There have been dark days before. “The whole area was dismal…you’ve got to remember there were no tourists, no restaurants, you have to completely put out of your mind what it looks like today. There were still a lot of sweat shops and tailoring workshops around (in the 1960s), it was a working place,” records Rachel Lichtenstein in her seminal work on the history of Brick Lane, “It was dark and gloomy…depressed and seedy.”
Today, dark days have returned. Brick Lane is normally busy with tourists looking for a slice of the “real” London and Londoners shopping, out for a bite to eat or just strolling amid the hustle and bustle of Bangladeshi commercial activity. But now the street, like so many across the capital, feels abandoned because of the pandemic. Shop owners, and particularly those of its curry houses for which it has become so renowned, struggle to finance their current existence and despair at the gloomy outlook of collapsed footfall.
The disintegration of tourism, the absence of office workers and the vanished night-time economy is accelerating the death of Bengali Brick Lane. Change is coming once again to this part of the East End – change that marks, perhaps, the end of the inner city melting pot; that place where new migrant workers got a toe hold in the city, established communities, absorbed and were absorbed into its life blood of the city. That is why Brick Lane, more than anywhere else in London, holds such sway over our imaginations.
A recently published study of Brick Lane – titled Beyond Banglatown – by a team of researchers supported by the Runnymede Trust maps out how the street is defined by migration. First came the arrival of the French Huguenots, most notably after 1685 when Louis IX revoked their freedom to worship. Then the Irish came, fleeing the famine, and later the Jews fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe.
There are disappointingly few reminders of these migrant communities: the large Georgian houses on Fournier Street with their unusual, highly glazed, lofts where Huguenot silk-weavers sought the best light for their looms, are the most prominent. Most of the signs of a Jewish past have vanished, bar a Star of David on the drainpipe of Christ Church primary school and the Beigel Bake at the top end of the Lane.
The most visible reminder of the multiple histories of Brick Lane is perhaps the Jamme Masjid mosque that was once a synagogue that was once a church of, over time, many different Christian hues. The Latin inscription Umbra Sumus (We are but Shadows) over the Fournier Street entrance is a poignant reminder to all worshipers of the fleeting nature of life.
The research project maps in detail the development of the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane, first through links with the East India Company, and later through imperial trading routes, particularly of tea grown on Sylheti plantations and jute processed in the mills of Calcutta. Along with goods came people. Indian sailors, known as lascars, were among the earliest settlers. By 1938 over 50,700 lascars crewed British merchant shipping worldwide.
When their ships docked in London, some were abandoned by their employers while others jumped ship to find better livelihoods on shore. Making their way as pedlars, kitchen porters, cooks and tailors in the Jewish-owned clothing trade, these British subjects established the first small Sylheti community in East London. Coffee houses serving the sailors sprang up in the area, alongside lodging houses and restaurants. The aftermath of Indian independence and partition in 1947 saw the migration of greater numbers of Bengalis to Britain in search of work. By the late 1940s, there were several Sylheti-owned coffee shops selling hot drinks and snacks in Brick Lane, catering to these early migrants.
While there was still work to be found in the largely Jewish-owned rag trade as machinists, pressers and tailors, those who migrated after the devastation of the 1971 Bangladeshi Liberation war found the East End of the 1970s and 1980s to be an extremely hostile environment for non-white settlers. The community had to struggle against violent racism and discrimination in housing, education and employment. The racist murder of tailor Altab Ali in 1978 saw the emergence of Bangladeshi youth organisations, which mobilised to chase out the National Front from areas around Brick Lane and bind the community more closely together to give it voice.
By 1980, Brick Lane was home to four restaurants and four cafés serving curry. A decade later, the number of cafés, serving local South Asians remained the same, but there were now six restaurants, mainly targeting white, middle-class customers. As the clothing and leather factories in the area declined and unemployment among the Bangladeshi community increased, calls for regeneration investment grew. Brick Lane’s tourist economy and identity as London’s “Curry Capital” emerged in the late 1990s. By 2003, there were 46 such establishments, and at its peak, the number of “Indian” restaurants on and around the southern end of Brick Lane reached more than 60.
Brick Lane had become the heartland of the community, the place Bangladeshis felt they have emotional attachment to. The area was re-named Banglatown. But its success was fragile and sowed the seeds of its own decline. Jamal Khalique of Taj Stores puts it like this in the study’s film for the Runnymede Trust below: “That name Banglatown. Unfortunately, we are losing it – not losing it, we’ve kind of lost it.”
The “Beyond Banglatown” project maps the pronounced change, shaped by a number of private and public redevelopment initiatives, that have altered the urban fabric of the area over the past 20 years – changes that Covid-19 may accelerate, depending on the strength and speed of the economic recovery and how government, business and customers react.
In 2007, Tower Hamlets Council designated Brick Lane a tourist area, with the converted Truman Brewery and more recent retail activities marked out as part of its “creative and cultural focus”. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area has led to the displacement of established businesses, such as those in Banglatown. The report vividly maps the turnover of shops within the same category (that is, changes from one kind of food offering to another). So along Brick Lane, a niche economy has come to the fore, with many of the restaurants now selling fusion foods or offering vegan options oriented to either the tourist market or a changing demographic that includes an expanding student population as well as middle-class consumers. Few of the traditional curry houses revamped their look or re-worked their menus to appeal to the latest trends.
Historically the upper floors of restaurants were places of work, but due to the demand for more housing and the lucrative residential market, Brick Lane has seen a huge increase in planning applications to change the class use of upper floors so thhey can become dwellings. The dramatic shifts in residential property prices accompanied by steep increases in housing rentals suggest that such alterations will further add to the influx of higher-income residents or Air B&B guests, accompanied by the dispersal of existing residents to suburbs in London’s more affordable peripheries.
The challenge to the traditional Bangladeshi curry houses is how to survive and adapt in this fast-changing marketplace. And the question remains: what is the future of Bengali Brick Lane and its place in London’s great migrant story if the curry houses are disappearing in the midst of this new wave of regeneration?
Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. He was a member of the advisory board of the Beyond Banglatown study. Follow Richard on Twitter.
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