A row over a plot of land in East London has ignited mass protest. Could this mark the end for Brick Lane’s iconic curry houses, a focal point for the Bangladeshi community's identity and resistance?
Brick Lane is a tale of two cities. At one end is a shabby-chic tapestry of vintage clothes stores and coffee shops. At the other, a luscious-smelling cluster of curry houses, sweet shops and Bangladeshi-run cafes. Welcome to Banglatown. Here, the street signs appear first in English, then in Bangla and the lampposts are painted green and red – the colour of the Bangladeshi flag. The area has been key in shaping a unique British-Bangladeshi identity, with Bengali migration to the area stretching as far back as the 17th century. It has long been a site of resistance too. Early activity revolved around supporting people “back home” (during the Bangladesh Liberation War, for example). Later, antiracism protesters marched the cobbled streets and demanded change.
A site of political, cultural and social transformation, since 1998 it has formed part of the Spitalfields And Banglatown electoral ward and the surrounding area is host to important cultural events such as Boishakhi Mela (which marks Bengali New Year and is the second-biggest street festival in London, after Notting Hill Carnival). The London Borough Of Tower Hamlets, in which Brick Lane is located, is home to the largest concentration of Bangladeshis in England and Wales. But Bangladeshi-run businesses in the area have been struggling for some time.
The number of curry houses on the street has declined significantly – from 60 at its peak in the mid-2000s to 23 in 2018. There are various reasons for this, not least change in lunchtime habits: these days, City workers are far more likely to eat a sandwich at their desk than venture onto Brick Lane for a curry. The opening of Shoreditch High Street overground station in 2010 and Boxpark in 2011 pulled footfall away from the southern end of the street. And the 2014 closure of Vibe Bar, which previously funnelled hungry customers into Banglatown, was also a blow
That’s not to mention the pandemic. According to the Office For National Statistics, Bangladeshis were three times more likely to die during the second wave than their white counterparts. Where the restaurants are concerned, very few embraced platforms such as Deliveroo or Just Eat. Fewer still will benefit from outside-only dining restrictions, thanks to the narrow pavements that border Brick Lane. Now, a new threat looms.
In February 2020, the Truman Brewery (which owns a hefty chunk of land in the Brick Lane and Spitalfields area) submitted a planning application for a five-storey office building and shopping centre at the intersection of Woodseer Street and Brick Lane – a plot of empty land marking the physical divide between Brick Lane north and Banglatown. The plans are due to be considered by a Tower Hamlets Development Committee on 27 April.
In response, an informal coalition of groups has formed to oppose the plans. These include the Spitalfields Trust and East End Preservation Society, who work to protect historic buildings in the area. The Mayor's Culture At Risk Office and race equality think tank Runnymede Trust have also written letters of objection to the council. The social media charge, meanwhile, has been spearheaded by Bengali activist group Nijjor Manush. Thanks to them the campaign went viral in December 2020, with an infographic that has since amassed more than 50,000 likes. Arguments against the plans are many and various, but there is a general consensus that the development would further undermine Bangladeshi businesses.
I speak to two of Nijjor Manush’s founders, Dr Fatima Rajina and Tasnima Uddin, who argue that the plans will inevitably hike up rent prices for business owners who are already struggling. “How are small family-run restaurants going to benefit from a five-story building and shopping mall, with office spaces with a few cafés here and there?” asks Rajina.
Nijjor Manush locates itself, and the current campaign, within the long history of Bangladeshi resistance. In Britain, much of this is inextricably linked to Brick Lane. In 1976, for example, the Bengali Housing Action Group formed in order to resist discriminatory housing practices in Tower Hamlets. Members would squat empty buildings in the area in an attempt to put pressure on the council. One of its key locations was the Pelham Buildings on Woodseer Street, a walk away from where the Truman Brewery plans to erect its new development.
And in 1978 the Federation Of Bangladeshi Youth Organisations co-ordinated a 7,000-strong march from East London to Downing Street in response to the murder of Altab Ali, a Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered by fascists. The park in which he lost his life was renamed in his honour and sits at the southernmost end of Brick Lane. Later that year, Bangladeshi organisers were forced to take to the streets again in an effort to protect Brick Lane from a planned National Front demonstration. In both instances, the Bangladeshi community in London took inspiration from Asian Youth Movements in the North.
“During the 1970s, Bangladeshis were literally laying down their own bodies in order to protect Brick Lane from the march of white supremacists,” says Uddin. “That was 50 years ago. We are, in a way, having to do the same thing. And, you know, these are not just individual white supremacists, this is more structural.”
