Seán Carey: The evolution of Brick Lane-Banglatown – an ever-changing timeline

Seán Carey: The evolution of Brick Lane-Banglatown – an ever-changing timeline

No matter if they have never visited Banglatown on Brick Lane, British Bangladeshis, along with many in Bangladesh itself, take great pride in its nomenclature. The street, which is mostly located within the Spitalfields & Banglatown ward, holds a special place in people’s hearts.

The sense of pride has its roots in the background and history of the community. Many Bangladeshis in Britain come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, lacking, for example, the social and educational capital of professional migrants from India who work in the City of London or the “twice migrants” from East Africa.

In addition, Bangladeshis who settled in the East End from the early 1970s faced not only years of racial harassment and attacks from supporters of the National Front and British National Party, but also overcame the challenges of overcrowded housing to help make the Lane the one-time unrivalled “curry capital” of the UK.

Talk to any Banglatown shopkeeper or restaurateur, regardless of their ethnic, and you’ll quickly be given a distilled version of this ever-evolving street: Huguenots seeking refuge, Irish fleeing the famine, Jews escaping pogroms and Bangladeshis leaving their imprint. Each wave of immigrants has left its unique mark. Truly, Brick Lane is more than a narrow street. It’s a living timeline.

The spirit of the Lane’s resilience was tested mightily in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Brick Lane, which relies heavily on the foot traffic of City workers and tourists from near and far, faced acute economic strain. With many office employees working from home and visitors remaining scarce, many establishments, including a branch of chocolate emporium Dark Sugars and the notorious Cereal Killer Café, were forced to close and, in the case of the latter, moved their operations only online.

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Remarkably, however, the majority of Bangladeshi-owned curry restaurants and cafés on the southern part of the Lane endured, often buoyed by an extended family-based support system. But owners reported trading at just 60 to 70 per cent of their pre-pandemic capacity for most of 2023. Only during the run-up to Christmas, with the fear of Covid-19 receding, did customers gather for customary feasting.

“We’ve been really, really busy,” said a waiter at one curry restaurant as he skilfully folded a quantity of yellow napkins that he would soon set on tables draped in white tablecloths. A similar recovery was found among the diverse cafés, bars and vintage clothing outlets at the northern end of Brick Lane. Yet, even though Christmas provided a brief glimpse of pre-pandemic bustle, Brick Lane’s return to its vibrant rhythm is not without its uncertainties.

Despite its financial hardships, there were some benefits from the pandemic. The owners of Epra Fabrics, the sole surviving Jewish-owned textile wholesaler on Brick Lane-Banglatown, witnessed heightened demand and called on suppliers in Asia to provide UK manufacturers with additional material to meet urgent PPE needs.

This unexpected but welcome comeback brought to light the neighbourhood’s long history of garment trading and the flexibility of businesses on the Lane. In fact, the pandemic produced other new developments, such as the increase in the number of Chinese restaurants and cafés to serve the post-pandemic surge of mainland Chinese students and migrants from Hong Kong seeking safety in the UK.

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Unsurprisingly, another sector that prospered amid the pandemic was the delivery economy. Closing down as dine-in venues during lockdowns, some curry houses that had closed more than a decade earlier and not yet found a profitable niche rebranded as ghost or dark kitchens operating out of ground floor levels. In addition, some basements on Brick Lane (and its side streets) were repurposed into busy kitchens catering for hungry locals.

This pattern continues with the newly-launched Somali takeaway Xaniid Corner, Brick Lane-Banglatown’s first Somali eatery. It operates from the basement of number 82-84, capitalising on the critically acclaimed Al-Kahf, a dine-in Somali restaurant on nearby Whitechapel Road.

Another change in Brick Lane’s hospitality sector given impetus by the pandemic is the increase in the casualisation of snacks and meals. This shift reflects both the loosening of the “lunch at one, dinner at six” mentality and the rise of local friendship groups and adventurous travellers looking for fun, reasonably-priced experiences outside their homes.

This is having a considerable impact on the growing number of cafés in the southern part of Brick Lane, most of which are owned by people of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani heritage. Not only do these enterprises meet the burgeoning demand for snacks and beverages, they also provide significant employment possibilities for the many young Bangladeshi women in the neighbourhood. These women are searching for alternatives to the mostly male curry houses, well-known businesses like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and new ventures at the Old Truman Brewery.

