LONDON – Ornate English and Bengali typography adorns the signs for Taj Stores, one of the oldest Bangladeshi-run supermarkets in Brick Lane in East London. The signs evoke part of the area’s past, when it became known as “Banglatown” and eventually became home to Britain’s largest Bangladeshi community.
Brick Lane’s future looks very uncertain, Jamal Khaliq said, standing inside a supermarket opened in 1936 by his great-uncle and now run by Mr. Khaliq and his two brothers.
Modern glass and metal office buildings, a group of apartments and tower cranes above the skyline. New cafés, restaurants, food markets, and hotels pop up in the neighborhood every year. According to one study, Tower Hamlets, which contains Brick Lane, was the most developed area in London from 2010 to 2016.
In September, the borough committee approved plans — under discussion for five years — to build a five-story shopping mall in and around an abandoned car park next to a former brewery complex housing a Independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants.
The project will include a chain of brand-name stores, office space and a public plaza.
Like many Brick Lane residents, Mr. Khalek is ambivalent about development. At first, he did not oppose him. “I have seen a hellish change from a deprived and filthy area to a modern, diverse and multicultural area,” said 50-year-old Mr. Khaliq.
But now he worries that the new shopping center will undermine the architectural character of the area by adding glass features amid the rolling bricks, and draw customers from the old stores. “It’s really going to kill independent small businesses,” he said.
In a statement, Zeloof Partnership, which owns the brewery site and a few other properties nearby, said the new center will create several hundred jobs, mostly for local residents. The statement said that its design was consistent with the shape of the area and did not include the demolition of buildings.
It added that a fixed rental discount will be offered to a select number of independent companies currently operating from the brewery.
The company said that there is no specific date yet for when construction will start or when the new center will open.
The plans were met with fierce resistance from some locals and activists.
District MP Roshanara Ali of the opposition Labor Party said residents had expressed concerns about the “limited concessions” made by developers, adding that the Conservative government had reduced “local authorities and accountability to local communities” regarding development.
Opponents of the development also argue that it could cause rent and housing prices to rise in an area that has long been a working-class area.
In December 2020, the “Save Brick Lane” campaign gained widespread attention online, in part with the participation of Nijjor Manush, a British activist group from Bangladesh. The town council received more than 7,000 letters of objection, although only several hundred were from local residents, a sign of how contentious the proposed development outside of just Brick Lane has become.
In September last year, shortly after Zeloof’s plans were approved, activists and residents marched in protest, hoisting “Save Brick Lane” banners behind pallbearers carrying an empty casket to represent what they describe as the devastating effects of gentrification.
However, not everyone is against the plans.
“Brick Lane has been dying for a long time,” said Shamsuddin, 62, who arrived in the area from Bangladesh in 1976 and was the owner of Monsoon, a Bangladesh-run curry restaurant that once thrived in the neighborhood, since 1999.
In fact, in the past 15 years, 62 percent of curry restaurants on Brick Lane have closed due to rising rents, difficulty obtaining visas for new chefs and a lack of government support, according to a study by the Runnymede Trust, a research institute focused on racial equality. .
Mr Din said international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the horrific impact of Brexit and the opening of concessions in a nearby historic market area had prevented customers from visiting. In this environment, he said, the new shopping center can lift the dwindling business around it.
“When the customers are done with the mall, they might come to my restaurant,” he said. “This is a good thing for our business.”
The changing face of Brick Lane amazes many old residents who remember the many empty estates in London’s East End five decades ago.
“This area has been abandoned,” said Dan Cruikshank, a historian and member of the Spitalfields Trust, a local heritage and preservation group.
When he bought his Spitalfields home in the 1970s – a property that has been empty for more than 10 years – Cruikshank said he struggled to get a mortgage. He said East London was “seen as dark, dangerous and remote and to be avoided” by mortgage lenders and property developers.
Now, in what Cruikshank derides as a “special case of gentrification,” the homes on Brick Lane have acquired a Midas touch. Average neighborhood real estate prices have tripled in just over a decade, according to real estate agents assembling government data, with some rising above millions of dollars.
With the average home cost in London nearly 12 times the average salary in Britain, affordable housing options are scarce.
For centuries, Brick Lane has been a haven for minority communities: the silk weavers of Huguenots who fled 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 the violence that followed. Since the 1990s, it has become a symbol of multicultural London, and is celebrated in novels, memoirs, films, and museum exhibitions.
In the 1970s, Bangladeshis were attracted to Brick Lane by the cheap places to live and the abundant job opportunities in the textile industry.
But the expats were met with discriminatory housing policies and occasional racial violence from followers of the National Front – a far-right British political party based nearby. Racists stained some buildings with swastikas and “KKK”. Mr. Khaliq, a grocery store owner, 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 were detained in vacant properties in defiance of the attacks – land grabbing was not a criminal offense in England at the time – while demanding better housing options.
Among those families was the family of Halima Begum. For years, as a child, she lived in an abandoned building that was set for demolition until her father, a factory worker, broke into an abandoned apartment near Brick Lane. Mrs. Begum lived there until she left the university.
Now director of the Runnymede Trust, Ms Begum has witnessed Brick Lane’s transformation into what she describes as a “tale of two cities”, where wealthy workers from the neighboring financial district live in an area that the Charity Trust for London says has the highest rates of child poverty in the capital.
Overcrowding is rampant in Tower Hamlets, where more than 20,000 applicants await low-income housing. Opponents of the shopping center point out that the plans do not include any social housing.
“How on earth are the extremely poor British Bangladeshi communities able to maintain a lifestyle as this area develops into Manhattan?” She said, citing New York City’s East Village improvement in the 1980s. “The way we regenerate has to be more inclusive.”
At times, this reaction overtook petitions and domestic lamentations. A café specializing in hard-to-find varieties of breakfast cereals, considered by some to be the best example of “hipstervation,” was vandalized in 2015 by anti-modernist protesters. (The company closed its Brick Lane doors in July 2020, but continues to run an online store.)
Aaron Mo, 39, who in July last year opened a pop-up Chinese bakery, Aung Aung Buns, near the planned development, is cautious about anticipating the mall’s impact on small, independent businesses like himself.
But he said he learned something useful when a nearby branch of his Pret A Manger sandwich chain closed unexpectedly for two weeks last year. The effect was clear, as he said, “We got more clients.”
For Mr. Khalek, concerns about improvement go beyond business – they are also highly personal.
Outside his shop, Brick Lane’s history is visible in green and red light poles, the colors of the Bangladesh flag, and in English and Bengali street signs.
He said of his father’s generation, “Our elders fought hard for this region.” ‘It’s in my blood.’