LONDON. Exquisite typography in English and Bengali adorns the signs of Taj Stores, one of the oldest Bangladeshi supermarkets in East London’s Brick Lane. Signs recall part of the area’s past when it became known as “Banglatown” and eventually became home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the UK.
But the future of Brick Lane looks very uncertain, said Jamal Khaliq, standing in a supermarket opened in 1936 by his great-uncle and now run by Mr Khaliq and his two brothers.
Modern office buildings made of glass and steel, as well as a cluster of apartments and cranes, rise above the skyline. Every year new cafes, restaurants, food markets and hotels appear in the area. The area of Tower Hamlets, which contains Brick Lane, was the most gentrified in London from 2010 to 2016, according to one study.
In September, the city committee approved plans, which have been under discussion for five years, to build a five-story mall in and around a disused car park next to a former brewery complex that houses independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants.
The project will include branded chain stores, office space and a public square.
Like many residents of Brick Lane, Mr Khalick is ambivalent about development. At first he didn’t mind. “I’ve seen a poor, dirty neighborhood grow into a trendy, diverse, multicultural neighborhood,” said Mr Khaliq, 50.
But now he fears the new mall will undermine the area’s architecture by adding glass elements against weathered bricks and lure shoppers away from the old stores. “This is really going to kill small independent businesses,” he said.
The Zeloof Partnership, which owns the brewery and several other nearby facilities, said in a statement that the new center will create several hundred jobs, mostly for local residents. The statement said that its design was in keeping with the appearance of the area and did not involve the demolition of buildings.
He added that the fixed rental discount will be offered to a select number of independent businesses currently operating the brewery.
The company said there is no firm date yet for construction to begin or the new center to open.
The plans met with fierce opposition from some local residents and activists.
The constituency MP Rushanara Ali for the opposition Labor Party said residents had expressed concern about the “limited concessions” made by developers, adding that the Conservative government had reduced “local authority and accountability to local communities” for development.
Opponents of the construction also argue that it could drive up rents and house prices in an area that has long been a working-class area.
In December 2020, the “Save Brick Lane” campaign received widespread attention online, thanks in part to the involvement of Nijor Manush, a British Bangladeshi activist group. The city council received over 7,000 objection letters, although only a few hundred were from local residents, indicating that the proposed development had become a point of controversy outside of Brick Lane.
Last September, shortly after Zeluf’s plans were approved, activists and residents marched in protest, unfurling “Save Brick Lane” posters behind the empty coffin-carrying coffin to represent what they call the devastating effect of gentrification.
However, not everyone is against the plans.
“Brick Lane is long dead,” said Shams Uddin, 62, who arrived in the area from Bangladesh in 1976 and was the owner of Monsoon, one of the many Bangladeshi curry restaurants that once thrived in the neighborhood. since 1999.
Indeed, over the past 15 years, 62 percent of Brick Lane curry restaurants have closed due to rising rents, visa difficulties for new chefs and a lack of government support, according to a study by the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality research institute. .
Mr Uddin said international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the deterrent effect of Brexit and the opening of franchises in a historic market nearby are deterring customers from visiting. Under such conditions, he said, a new mall could boost the waning business around it.
“When customers are done with the mall, they can come to my restaurant,” he said. “It’s good for our business.”
The changing face of Brick Lane strikes many longtime residents who remember the many empty houses in London’s East End five decades ago.
“The area has been abandoned,” said Dan Cruikshank, historian and member of the Spitalfields Foundation, a local conservation and heritage preservation group.
When he bought his Spitalfields home in the 1970s, which had been empty for over 10 years, Cruikshank said he struggled to get a mortgage. East London is “considered dark, dangerous, remote and should be avoided” by mortgage lenders and developers, he said.
Now, derided by Mr. Cruickshank as “a special case of gentrification,” the Brick Lane houses have taken on a Midas hue. Average real estate prices in the area have tripled in just over a decade, according to a comparison of government data conducted by real estate agents, with some of them in excess of millions of dollars.
With the average house in London costing almost 12 times the average UK salary, there are few affordable housing options.
For centuries, Brick Lane has been a refuge for minority communities: Huguenots, silk weavers fleeing religious persecution in 17th-century France, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe, and then Bangladeshi Muslims in the 1970s. , during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan and subsequent violence. Since the 1990s, it has become a symbol of multicultural London, celebrated in novels, memoirs, films and museum exhibits.
In the 1970s, Bangladeshis were drawn to Brick Lane by the cheap places to live and the extensive job opportunities in the textile industry.
But the arrivals were met with discriminatory housing policies and occasional racist violence from supporters of the National Front, a far-right British political party headquartered nearby. Racists have smeared swastikas and “KKK” on some buildings. Mr. Khalik, a grocery store owner, said he had a permanent scar on his right leg when he was attacked by a dog belonging to a National Front supporter as a youth.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi families squatted in empty houses despite the attacks – squatting was not a criminal offense in England at the time – while demanding better housing options.
Among these families was Halima Begum. As a child, she lived for many years in an abandoned building set for demolition until her father, a factory worker, broke into an abandoned apartment near Brick Lane. Miss Begum lived there until she left for college.
Now director of the Runnymede Trust, Ms Begum has witnessed Brick Lane transform into what she called a “two-town tale” where wealthy workers from the nearby financial district live in an area that London’s charity says is the highest level child poverty in the capital.
Overcrowding is rampant in Tower Hamlets, with more than 20,000 applicants waiting for low-income housing. Opponents of the shopping center note that there are no social housing plans.
“How the hell are British Bangladeshi communities, which experience significant poverty, going to be able to maintain a lifestyle when this area turns into Manhattan?” she said, referring to New York’s East Village gentrification in the 1980s. “The way we resurrect needs to be more inclusive.”
Sometimes the push back went beyond petitions and local complaints. In 2015, anti-gentrification protesters vandalized a cafe specializing in hard-to-find breakfast cereals, considered by some to be the ultimate example of “hipsterification”. (The company closed on Brick Lane in July 2020 but continues to open an online store.)
Aaron Mo, 39, who opened a makeshift Chinese bakery called Ong Ong Buns next to a planned development last July, is wary of the mall’s impact on small independent businesses like his.
But he said he learned something when a nearby branch of the Pret A Manger sandwich chain unexpectedly closed for two weeks last year. The effect was tangible, in his words: “We have more customers.”
For Mr. Khalik, fears of gentrification go beyond business—they are also deeply personal.
Outside of his store, Brick Lane’s history is visible in lampposts painted in green and red, the colors of the Bangladeshi flag, and in street signs in English and Bengali.
“Our elders fought very hard for this territory,” he said of his father’s generation. “It’s in my blood.”