Towers rise across London’s Brick Lane and cloud its future

LONDON – Ornate English and Bengali style adorn the signs at the Taj Stores, one of the oldest Bangladeshi-run supermarkets in the Brick Lane district of East London. The signs evoke part of the area’s past when it became known as “Banglatown”, and eventually home to the largest Bangladeshi community in Britain.

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

Modern office buildings of glass and steel and a cluster of apartments and cranes tower over the skyline. New coffee shops, restaurants, food markets and hotels pop up in the neighborhood every year. According to a survey, the Tower Hamlets district, which includes Brick Lane, had the largest gentrification in London from 2010 to 2016.

In September, a city council approved plans – under discussion for five years – to build a five-story 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 will include branded chain stores, office space and a public space.

Like many Brick Lane residents, Mr Khalique is ambivalent about developments. At first he was not against. “I’ve seen a hell of a change from a disadvantaged, dirty area to a trendy, diversified, multicultural area,” said Mr. Khalique, 50.

But now he is worried that the new shopping center will undermine the architectural character of the area by adding glass elements in the middle of the weathered bricks and will siphon customers from well-established stores. “It will really kill small, independent businesses,” he said.

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

It added that a fixed discount on rent would be offered to a select number of independent companies currently operating from the brewery.

The company said there was no fixed date yet for when construction would start or when the new center would open.

The plans have met fierce opposition from some local residents and advocates.

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

Opponents of the development also claim that it can cause rents and house prices to rise in what has long been a workers’ area.

In December 2020, a “Save Brick Lane” campaign gained wide attention online, in part through the participation of Nijjor Manush, a British Bangladeshi activist group. The city council received more than 7,000 letters of objection, even though only several hundred were from local residents, a sign of what controversy the proposed development had become beyond just Brick Lane.

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

Yet not everyone is against the plans.

“Brick Lane was dying a long time ago,” said Shams Uddin, 62, who arrived in the area from Bangladesh in 1976 and has owned Monsoon, one of the many Bangladeshi-run curry restaurants that once flourished in the neighborhood. since 1999.

In fact, 62 percent of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants have closed over the past 15 years due to rising rents, difficulty getting visas for new chefs and a lack of state aid, according to a study by the Runnymede Trust, a research institute focusing on racialism. .

Mr. Uddin said international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the cooling 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 declining businesses around it.

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

The changing face of Brick Lane is surprising to many longtime 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 cultural heritage and conservation group.

When he bought his home in Spitalfields in the 1970s – a property that had stood empty for more than 10 years – Mr Cruickshank said he was struggling to secure a mortgage. East London, he said, was “considered dark, dangerous, distant and to be avoided” by mortgage lenders and property developers.

Now, in what Mr. Cruickshank mocks as a “peculiar case of gentrification,” homes in Brick Lane have been given a Midas feel. Average real estate prices in the neighborhood have tripled in just over a decade, according to realtors’ compilations of government data, some of which have risen over millions of dollars.

With the average dwelling in London costing almost 12 times the average wage in the UK, affordable housing is scarce.

For centuries, Brick Lane has been a haven for minority communities: Huguenot 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 fighting for the independence of the Bangladeshis, under the Bangladeshis. Pakistan and the subsequent violence. Since the 1990s, it has become a symbol of multicultural London, celebrated in novels, memoirs, films and museum exhibitions.

In the 1970s, the Bangladeshis were attracted to Brick Lane by cheap places to live and ample job opportunities in the textile industry.

But those who arrived were met by discriminatory housing policies and occasional racist violence from supporters of the National Front – a far-right British political party with headquarters nearby. Racists smeared swastikas and “KKK” on some buildings. Sir. Khalique, the grocery store owner, said he had a permanent scar on his right leg when, in his youth, he was attacked by a dog belonging to a National Front supporter.

Hundreds of Bangladeshi families were squatting in empty properties despite the attacks – squatting was not a criminal offense in England at the time – while demanding better housing options.

Among these families were Halima Begums. For years, she lived as a child in a derelict building marked for demolition until her father, a factory worker, broke into an abandoned apartment near Brick Lane. Mrs. Begum lived there until she went to college.

Now the director of the Runnymede Trust, Mrs Begum, has witnessed Brick Lane’s transformation into what she described as a “tale of two cities”, where wealthy workers from the nearby financial district live in an area of ​​what the charity Trust for London says is the capital’s highest child poverty.

Overcrowding is rampant 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 social housing.

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

At times, the setback has gone beyond petitions and local lamentations. A cafe specializing in hard-to-find varieties of breakfast products, which some held up as the ultimate example of “hipsterfication,” was vandalized in 2015 by anti-gentrification protesters. (The store closed its doors 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 last July, is wary of predicting the mall’s impact on small independent companies like his.

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

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

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

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

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