Whitecross Street, London
If you have a hankering to experience the vigour, invention and imagination of world-class street art a short walk from the Barbican Centre then head for Whitecross Street. Each year the Whitecross Street Party brings street artists together to create live street art over a weekend. The 2021 event has lived up to the reputation with 25 artists taking part including Gent48, Voyder, Doodleman, Mr Cenz, Oliverr, Nerone le Coktail, Spore and Bleach, Onion, Vibes and more. And there’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the sophistication and unavoidable establishment feel of the Barbican Arts Centre and the re-purposing of the working Whitecross Street as a celebration of a very immediate artistic and social event.
The street is actually steeped in London history. It’s named for a 15th Century white cross sitting between the Barbican and Old Street. Whitecross Street is home to one of the city’s oldest markets, which remains to this day a vibrant weekday foodie scene. Its origins were in a frowned upon 17th Century Sunday Market – trading on the sabbath, entirely against church doctrine, obviously the crowd who frequented it and the street’s bawdy pubs were generally considered a bad lot. But clearly the people loved it and the market has survived all these centuries
Today we think of theatre as a place of high art but in the Elizabethan era, it was the most popular form of entertainment. The Fortune Theatre, built in 1600 and closed a little over 40 years later by the Puritan Parliament in 1642, decreed all theatres should close, was on the street.
Whitecross Street was considered a suitable location for a prison and Whitecross Street Debtors’ Jail operated from 1815 – 1840 as a sort of overflow from the infamous Newgate Prison which sat within the historic City of London near the Old Bailey, Central Criminal Court. It is no surprise that cheek by jowl with the location of the former prison, people lived in extreme poverty, which made it a target area for social reformer George Peabody. The Peabody Estate or The Peabody Donation Fund as it was known in 1862, a charitable organisation founded by the American-born Londoner, focused its attention on the street and addressing acute housing problems built a series of dwellings more than 150 years ago. They still have a significant presence in the street.
In 2021 Whitecross Street is squeezed between the Barbican Estate, which scooped up the southern end of the street renaming it Silk Street, and the creeping gentrification of the Islington side of the street.