Later, in 1999, Bangladeshi Youth marched once more following a racially motivated nail bombing on Brick Lane (the neo-Nazi attacker also targeted Brixton and Soho and was later jailed).
Various alternatives have been suggested for the site – principal among them is social housing. There is an irony in building offices when there are more than 20,000 applicants on the Tower Hamlets housing register and trends signal a shift towards home working. This may be idealistic, though: the land is privately owned and council housing is a council issue.
On the surface, the uproar reflects efforts to protect cultural enclaves across the capital. In Tottenham, Latin-American market Pueblito Paisa has been battling developers for more than a decade, while a similar campaign in Elephant And Castle centred on the area’s iconic shopping centre. However, local traders were at the forefront of both campaigns. The perspective of Bangladeshi business owners is noticeably absent when it comes to the so-called “Battle For Brick Lane”.
Rajina and Uddin, neither of whom are from the area, acknowledge this, but say that the East End Trades Guild has reached out to offer solidarity. I speak to four restaurateurs myself, the majority of whom support the development plans.
Gujar Khan is the chair of the Brick Lane Business Association and runs Masala restaurant. He says that most local business owners are in favour of the development and that it will “generate a lot of business for the area”. Abdul Ahad grew up on Brick Lane and runs City Spice. If the plans are approved, his restaurant will sit directly opposite the new building. “More people will come from other places to work and spend their money,” he says. “I’m all for the development. The land has been derelict for years, since I grew up here as a little boy. It will create a better atmosphere than what it is at the moment.” Another restaurateur, who chose to remain anonymous, says, “If Truman Brewery builds ten towers here, that’s more customers for us.”
None of the three I speak to are worried about rent and believe that landlords are more likely to offer incentives and discounts in the wake of the pandemic. The only local who expressed concern is the manager of Bangla Cash & Carry, whose lease is owned by the Truman Brewery. He would not elaborate as to why. In a video posted to Nijjor Manush’s Instagram, an anonymous speaker (supposedly a Cash & Carry employee) claims that the Brewery is not renewing their lease and that it has been using intimidation tactics to push them out.
The Brewery denies this claim. In an email, spokesperson Alun James said: “We pride ourselves on our positive relationships with tenants and take seriously any accusations to the contrary. We therefore undertook a review in December 2020 when these allegations came to our attention, both internally and with third-party suppliers. We have been assured by all parties, and are certain, that there is no truth in the allegations. The video itself is inflammatory, containing spurious and unsubstantiated allegations, made off-camera with no evidence provided.” James also confirmed that Cash & Carry’s lease has been renewed until 2023.
“Brick Lane is a physical space, but it's also a metaphorical space,” says Sean Carey, an academic who worked on the Beyond Banglatown project. His comment speaks to the chasm between Brick Lane as a space that exists within the wider British-Bangladeshi imagination and Brick Lane as a reality for those who work there. For the record, Carey is also wary of the proposed development and compares it to a holiday resort:
“The way it will be constructed will be to imprison people. Some people are expecting a trickle-down effect into Brick Lane, but there won’t be. It will bring more people into the area, but they won’t be going into the curry houses and those local businesses. They’ll be supporting the businesses that are within that cleverly contrived enclave.”
The Brewery appears to be pushing ahead with its plans, having removed historic paving sets from the area in February. Some parties have claimed this was a breach of planning control, however Tower Hamlets council confirmed it was a “permitted development” via email. Despite receiving more than 7,000 letters of objection, the council has recommended that the development go ahead. In a report released this week, it writes that the building would “respond appropriately to the positive aspects of the local contexts” and create job opportunities. There are legitimate concerns that the building will undermine the cultural character of Brick Lane. And it’s true, the renderings – all steel beams and glass – speak more to the sanitised architecture we are seeing replicated across the capital than to the area’s bohemian feel.
But Truman Brewery aside, there are doubts as to the future of Bangladeshi Brick Lane. Bangladeshi residents have been steadily leaving the area for years: many bought their council houses under the right-to-buy scheme and moved to areas such as Essex. And Ahad estimates that only six curry houses have survived the pandemic. The area is an integral part of the history and identity of British-Bangladeshis. But unless more is done to protect and preserve its legacy, street signs and colourful lampposts may be all we have to show for it – and by the time Tower Hamlets makes its decision there may, sadly, be very little left of Banglatown to protect.