Losing Banglatown

By [email protected] | Jun 24, 2022

By Ananya Radhakrishnan (17, Resident of Camden)

In 2022, protecting our cultures and maintaining a sense of community is vital in progressing successfully as a society. However, gentrification, seen all over London, can sometimes hinder this progress in the name of economic growth. One such example is Brick Lane.

Walking through the streets of Brick Lane is to wander into a thrift store and browse a selection of 90’s and ‘Y2K’ vintage clothing, to buy an extortionately expensive oat-milk latte in a café, and to perhaps question the presence of an Amazon hair-care store and a large Lululemon shop. This glossy, manicured version of Brick Lane only began to develop in the past fifteen to twenty years, and while it can be seen as a sign of growth, it also has detrimental effects on the minority groups for whom the area, for many decades, was a sanctuary.

From the 1880s onwards, large numbers of Jewish people migrated to Brick Lane to escape persecution, and hence, by 1899, 25% of the population of Spitalfields was Jewish. According to the resource ‘Beyond Banglatown’, “In 1905, the Aliens Act, Britain’s first piece of legislation to restrict the entry of foreign-born migrants was passed in response to this increased Jewish presence”, showing the Anti-Semitic attitudes that were growing in London. This only increased upon the second wave of Jewish migration to the East End after the Second World War. Despite this, Brick Lane soon became a refuge for Jewish migrants and later Bangladeshi migrants who came by “way of East India Company, and, later, imperial trading routes.” Brick Lane Market would open on Sundays to respect the Jewish Sabbath, and later, respect for Bangladeshi culture and presence could be seen through signs written in Bengali in the streets, resulting in the area being named “Banglatown”. Traditional Jewish bakeries grew all over the area, and Bangladeshi curry houses came soon after, making the area synonymous with exquisite, authentic cuisine.

Unfortunately, according to the New York times, “In the past 15 years, 62 percent of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants have closed because of rising rent, difficulties obtaining visas for new chefs and a lack of government support”. This seems to be part of a trend of losing cultures and religions, having occurred previously when the Jewish community were forced from the centre to the suburbs by to religious persecution. Jamal Khalique, the owner of an 80-year-old Bengali-run grocery store spoke to the New York Times about an upcoming shopping mall construction in the area, explaining that “It will really kill small, independent businesses”, Here, he was perhaps expressing a worry many second or third generation Bengali immigrants share. Losing Banglatown represents the loss of the area their parents fought to live in, and where they overcame horrific racist murders such as the stabbing of Altab Ali, on 4th May, 1978.

The question therefore is whether this gentrification is necessary for economic growth or whether it creates immense instability for the minority groups who rely on such areas to preserve their cultures.