London’s Banglatown, situated in Brick Lane, offers a glimpse into a different world.
In former times, Brick Lane was situated outside of London’s city walls. Known as a slum with a high crime rate and poor housing conditions, it became the home of different immigrant communities. In the 16th century, the French Huguenots who are famous for their mastery in silk weaving and beer brewery settled in the area. They were followed by the Irish who escaped the Potato Famine and Jews who looked for a new place to settle down when the ethnic cleansing campaigns occurred in Poland and Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
The first Bengali immigrants were lascars (East Indian sailors or army servants) who settled nearby the docks in East London. Most of them came from Sylhet, the Northeastern division of Bangladesh, and found work in the garment factories around Brick Lane. At the same time, the first Indian restaurants opened in the street to cater the vast number of Asian single men. The oldest restaurant in Brick Lane is Nazrul. It opened in 1979. In the 1970s, many Bengali men could manage to bring their wives, children and extended family members through chain migration to East London’s borough of Tower Hamlets where Brick Lane is situated. They all lived close to the Jamme Masjid Brick Lane, the garment workshops, the curry restaurants and the first Bengali food store Taj Stores.
After renaming Spitalfields into Spitalfields & Banglatown in 1997, street signs in Bengali, a gateway and streetlights adorned with the red and green colors of the Bangladesh flag were added. The number of curry restaurants increased from eight in 1989 to 41 in 2002.
The urban regeneration programme included also the St. Mary’s Park nearby Brick Lane. It was renamed Altab Ali Park in memory of the Bangladeshi worker Altab Ali who was murdered in a racist attack in 1978. After his death, the Bangladeshi community organized a public funeral which resulted in a rise of the community’s self-confidence. Together with white left-wing and anarchist groups, the Bangladeshis formed a resistance movement against racist attacks.
Since 1999, the park is also the site of the Shaheed Minar. It symbolizes a mother protecting her children with the orb of the sun in the background. Every year, the Bangladeshi community gathers at the park to commemorate the martyrs shot dead in 1952 by the Pakistani Police while protesting against the imposition of Urdu as Pakistan’s state language. A poem by the Bengali poet and national anthem writer of India and Bangladesh, Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), is embedded in path of the park:
The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly. Its fruit matures for somebody whose coming I wait for constantly.
Banglatown empowered the Bangladeshi community. It is more visible to the public and it gained from benefits of wealth creation, but the design of a ‘single culture area’ brings also negative effects. Banglatown implies that the culture of the Bangladeshi community is fixed and homogenous and can be consumed as such. The curry restaurants and street furniture reflect the uniqueness and otherness of the diaspora. Especially, the second and third generations of the immigrant community have more adopted to the London lifestyle. Nowadays, the British-born Bangladeshis tend to call themselves British-Bangladeshi, British-Muslim or British-Asian to express their multiple identity. Furthermore, the focus on only one ethnic group in a diverse borough like Tower Hamlets sparks another source for tension.
The Bangladeshi immigrants live close to each other to protect themselves. Many of them rent flats in run down houses because of discriminating housing policies and there is also a separation in the school system. 95 % of the pupils at Christ Church in Brick Lane are Bangladeshi. By keeping the contact of children with different ethnic backgrounds to a minimum, it is hard to build a tolerant community in the area.
In the 1990s, Brick Lane became an attractive destination for London’s creative industry where artists, designers and entrepreneurs could find affordable workspaces. Brick Lane was transformed into their new playground including the Truman Brewery, the Whitechapel Gallery, Spitalfields Market and ‘Rich Mix’. The Truman Brewery and the Spitalfields Market host famous flea markets, designer shops, food stalls, night clubs and bars while ‘Rich Mix’ organizes a wide variety of different events and the Whitechapel Gallery displays the work of famous artists.
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi diaspora is disturbed by litter, noise and the drug consumption of the young crowd. Gang fights and youth disorder are serious problems in Tower Hamlets and keep the crime rate at a high level. As a consequence, some Bangladeshis already moved to other districts of London. Furthermore, the curry restaurants have to compete with new food stalls, high-class restaurants, coffee shops and fast food chains.
Since the young creative scene substantially improved the living standard in Brick Lane, the rent and property prices increased massively. The former bad reputation of East London was replaced by trendy bars and clubs, fancy flagship stores and start-up companies. Leading street art artists like Banksy constantly change Brick Lane’s look, famous actors like Keira Knightley move to the area and make it a ‘hip place’ where everybody wants to be and tourist guides show their customers where Jack the Ripper and the Kray Brothers committed their crimes in East London.
Brick Lane has welcomed different immigrant communities in the past. The predecessors of the Bangladeshis, the Jews, could only obtain two baigel shops. The boom of East London probably turns the Bangladeshi diaspora into the last ethnic group that can obviously show its presence in the street. The best example to see the ever-changing nature of Brick Lane might be the Jamme Masjid. It was built by the Huguenots as a Protestant church and later on, transformed into a synagogue by the Jews and afterwards into a mosque by the Bangladeshis. One relict from the past is its inscription: Umbra sumus. We are shadows.