The History of Arnold Circus
Leila McAlister Replaces Condoms & Needles with Portugese Tarts & Community Projects
Arnold Circus may now be quite the buzzing trendy area, but it wasn’t long ago that the park on the roundabout looked neglected, overgrown, and threatening. The area that locals used to be so proud of had fallen into disrepair once again. History unfortunately had repeated itself.
In the 1800’s the roundabout and its surrounding streets were called The Friars Slum. It was a dangerous area, known for its extreme poverty and overcrowded houses. People lived in small decaying houses in between slaughterhouses, and on a good day they would have 12 minutes of running water a day, leading to the area’s death rate that was four times as much as the rest of London -- one child in four would die before their first birthday. Even the police were too scared to go into the area. The city council of the day eventually decided to take action and clear things up. They did this by simply wiping out the entire area. The slums, the buildings, the slaughterhouses, it all got demolished. And the rubble that came from this was put onto one big pile in the middle of it.
Seven big chunky estates were built around this centerpiece of rubble, which was elegantly topped with a bandstand; now the proud jewel of the crown that is Arnold Circus. The buildings, called The Boundary Estate, were part of London’s first social housing scheme, and the last brick was laid in 1910.
Back to 2002, and the area had managed to become neglected again -- but this time it didn’t look like the city council was going to wipe any buildings out again any time soon. Leila McAlister, owner and founder of Leila's Shop, had always been interested in the history of The Boundary Estate and Arnold Circus -- it was the cheap rent that attracted her to a then pretty rough area.
“I had always been interested in the estate," she says. "I knew it was the first social government housing in London, and thought it was intriguing that it was all so run-down. It was really quiet around here; none of the shops that are here now were there. When I bought the shop on Arnold Circus six years ago it was very different around here. There were crack dealers and prostitutes everywhere you looked. In the first few years I wondered if I had made a mistake. The kids around here gave us newcomers a really hard time. It was a really intimidating neighborhood. But there are definitely a lot less people smoking crack in the doorways now.” She decided to stay, and her project space suddenly turned into a meeting point, and it was then when she decided to start a café, Leila’s Shop. With a community backing her, soon other shops on the street opened.
“I always thought that the circus could be beautiful, though no one ever used to go up there." she says. "In the early days I had a girl working here who had been living here her whole life. She had never been on the circus. It was totally overgrown, full of needles, and totally neglected. There were no plants, or concerts in the bandstand -- there was just nothing.”
So McAlister decided to set up a charity, called “Friends of Arnold Circus.” “For some reason Arnold Circus as a park had gone off everyone’s radar. [The charity] was born out of wanting to do something to engage the local community into using the circus, and to pressure the council to sort it all out. Now there are people gardening on the circus and organizing social events. Once a year we close the road and have an annual picnic on top of the circus, which is really nice.”
As a result of the campaigns and the locals improving Arnold Circus, the council has now shown an interest in the area. “There is half a million pounds available that is going to be allocated into Arnold Circus. Of course Friends of Arnold Circus has been interested in what way the council are going to spend that money, but they are now ignoring us. I think it’s because they think that our plans would involve more work. They would rather board it up and make it ‘fit for purpose.'”
It seems like McAlister’s mission at Arnold Circus is nearly done. But she has some new plans on the horizon: “I’ve actually just taken over the empty shop next door, where I will soon be starting the shop in. This café will turn into a proper hangout for people, and all the groceries will be sold next door. I want to do more projects with food producers, such as Albanian producers, and turn the shop next door into a proper grocery shop with cheeses, and artisan breads.” Such an expansion is poetic justice for a woman who has been so integral to the area’s newest rebirth.
Leila’s Shop, 17 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP. 02077299789