‘Bangla noise on Brick Lane, that’s the sound of my home’.
The first line of British-Bangladeshi singer Joy Crookes’ song ‘London Mine’ perfectly captures the significance of Brick Lane as a pocket of Bangladeshi culture in London’s East End. With its numerous world-famous, Bangladeshi-owned curry houses, this iconic location in London attracts millions of tourists every year and is a symbol of the cultural richness that decades of Bangladeshi immigration have brought to the area.
In existence under its current name since the 1550s, Brick Lane has represented the diverse and multicultural nature of London for hundreds of years. It was first a safe haven for French Protestants fleeing religious persecution and later saw large amounts of Jewish immigration. It was in the 1950s and 60s that Bangladeshi men first came to the biggest cities in England in search of employment and this reached an all-time high in the 1970s due to ongoing conflict with West Pakistan. The majority of these immigrants came from the Sylhet region in the North-East of the country and many settled in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, specifically the Spitalfields and Brick Lane area.
So, how did Brick Lane become so important for the Bangladeshi immigrant community? Many of the single, immigrant men that arrived in London and specifically the Tower Hamlets area found work in industry but due to austerity in England in the latter half of the 1970s and the privatisation of companies, many of these men were made powerless victims of mass redundancy. This rise in unemployment led many Bangladeshis to open their own restaurants and consequently one of the poorest areas of London, which had seen a sharp decline in business, saw a huge period of economic flourishing. These restaurants became known as ‘Indian’ curry houses and currently more than 80% of all Indian restaurants in the UK are Bangladeshi owned. Due to this phenomenon, many immigrants were able to bring their family members from Bangladesh to settle with them in the Brick Lane and Spitalfields area. This allowed a real tight-knit community to establish itself. Asian clothing shops and factories were opened and in 1976, the synagogue on the corner of Brick Lane became a mosque. This building is now a symbol of the migratory history of the area due to the fact that before the synagogue, it was also a Protestant chapel for the French refugees. This sense of community is perhaps where Brick Lane’s greatest importance lies. Many of these immigrants suffered from relentless racism whilst some found difficulty in communicating in English. A place such as Brick Lane would have therefore provided a safe space where they were free to actively participate in their culture and celebrate their identity with other people who were going through the same things.
For London’s current Bangladeshi community, Brick Lane is a representation of the vibrancy that their enterprise and culture brought to the area. It is, in effect, a living reminder of the history of immigration and the way in which it allowed the area to blossom. The Bangladeshi identity is so synonymous with this part of London that in 2001, the borough changed the name of the electoral ward of ‘Spitalfields’ to ‘Spitalfields and Banglatown’. Lamp posts have also been painted in the colours of the Bangladeshi flag in celebration.
Despite this, it seems that Brick Lane and its importance to the Bangladeshi community are being threatened by an endemic that has taken many victims in London in recent years. It is completely unsurprising that the area has changed immensely since the first Bangladeshi immigrants settled there. It has become a general hub for culture with cafés, clubs, bars and even street art by Banksy. Although all these things should be welcomed as they allow communities to live and thrive together through the celebration of art , what should not be allowed to destroy such culturally significant places is the process of gentrification.
In 2020, plans for the redevelopment of the iconic Truman Brewery on Brick Lane were announced. These plans would include the construction of multi-storey office spaces as well as shops, restaurants and a gym. Many believe that if allowed, this redevelopment would completely compromise the cultural authenticity of the area. It would also bring with it the usual negative impacts of gentrification. For a development like this to be financially feasible, investment from large commercial companies and brands is required. This commercialisation of the area and huge investments would lead to housing prices and the general cost of living to skyrocket, forcing residents to move out in favour of more affordable areas in the suburbs. As the Borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the most economically deprived (it had the highest unemployment rates in London in 2020) but also ethnically diverse areas of London, one consequence of this type of development and gentrification would be that the ethnic communities which make these areas what they are would be physically unable to continuing living in a place that represents their identity and culture as British immigrants.
For this very reason, the Truman development should not go ahead at any cost. Brick Lane is one of the many locations that make London such a diverse, vibrant and welcoming city. We cannot as a community or a country allow commercial profit and gain to take precedence over years of history that form part of a collective identity. Campaigns were initially launched to oppose the plans but with the increasing severity of the pandemic they were short-lived. An exhibition was put on by the Spitalfield’s Trust to showcase Brick Lane’s rich history through black and white photos but again due to lockdown this was not open to the public for long enough to have had a widespread impact.
A lot of the opposition has now moved online with the launch of the #SaveBrickLane campaign which encourages letters and emails to be written to people of power such as local MPs and the Mayor of London. It is hoped that uniting with the Bangladeshi voices of Brick Lane will preserve a cultural jewel in the heart of London’s East End.
Linked below are a few sites where you can find out more about how you can use your voice in solidarity with the Bangladeshi and wider East London community to save Brick Lane.