“You work where you feel comfortable,” says a smiling woman with a headscarf at Lavazza café. She explains that her Bengali boss, who also owns a nearby curry restaurant, trained her to be a barista. “He’s really good. He’s always learning new things and teaching us those things as well.” Her colleague gives a nod of approval. From these women’s viewpoints, it’s also clear that working involves more than just getting paid to prepare perfect cappuccinos or chai lattes. It’s about defining identities and careers that honour one’s local community and cultural norms surrounding respectability (izzat).

When Shoreditch High Street station, a gleaming testament to modernity, opened in 2010, businesses located at the southern end of Brick Lane and Osborn Street suffered greatly. Many people chose to use the new rail link rather than entering at Aldgate and Whitechapel. That change in the pattern of footfall boosted the hospitality sector in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, as evidenced by the success of Hawksmoor, Smoking Goat and a branch of Dishoom. Alas, it meant closure for about ten curry restaurants and cafés.

However, recent signs of life in this section of the Lane have emerged largely thanks to expectations of increased footfall surrounding the opening of the new town hall on Whitechapel Road and the new Whitechapel Elizabeth line stop. One notable example is Radhuni, an outlet run by Bangladeshis with Italian roots. Here, you can eat pizza while also sampling fish curry, rice and dal, a good example of what social scientists call “hybridity” or “creolisation” – a dynamic fusion of heritage traditions.

Incidentally, it’s not just Brick Lane that is witnessing this hybridity trend. A wave of similar Italian-Bangladeshi cafes has taken root in more economically marginal spaces in Tower Hamlets such nearby Shadwell, as well as the neighbouring borough of Newham. The growing presence of such eateries shows both shifting local palates and the challenges new migrants face in finding reasonably-priced premises in the more established curry restaurant cluster.

That leads to another point. Although there are several British Bangladeshi-owned businesses at the northern end of the Lane, including a tea emporium, a picture framer and multiple bars, the area is perceived as the home of hipsterism. While Brexit may have thrown a wrench into staff recruitment, it’s clear that there is still a significant demand for bohemian-style goods, services and experiences. Indeed, a few hipster eateries, such as French bistro Chez Elles and Vegan Yes, an Italian-Korean fusion joint, have established themselves in Banglatown.

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Yet, Banglatown has showed remarkable resilience and, for the time being at least, the businesses – curry cafés and restaurants, sweet shops, grocers, remittance exchanges, barbershops – along with the mosque that collectively constitute it, show no sign of moving on.

With limited westward expansion towards the City – anathema to a bohemian ethos – or northwards into Hoxton, it has forced hipster Brick Lane to expand eastwards along Bethnal Green Road, occupying former pubs, grocery stores and even Pakistani-owned leatherwear wholesalers. Fuckoffee, located at 429 Bethnal Green Road and a spin-off of Brick Lane Coffee, is emblematic of that spatial shift as well as postmodern hipster irony.

That being said, Banglatown, which connects to Bengali seafarers working on British merchant ships from centuries past, requires support to thrive and prosper if it is to fully exemplify economically and culturally meaningful “placemaking”. The last major regeneration project, Cityside Regeneration, came to a conclusion in 2004.

Furthermore, even before funding was cut off, many Bangladeshi business owners supported renaming Osborn Street to Lower Brick Lane or Brick Lane-Banglatown. This was done in part because residents have long identified Osborn Street as Brick Lane (as one person noted, “If you’re coming from Aldgate or Whitechapel, no one says turn left or right into Osborn Street, everyone says turn into Brick Lane”) and in part because it would benefit businesses at minimal cost by helping visitors more easily find the area.

The wheels of local government often turn slowly, but the administration of Mayor John Biggs was receptive to the idea. Perhaps his successor, Lutfur Rahman, should take another look at the name change and also consider other initiatives, such as moving the Banglatown arch, first erected at the entrance of Brick Lane in 1997, to Whitechapel. Initiatives like those would not only underpin employment but also celebrate Banglatown’s unique and cosmopolitan character.

Dr Seán Carey is a senior research fellow at the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences and a member of the Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity (CODE). He is also a member of the Beyond Banglatown project team. Follow Seán on X/Twitter.

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