LONDON — Ornate English and Bengali typography adorns the signs of Taj Stores, one of the oldest Bangladeshi supermarkets on East London’s Brick Lane district. The signs evoke part of the area’s past, when it became known as “Banglatown”, and eventually hosted Britain’s largest Bangladeshi community.
But Brick Lane’s future 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 dominate the skyline. New cafes, restaurants, food markets and hotels are popping up in the neighborhood every year. According to a study, the borough of Tower Hamlets, which contains Brick Lane, experienced the greatest gentrification in London from 2010 to 2016.
In September, a borough committee approved plans – under discussion for five years – to build a five-story shopping mall in and around a disused parking lot next to a former brewery complex that houses independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants.
The project would include branded chain stores, office space and a public plaza.
Like many residents of Brick Lane, Mr Khalique is ambivalent about development. Initially, he did not object. “I’ve seen a hell of a change from an underprivileged, dirty neighborhood to a trendy, diverse, multicultural neighborhood,” said Mr. Khalique, 50.
But now he fears the new mall is undermining the neighborhood’s architectural character by adding glass elements amid weathered brickwork, and siphoning off customers from long-established stores. “It’s really going to 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 several hundred jobs, mostly for locals. Its design was consistent with the appearance of the area and did not involve the demolition of buildings, according to the statement.
He added that a fixed rent discount would be offered to a number of independent businesses currently operating from the brewery.
The company said there is no specific date yet for the start of construction or the opening of the new center.
The plans have met with fierce resistance from some local residents and activists.
District MP Rushanara Ali of the opposition Labor Party said residents had expressed concern over “limited concessions” made by developers, adding that the Conservative government had reduced “local powers and accountability to local communities” in development.
Opponents of the development also argue that it could lead to higher rents and housing prices in what has long been a working-class neighborhood.
In December 2020, a “Save Brick Lane” campaign gained online attention, in part due to the participation of Nijjor Manush, a British Bangladeshi activist group. The borough council received over 7,000 objection letters, although only a few hundred were from local residents, a sign of just how divisive the proposed development had become beyond Brick Lane.
In September last year, shortly after Zeloof’s plans were approved, activists and residents demonstrated in protest, unfurling “Save Brick Lane” banners behind pallbearers carrying an empty coffin to represent what they describe as the corrosive effects of gentrification.
Still, not everyone is opposed to the plans.
“Brick Lane was dying a long time ago,” said Shams Uddin, 62, who arrived in the area from Bangladesh in 1976 and owner of Monsoon, one of several once-thriving Bangladeshi-run curry restaurants in the neighborhood. since 1999.
Indeed, over the past 15 years, 62% of curry restaurants in Brick Lane have closed due to rising rents, difficulties obtaining visas for new chefs and a lack of government support, according to a study by Runnymede Trust, a research institute focused on racial equality. .
Mr Uddin said international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the chilling effect of Brexit and the opening of franchises in a nearby historic market area had deterred customers from visiting. In this environment, he said, the new mall could revive the declining businesses around it.
“When customers finish their business with the mall, they can come to my restaurant,” he said. “It’s a good thing for our business.”
The changing face of Brick Lane comes as a surprise to many long-time residents who remember the many empty properties in London’s East End five decades ago.
“This area had been abandoned,” said Dan Cruickshank, a historian and member of the Spitalfields Trust, a local heritage and conservation group.
When he bought his house in Spitalfields in the 1970s – a property that had stood empty for more than 10 years – Mr Cruickshank said he struggled to get a mortgage. East London, he said, was “deemed dark, dangerous, remote and best avoided” by mortgage lenders and property developers.
Now, in what Mr Cruickshank calls a “special case of gentrification”, Brick Lane homes have acquired a Midas touch. Average home prices in the neighborhood have tripled in just over a decade, according to government data rankings of real estate agents, with some exceeding millions of dollars.
With an average house in London costing nearly 12 times the average wage in Britain, affordable housing options are scarce.
For centuries, Brick Lane has been a sanctuary for minority communities: Huguenot silk weavers who fled religious persecution in 17th-century France, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe, then Bangladeshi Muslims in the 1970s, during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan and the violence that followed. 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 plenty of job opportunities in the textile industry.
But the arrivals have been 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 Khalique, the owner of the grocery store, said he had permanent scars on his right leg when he was attacked in his youth by a dog belonging to a National Front supporter.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi families squatted in empty properties in defiance of attacks – squatting was not then a criminal offense in England – while demanding better housing options.
Among these families was that of Halima Begum. For years as a child, she lived in an abandoned building slated for demolition until her father, a factory worker, broke into an abandoned flat near Brick Lane. Ms. Begum lived there until she left for college.
Now director of Runnymede Trust, Ms Begum has witnessed the transformation of Brick Lane into what she described as a ‘tale of two towns’, where wealthy workers from the nearby financial district live in an area with what the charity Trust for London is said to have the highest child poverty rates in the capital.
Overcrowding is endemic in Tower Hamlets, where more than 20,000 applicants are waiting for low-income housing. Opponents of the mall point out that the plans do not include any social housing.
“How on earth could UK Bangladeshi communities experiencing deep poverty maintain a way of life where this area thrives in Manhattan?” she says, citing the gentrification of New York’s East Village in the 1980s. “The way we regenerate needs to be more inclusive.”
Sometimes the pushback went beyond local petitions and lamentations. A cafe specializing in hard-to-find varieties of breakfast cereal, which some considered the ultimate example of “hipsterfication”, was vandalized in 2015 by anti-gentrification protesters. (The business closed in Brick Lane in July 2020, but it continues to operate an online store.)
Aaron Mo, 39, who opened a pop-up Chinese 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 hers.
But he said he learned something instructive when a nearby branch of the Pret A Manger sandwich chain closed unexpectedly 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 deeply personal.
Outside his store, the history of Brick Lane can be seen in streetlights painted green and red, the colors of the Bangladeshi flag, and in street signs in English and Bengali.
“Our elders fought very hard for this region,” he said of his father’s generation. “It’s in my blood.”