Towers rise above Brick Lane in London, obscuring the future

LONDON — Graceful English and Bengali typography graces the signs of Taj Stores, one of the oldest Bengali supermarkets in the Brick Lane area of ​​East London. The signs evoke some of the area’s past, when it became known as ‘Banglatown’ and eventually was home to the largest Bengali community in Britain.

But the future of Brick Lane looks very uncertain, said Jamal Khalique, standing in a supermarket opened in 1936 by his great-uncle and now run by Mr Khalique and his two brothers.

Modern glass and steel office buildings and a cluster of apartments and cranes tower over the skyline. Every year new coffee shops, restaurants, food markets and hotels appear in the area. According to a survey, the borough of Tower Hamlets, where Brick Lane is located, had the most gentrification in London from 2010 to 2016.

In September, a borough committee approved plans — under discussion for five years — to build a five-storey shopping center on and around a disused parking lot next to a former brewery complex with independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants.

The project includes branded shops, office spaces and a public square.

Like many Brick Lane residents, Mr. Khalique is ambivalent about the development. He was not against it at first. “I have seen an amazing change from a deprived, dirty area to a trendy, diversified, multicultural area,” said Mr Khalique, 50.

But now he worries that the new shopping center will undermine the architectural character of the area by adding glass elements to the weathered brick, and will siphon customers from long-established stores. “It will really kill small, independent businesses,” he said.

In a statement, Zeloof Partnership, which owns the brewery site and a handful of other nearby properties, said the new center would create hundreds of jobs, mostly for locals. The design was in keeping with the look of the area and did not involve demolition of any buildings, the statement said.

It added that a fixed rental discount would be offered to a select few independent companies currently operating out of the brewery.

The company said there was no set date for when construction would begin or when the new center would open.

The plans were met with fierce resistance from some local residents and activists.

The district’s MP Rushanara Ali of the opposition Labor party said residents had expressed concern over “limited concessions” made by the developers, adding that the Conservative government has “local powers and accountability to local communities” over development. had reduced.

Opponents of the development also argue that rents and house prices could rise in what was long a working-class neighborhood.

In December 2020, a ‘Save Brick Lane’ campaign received a lot of attention online, including through the participation of Nijjor Manush, a British activist group from Bangladesh. The city council received more than 7,000 objections, although only a few hundred were from local residents, a sign of what had become a bone of contention the proposed development beyond Brick Lane alone.

In September last year, shortly after Zeloof’s plans were approved, activists and residents marched in protest, unfolding “Save Brick Lane” banners behind porters carrying an empty coffin to represent what they describe as the corrosive effects of gentrification.

However, not everyone is against the plans.

“Brick Lane died a long time ago,” said Shams Uddin, 62, who arrived in the area from Bangladesh in 1976 and owns Monsoon, one of the many Bengali curry restaurants that have once flourished in the area, since 1999.

According to a study by Runnymede Trust, a research institute that focuses on racial equality, 62 percent of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants have closed in the past 15 years due to rising rents, difficulties obtaining visas for new chefs and a lack of government support. . .

Mr Uddin said international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the chilling effect of Brexit and the opening of franchises in a historic market area nearby had deterred customers from visiting. In this environment, he said, the new mall could lift the dwindling businesses around it.

“If customers end their business with the mall, they can come to my restaurant,” he said. “This is a good thing for our company.”

The changing face of Brick Lane is surprising to many longtime residents who remember the many vacant properties in London’s East End five decades ago.

“This area was deserted,” said Dan Cruickshank, historian and member of the Spitalfields Trust, a local heritage and conservation organization.

When he bought his home in Spitalfields in the 1970s – a property that had been vacant for more than a decade – Mr. Cruickshank that he was struggling to get a mortgage. East London, he said, was considered “dark, dangerous, remote and avoidable” by mortgage lenders and property developers.

Now, in what Mr Cruickshank derided as a “special case of gentrification,” Brick Lane homes have taken on a Midas twist. Average real estate prices in the neighborhood have tripled in just over a decade, according to government data collections from real estate agents, with some even rising to more than millions of dollars.

With the average house in London costing almost 12 times the average salary in Britain, affordable housing options are scarce.

Brick Lane has been a refuge for minority communities for centuries: Huguenot weavers fleeing religious persecution in 17th-century France, Ashkenazi Jews escaping anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe, then Bangladeshi Muslims in the 1970s, during Bangladesh’s Pakistan’s struggle for independence and the ensuing 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 cheap housing and abundant employment opportunities in the textile industry.

But the arrivals were greeted by discriminatory housing policies and occasional racist violence from supporters of the National Front – a far-right British political party headquartered nearby. Racists smeared swastikas and “KKK” on some buildings. Khalique, the owner of the supermarket, said he had permanent scars on his right leg when he was attacked by a dog belonging to a National Front supporter in his youth.

Hundreds of Bangladeshi families squatted in empty buildings in defiance of the attacks – squatting was not yet a criminal offense in England at the time – while demanding better housing.

One of those families was that of Halima Begum. As a child, she lived for years in a dilapidated building that was slated to be demolished, until her father, a factory worker, broke into an abandoned flat near Brick Lane. Mrs. Begum lived there until she went to university.

Now the director of Runnymede Trust, Ms Begum, has witnessed the transformation of Brick Lane into what she described as a ‘two town tale’, where wealthy workers from the adjacent financial district live in an area known as the Trust for London says it has the highest child poverty rate in the capital.

Overcrowding reigns in Tower Hamlets, where more than 20,000 applicants are waiting for low-income housing. Opponents of the shopping center point out that no social housing is included in the plans.

“How would the British communities in Bangladesh experiencing significant poverty be able to maintain a lifestyle where this area develops into Manhattan?” she said, citing the gentrification of New York City’s East Village in the 1980s. “The way we regenerate has to be inclusive.”

At times, the backlash went beyond petitions and local laments. A cafe specializing in hard-to-find breakfast cereals, which some say was the ultimate example of “hipsterification,” was vandalized in 2015 by anti-gentrification protesters. (The company closed its doors in Brick Lane in July 2020, but continues to operate an online store.)

Aaron Mo, 39, who opened a Chinese pop-up bakery, Ong Ong Buns, near the planned development in July last year, is cautious about predicting the mall’s effect on small independent businesses like his.

But he said he learned something instructive when a nearby branch of sandwich chain Pret A Manger unexpectedly closed for two weeks last year. The effect was palpable, he said: “We have more customers.”

For Mr. Khalique, concerns about gentrification go beyond business – they are also very personal.

Outside his shop, Brick Lane’s history is evident in the lampposts painted in green and red, the colors of the Bangladesh flag, and in street signs that are in both English and Bengali.

“Our elders have fought very hard for this area,” he said of his father’s generation. “It’s in my blood.”