Change is coming, however, to these forgotten streets overshadowed by a giant brick power station, and the agent is Shakespeare himself - or rather the painstaking reconstruction of his open-air theatre, the Globe, which at last opens on Bankside this week.
The reconstructed wooden O, the thatched and galleried dream of actor and director Sam Wanamaker - which has been 25 years coming to fruition - will be one of London's major attractions, and its presence is already helping to turn Southwark back into the lively, bohemian and experimental area it was when Shakespeare walked its streets.
From the middle ages, Southwark was London's centre of dissipation, as it lay on the south bank of the river, outside the jurisdiction of the City. Bear-baiting was eventually joined by more sophisticated entertainments with the rise of the English theatre at the end of the 16th century, and Cornelius Visscher's celebrated engraving of 1600 portrays the Globe standing out above the rooftops. Southwark's glory days passed, however, and until very recently the area has been given over to warehouses and anonymous offices.
Now a group of grand artistic and commercial projects is bringing new life to the area, with the Globe the most prominent. Starting with Terence Conran's restaurants at one end and finishing with Richard Rogers' planned crystalline dome at the other, Bankside houses many developments: the theatre will be followed by the Tate Gallery of modern art at Bankside power station; a new Harvey Nichols restaurant in the landmark Oxo building; and the plan which will really bring the punters in - a new tube station on the Jubilee Line extension.
These large corporate developments may be leading the pack, but Bankside is not without its own Dickensian charm. The narrow cobbled streets along the river are beginning to fill up with sandwich shops, cafes, restaurants and studios. Small businesses are moving in to the converted lofts of Victorian warehouses. What is it that's bringing them here? Peter Leonard, owner of Cafe Kick - a 1950s retro style coffee bar - believes he knows the answer: "There's a niceness about the area; it's like walking into a different time zone. What Southwark's still got is the unspoilt medieval streets and character. It's a working village that's more like parts of Paris than parts of London. It's probably like the Marais was before it got sweetened up. And if it was in Paris or New York, it would probably be called a quarter and this district would have been discovered and used a long time ago."
Fred Monson, Southwark borough's energetic director of regeneration, acknowledges Bankside's special appeal and is anxious to bring both jobs and businesses to the area. The council is currently running a job link scheme to tie in the housing and education regeneration programme in Peckham, further south, with the commercial development in Bankside, training up local residents for jobs in Southwark.
By balancing the areas of need against those of opportunity, Monson hopes to bring a little economic light to the borough. "There'll be an overlap of people working there, living there and tourists visiting the place which will make it very interesting and give it its own particular character," he says enthusiastically.
"The Tate will bring in an estimated three million per year into the area and the Globe an extra half million. The trick for us is to get clothing shops in the area. "We want to attract this new group of people and I guess it's a question of setting up a place where people want to be. I believe it's going to be the new place, like Camden became after the King's Road."
The Globe opens on Wednesday, for a prologue season, ahead of next year's official opening, with a performance of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The theatre is still in its experimental stage as Mark Rylance - the Globe's artistic director - is keen to make clear: "The Globe as it was in the 17th century was decorated like a Roman Coliseum. That's probably what we're going to do here, but it will cause a lot of debate both internally and externally.
"People talk about sticking to the truth of how it was when it was first built but the truth is very surreal. In those days the actors wore bright orange beards with green spots on them and covered themselves completely in black leather to play Othello. Right now, we're just interested in performing a show and making it accessible to everyone."Reuse content