But work your way into the hidden side streets and you'll discover Hoxton Square - the heart of a new artistic community that is taking hold and, if the planners are to be believed, making its way towards being the future Camden Town of east London.
These are early days but already a cluster of independent art galleries has sprung up, together with photographic studios, a trendy mid-week cafe and a discreet, stylish women-only sex shop.
Out front all is deceptively quiet. But behind the closed doors, artists, writers, potters and designers - artistes of all shapes and sizes - are beavering away, and that's just during the day.
"The whole idea is to regenerate inner-city dereliction and that is what's happening here," says David Nicholson, a developer and landlord - and a man with a mission - who will only rent his property to "creative" like- minded people so that they can "work together and feed off each other". "There is a certain raw-edged quality to this area which is attractive to people although, at the moment, it suffers from not having enough happening at street level," he argues. However, all that is about to change.
Jazz lovers have been visiting Hoxton Square for years, for nights out at the Bass Clef - now reborn as the Blue Note - which serves up quality jazz into the early hours of the morning, but the after-dark scene is growing.
Circus Space, tucked away in Coronet Street, is one new venue with big plans to draw outsiders into the area. Forget any East End preconceptions and think of pink fluffiness, candles, colour and circus paraphernalia.
"The most bizarre day we have had so far," recalls Charlie, who works in "the space", "was when we had a group of students from St Martin's School of Art, then wrestlers and body-builders auditioning for a TV advert, as well as the usual circus crowd wandering around."
Housed in the first "green" power station, which at the turn of the century generated electricity from burning rubbish - using the excess energy to heat an adjoining swimming pool - Circus Space will, on completion, have the biggest aerial training facilities in Europe.
Four hundred people put themselves through hours of "sheer physical grief" every week, according to Charlie, but every other Friday night the main training area is cleared to make way for the Circus Cabaret. "We have an eclectic blend of comedy and cabaret circus," says Charlie. "The idea is to be contemporary but to not entirely reject the past."
Katie, the cabaret organiser - a vision of red, down to her red lippy and heart-shaped sunglasses - explains that the show is "a matter of getting the right mix". "You need something sweet, something more violent, something a bit nasty.
"The thing about most people who come to Circus Space," she adds, "is that as soon as they come here and see what people are doing they end up taking classes, staying here and sometimes even performing."
As always, there's a mixed bill tonight, from a slack rope walker to a grotesque sword swallower to Dracula on the trapeze (above the tables and audience below) - who makes a grand entrance bathed in blood-red light and Hammer Horror sound effects.
"We also like to keep the old- time variety element, like Terri Carol, an 81-year-old paper tearer, who appeared with the likes of Laurel and Hardy and whose act gets bluer the older she gets," says Charlie.
"I love Circus Space," says the octogenarian, whose grandfather and father were both paper tearers in their time. "With variety you were lucky if you got eight minutes, darling. Now I get half an hour, so I work with the audience, which is great fun."
Late-night people can stay local and party on at the Comedy Cafe (with late bar and disco), the Blue Note, or at Charlie Wright's pub/club, a favourite with the circus crowd.
"What we are trying to do round here is create a cultural centre where you can come for a good night out," says Richard Simmons, chief executive of the Dalston City Partnership which is ploughing cash from Government's City Challenge programme into transforming the local environment and economy.
The British Film Institute - with video installation gallery, cafe and cinema - will provide the icing on the cake when it moves into Hoxton Square, and a new music college is opening just up the road.
Battle lines have now been drawn to alter at least part of the one-way system to end the "feeling of isolation" and put Hoxton firmly on the map. And Richard is confident of total success. "We want this to be a bohemian quarter, a bit off the wall, where people can live and work. In about two years time the whole area will be really buzzing."
Circus Space Cabaret, Coronet Street, N1 (0171-613 4141) 8pm, alternate Saturdays, pounds 7/pounds 5Reuse content