Populism is a plague that takes many forms and thrives on all parts of the loud opinion spectrum, including the London protest culture that declares itself against gentrification – whatever exactly it takes that word to mean. In recent days, we have seen this strand of conspicuous objection to certain urban trends express itself in vivid forms over the decision by Tower Hamlets councillors to approve the plans of the owners of the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane to construct a new building in its car park and upgrade those already there – the first significant changes to the fabric of the site since brewing ceased there more than 30 years ago.
The hostility to the scheme has shed instructive light on the mindset of many of those expressing it and underlined the need for a much braver and more honest conversation about neighbourhoods, communities, planning powers and responsibilities, and how London can best negotiate the sometimes painful conflict between the desire for continuity and forces of change driven by rapid economic growth.
I’ve written already about the wild exaggerations about the scheme, some of which have made it sound as if a fleet of bulldozers will be levelling half the street to make way for the biggest Westfield mall in the world. Outrageous allegations against councillors have been made, including that their decision amounts to the “targeted destruction of arguably the most important Asian community outside Asia” – a reference to Brick Lane’s famous array of curry houses and the local population of Bangladeshi Londoners. “Targeted destruction”? Seriously?
You will have spotted already that this East End cameo contains some of the most emotive ingredients in the “social cleansing” grand narrative about London, that hegemonic product of an informal alliance between conservationists, far leftists, environmentalists, academia’s seemingly unlimited supply of “urban geographers” and a compliant media, which thirsts for stories which can be framed as plucky “locals” engaged in unequal struggles against greedy developers and spineless politicians. Reality, of course, is messier and considerably less romantic.
The activist accusation is that the revamped brewery building will usher into Brick Lane an unstoppable invasion of high street chainstores, which will, in turn, contaminate the character of that famous avenue, driving up commercial rents and driving out the restaurateurs and other small businesses, advancing in the process a general “pushing out” of Banglatown the very Bangladeshi presence from which it takes its name.
One thing to keep in mind, just as a historical bookmark, is that conflict over cultural change and churn have been recurring hallmarks of Brick Lane’s past, as Richard Derecki so beautifully distilled for On London last year. We left-liberals celebrate the centuries of churn in which Brick Lane and the wider Spitalfields have been havens for successive influxes of refugees and hopeful migrants: French Huguenots, East European Jews and, from the 1970s, Bengalis. But others have hated, feared and resented this celebrated list, creating parallel and less agreeable accounts of dilution and displacement. Even today, you don’t have to look too hard to find online laments for the “poor old Cockneys”, allegedly “pushed out” by “the Asians”.
A recurring irony about anti-gentrification activists – one all the more piquant for their inability to see it – is that so often they are the righteous advance guard of the very forces they say they wish to repel. Brick Lane has become trendy of late, a home for art shows, niche fashion, retro markets, chic bookshops and “street food”, with much of this activity housed and hosted at the brewery building complex itself.
Such incursions have themselves triggered resistance. Only six years ago, the novelty Cereal Killer Café, with its two young, bearded Irish proprietors, was attacked by a Class War performance troupe as a symbol of gentrification, egged on by one of London’s more cloistered anarchists. Among those who joined the fray was a 55-year-old Shoreditch resident called Esther. She was, at least, a realist: “It’s our fault, artists like me go to these kind of areas, then the architects follow, the developers, the hipsters…” Precisely.
Brick Lane’s curry houses have been a feature of the street for four decades. Their establishment symbolised that of the community from which they sprang in the face of hardship and racism. But anxiety about their future is nothing new and was present even when their numbers peaked at more than 60 early in this century, with an “influx of corporate brands” into that part of what planners call the City Fringe being blamed for putting some restaurants out of business.
There have also been recurring reputation problems, with concerns about traders touting for evening business in a climate of hot competition. The last time I went there on a weekend evening, pre-pandemic, I was surprised and quite alarmed by how rowdy the Lane was, thick with drinkers who had had too much. Idealisations of the “Curry Capital” ignore this part of the picture, along with the roles of some of its entrepreneurs in the labyrinths of local politics. This too is nothing new: Farrukh Dhondy’s 1986 miniseries King Of The Ghetto opened up that world, for those who wished to see it.
Anti-gentrification fervour is directed against manifestations of economic change which activists portray as threatening communities that are authentic, timeless, homogeneous, practically sacred and therefore in need of being “saved”. But there are holes in this story where choices, individuality and agency ought to be – you might term it diversity.
There are still many Bangladeshi east Londoners, but demographic trends suggest outward migration too, notably to Redbridge, reproducing the pattern followed by millions of Londoners of many kinds for decade upon decade – a shift to the suburbs, where homes are larger and cheaper and life is a little quieter. Is this being “pushed out”, as “social cleansing” orthodoxy insists, or the outcome of a preference and just the normal way of London and inner Londoners in particular?
It is right that planning policy, as in Tower Hamlets, seeks to support, to use the jargon, “cultural assets” or “character areas” in the face of market forces that could damage them to local detriment, be they the guitar shops of Denmark Street or the gentleman’s clothing stores of Jermyn Street, though there are limits to what such regulation can achieve, especially if the cluster’s customer base is in decline, as with the curry houses. Where “trendy” Brick Lane is concerned, the Tower Hamlets councillors appear to have negotiated exceptional conditions with the brewery building’s owners in an attempt to ensure that small and local businesses become tenants of the new units. But if the owners want to tempt chain brands into the old ones, that’s up to them.
Still, they might not want to take that path. And maybe if they do, not every “local” will be appalled. The anti-gentrification urge to “save” risks being informed by an incurious ennobling that reduces minority communities to cardboard cut-out characters on an ideological stage. Who says East End Bangladeshis don’t drink coffee in Starbuck’s or buy trainers in Foot Locker? Who says they wouldn’t do so if branches opened nearby? As for the Brick Lane curry restaurants, there’s one thing we can all do to help them – go and eat in one. If not enough of us want to do that, their days are numbered anyway, whatever happens next at the Old Truman Brewery.
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