world or European headquarters of firms including HSBC, Citigroup, State Street, Clifford Chance, MetLife, Morgan Stanley and Thomson Reuters.

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Sandra Mjungwa, a store sales manager and East London resident, says the areas where the Olympics will be held is "unrecognizable compared to only a couple of years ago."

The main Games site has been created from industrial wastelands near Stratford, once home to toxic industries banished from more central districts by 19th century social improvement laws. A massive soil clean-up has allowed 740 acres of polluted low-value brownfield land to be transformed into the Olympic area – although a major sewage pumping station remains defiantly in place.

Stratford station, once a dingy calling point to be avoided at night, is now a flagship transport hub for the Games and a stopping point for trains on the high-speed London-to-Paris Eurostar line. There's also a new $2.75-billion shopping mall, which three-quarters of ticket-holders will have to walk through to reach the main venues for events like swimming, basketball and track.

"The shopping has already made a difference to the area," store sales manager and local resident Sandra Mjungwa told msnbc.com. "It's unrecognizable compared to only a couple of years ago when nobody would come here unless they had to."

Kychia Messenger, 18, an electrical apprentice from Stratford, added: "It's already a better area; you see more people putting litter in the bin and there are fewer gangs hanging around." (The jury's still out on her last point: The day after msnbc.com spoke to Messenger, a man was stabbed to death in broad daylight in the mall after a gang-related brawl only a few yards from the Olympic Park entrance.)

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This has not deterred thousands of tourists from taking two-hour walking tours of the Olympic site perimeter, long before the Games have begun. "The tours are very popular – we do two on Saturdays now," said London Walks' guide, Kim Dewdney. "Prior to the Olympic redevelopment, nobody ever asked me for a tour of Stratford – but the Games has brought people here and hopefully opened their eyes to the local area."

Among those taking her tour on Friday afternoon was a family of Americans who had spent the morning seeing Westminster Abbey. Also there was Steve Venckus, in London on a business trip from Washington, D.C. "Even though I won't be here when the Games are on, I really wanted to see it all up close so I can say I've been there," he said.

Alastair Jamieson / msnbc.com

Kychia Messenger, 18, an electrical apprentice from Stratford, says there are now "fewer gangs hanging around" the area.

So can visitors expect a friendly welcome to East London? Since the arrival of Huguenot refugees from France in the 17th century, successive waves of immigrants have made the area their home: Irish weavers, Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe and, most recently, Bangladeshis. Brick Lane – once home to fabric factories and bagel bakeries – is now known as London's 'curry mile'.

In the six official Olympic boroughs of London – Hackney, Newham, Barking & Dagenham, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – 42 per cent of the population is from non-white ethnic groups, and the area is home to dozens of mosques.

'Challenges'
Diversity of wealth is even wider: Tower Hamlets, which takes in the banking zone of Canary Wharf as well as the government housing projects of Stepney, contains some of Britain's poorest neighborhoods as well as some of its wealthiest. "One hundred and twenty-six languages are spoken in our schools and we have some very rich areas while only a couple of streets away there are people who are just getting by; those challenges are what makes the area interesting," Lutfur Rahman, Britain's first directly elected Muslim mayor, told msnbc.com. "I hope visitors will take the time to see our parks and attractions on their way to the Games."

Visitors may also indulge in a bit of celebrity-spotting: Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley are among those following a crowd of hispters and artists into the resurgent districts of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Once ghettos, the areas are now sought-after addresses for anyone working in arts or the media – the New York Times described East London as "by far London's trendiest area". Sir Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in "Lord of the Rings," owns a historic pub called The Grapes near his riverside home in Limehouse.

"Artists have sought out the disused industrial spaces and made them their own," said Ogborn. "In the middle of once-bleak areas like Hackney Wick there are suddenly independent shops and bustling cafes full of artists, like the Hackney Pearl for example."

Alastair Jamieson / msnbc.com

"I think local people will be proud of Britain at the Olympics," said James Hamill, 25, barman at the Princess of Wales in Stratford and a catering worker at the Games.

Marcus said: "It's a community here. No matter what the nationality, ethnicity, and cultural group, there has always been and always will be a strong community life."

Some of the more traditional characteristics of East London have been well-documented in the long-running BBC soap opera, EastEnders, known chiefly for its grittiness.

"There will be some moaning – some of it quite justified – but on the whole I think local people will be proud of Britain at the Olympics," said James Hamill, 25, barman at the blue-collar Princess of Wales pub in Stratford. "We'll be very pleased to see people here."

Micah Smith, Andrew Gee and Jeremy Paduano, NBC News in London, contributed to this report.

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