The Battle For Brick Lane

Taj Ali

In the 20th century, Brick Lane's migrant communities fought efforts by the far-right to drive them out. Now, amid plans for a shopping mall and rising rents, they face a different enemy: gentrification.

Brick Lane is an iconic part of East London, home to successive waves of immigrants. It has been home to Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, Irish communities fleeing the famine, and Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe. More recently, the area has been home to a very large British Bangladeshi community, many of whom came to this country as commonwealth migrants in the aftermath of the Second World War.

From the Battle of Cable Street to the Bengali squatters movement, Brick Lane has a rich and proud history of political activism. Today that struggle continues, with the local community campaigning against ongoing gentrification. Clothed in the language of redevelopment, developments will price out the local working-class community and erase Brick Lane’s unique heritage.

A proposal to build a shopping mall with four floors of corporate offices on top on the site of the Old Truman Brewery is the latest in a sustained attempt to change the fabric of the area. The battle for Brick Lane is therefore a battle to preserve its unique heritage, and to fight the social cleansing of working-class communities in the area.

NijjorManush is a grassroots campaigning group led by British Bangladeshis, organising against the new development. Dr Fatima Rajina and Sotez Chowdhury from NijjorManush are keen to highlight the impact the change could have on the local community.

‘There’s something to be said about all this happening during the pandemic,’ Sotez says. ‘There’s been various other attempts at things that people have tried to force through that have been thwarted by the local community coming together.’

For Fatima, the development is unnecessary. ‘The whole thing of wanting to build a shopping mall bang in the middle of Brick Lane when you have a Westfields literally down the road for a lot of people who live in Spitalfields – it just doesn’t make sense.

‘We’ve seen the drastic gentrification of areas like Hoxton and Shoreditch within Tower Hamlets and how they’ve been transformed. You have communities who move in who are happy to Orientalise themselves to capitalise off this new arena – this new market that’s been opened up for them. Of course, that never benefits the local community.’

The role of capital has certainly had an impact, according to Fatima. ‘The City of London is definitely encroaching out towards areas like Brick Lane,’ she says. ‘That’s why we’ve seen a shift over the past 20 years in the Bangladeshi community, which was mostly visible around Brick Lane, and has now shifted towards Whitechapel. So when you come out of Whitechapel, it’s a lot more what you would have seen on Brick Lane 20 years ago.

‘The hustle and bustle of Bengalis. There are fewer businesses now and a lot of restaurants are closing down. If we look at the ‘Beyond Banglatown‘ report from the Runnymede Trust, we know a lot of them had been struggling even before Covid.’

For Sotez, the gentrification is deeply personal. ‘There are multiple working-class communities still living here. We’ve had a host of things happen. A couple of years back they were trying to change the name from Spitalfields and Banglatown to ‘Spits’. They wanted to build the Crossrail shaft in the middle of Brick Lane just a few years ago.

‘I think what we’re seeing with some of these developments is that they’re trying to atomise us, rather than bringing people together. There is no concern for the local community. The development isn’t for us. The City is growing and encroaching. On the other side we are being sandwiched between tech city and Canary Wharf. These are two of the biggest financial hubs in the UK.’

Dan Cruikshank is a British art historian and BBC television presenter. He helped to set up the Spitalfields Trust in 1977 with conservation activists in order to stop historic buildings from being demolished. ‘The site of the Old Truman Brewery is incredibly important, both emotionally and historically. It is the heart of Spitalfields. Whatever happens on this site will make or break the area,’ he says, adding that the proposed development will ruin Brick Lane’s special character and erase its heritage.

‘Spitalfields has been home to many diverse communities, and it retains a magic in terms of the people living here and in terms of the vast array of shops and restaurants. Spitalfields has always been a diverse community and that’s why people come from all over the world to see it.

‘This new proposal to build a mall in the middle of Brick Lane will single-handedly eclipse that. It’s a money-making operation that will come at the expense of the local community. We live in a society where money drives everything and what we are seeing now is real estate being prioritised over people’s livelihoods.’

‘With any development, we have to consider who is it for and who it excludes,’ Fatima argues. ‘We have to factor in the capital side – who has the capital to access those things that are being brought in?’

Brick Lane has some of the highest levels of deprivation and child poverty in the UK, and the process of gentrification is set to exclude and displace much of the local community which has called Brick Lane home for their whole lives. This, more than anything, is motivating campaigners.

‘Every time I walk past a new development, the signs say something like £280,000 for a one-bedroom flat,’ says Fatima. ‘Those little box rooms. We all know locals can’t afford that. They can’t slam down 10 percent of £280,000. They barely make that annually as a family. And then on top of that the additional fees you have to pay for the surveyors, the evaluation, all the other things.

‘It’s not just about this grand nice building they want to set up: we’re talking about literal exclusion of the local community. Whenever I walk down Brick Lane and I enter these new food businesses, not a lot them serve halal meat, which is quite interesting because you’re bang in the middle of Tower Hamlets where every other customer of yours is likely going to be a Muslim. For me, when businesses which can afford the rent of being located in Brick Lane come in but don’t cater to the local community, that itself expands the gentrification and exclusion.’

‘The local residents love the communities they are part of,’ adds Sotez. ‘The proximity to their shops, to their school, to their local mosque, to their history, to their neighbours. Imagine you were living there. You’d feel like you’re working hard to pay your rent or your mortgage but somebody is trying to take your home while you’re in there. People say, “I want to grow up, I want to have a family, I want to settle down.” This is the exact opposite. It’s like you’re settled and someone is trying to uproot you from the place you call home.’

Sotez is determined to continue campaigning and highlighting the threat gentrification poses to the local community. ‘We fought the fascists and the BNP who wanted us out. We went through all that struggle and fought that off only to lose it to a development? That’s pretty awful.

‘The history of what Bangladeshis have done in that area is amazing: fighting for education, fighting for better housing, fighting to not be harassed, to walk home safely without being killed – which is what happened to Altab Ali. He finished the shift in the factory he was working in, and was killed while walking home.

‘For a lot of people, there’s this deep sense of loss and sadness around the fact that the city isn’t just encroaching – the city is doing, in a way, through legislation and bureaucracy, what average people were doing to them in the streets in the 1970s. Corporations are just able to manage their racism, their sexism, their Islamophobia under the guise of legislation.’

But Brick Lane’s community has resisted attempts to drive them out in the past, and Sotez is adamant that the community can resist them again. ‘It falls on all of us that want to be involved in raising that awareness with our communities to remind them of these struggles. We need to revive those histories.’