Delving Brick Lane’s Layers

Early on a Friday morning, London’s Brick Lane bustles with Bangladeshis heading to prayers at the local mosque. The women wear brightly coloured saris and the men don long pastel robes, looking striking as they stride along this worn English street.

A few hours later, they are gone and the feel of the street has completely changed. Now it is busy with hipsters with slicked over retro haircuts and skinny jeans. Like the stars of alternative music videos, people lounge on benches outside cafes dragging at roll ups and drinking cans of beer.

These are just two of the many different scenes that are staged every day on Brick Lane. The long, narrow London road gained its name because it was used to transport bricks from the outskirts of the city to building projects in the centre. It now sits hemmed in between some of London’s poorest neighborhoods and the sleek skyscrapers of the City, London’s financial district, from which it couldn’t be more different.

For me, Brick Lane epitomizes that mingling of different cultures and rich multilayered history that make London so special. Other cities claim to be very multicultural, but the way London mixes tastes and traditions feels different. Hong Kong has residents who hail from different countries — but they remain somewhat segregated. In London, a huge variety of people knock up against each other every day.

London’s development has also been distinctive. Instead of new buildings occupying greenfield sites, or replacing old ones outright, you get developments that build upon what’s beneath. History piles on top of history, like layers of fallen leaves. Brick Lane has witnessed a particularly impressive number of these strata. As the artists Gilbert and George, who live just off the street, once said, Brick Lane has been (and seen) “everything”.

The first group to make their mark in Shoreditch, the area around Brick Lane, were the Huguenots, French Protestants who settled the area in the early seventeenth century after fleeing religious persecution. They used their weaving skills to prosper in London, establishing the district as a centre of clothing manufacture. They used their newfound wealth to build impressive churches in Shoreditch — as well as its first brick townhouses, in solid and robust styles that still endure today.

After the Huguenots came scores of Jews, fleeing the Anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia, and, later, other parts of Europe. These refugees were mostly very poor. They subdivided the grand Huguenot townhouses into separate cramped units and there are many accounts of the squalid conditions they lived in. An engraving on a stone archway of a building near to Brick Lane records its former use as a ‘Soup Kitchen For The Jewish Poor’.

The Jewish community set up businesses making boots and cabinets, turning Brick Lane into a district for crafts and expanding the local markets. Today their influence is still present in a couple of Jewish bakeries on Brick Lane, selling twisted pastries. Two famous shops at one end of the road churn out freshly baked bagels stuffed with plump slices of smoked meat.

The Jews of Brick Lane, too, gradually became wealthier, and most moved on to other parts of London, such as Golders Green. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself in the area; a migrant group arrives, poor and persecuted, suffuses the lane with its culture and gradually establishes itself, growing rich, and then moving out of the area to some other part of London.

The Bangladeshis were the next wave of settlers. They first began settling here while working as ‘lascar’ seamen for the British Empire, as they had in Hong Kong, giving the name to that city’s Upper Lascar Row. Increasing numbers have come ever since, and Brick Lane is one of the primary points of arrival for Bangladeshi immigrants in London, a point underscored by Monica Ali’s novel, Brick Lane, which probes the lives of an immigrant family who live there.

The large numbers of Bangladeshis living around Brick Lane have given the area its nickname: “Banglatown”. They’ve also added their own distinctive spice to the area; one part of the lane is crowded with Indian sweet shops, huge metal trays in their windows pilled high with the sticky twists of jalebi and basins in which gulab jamon swim in syrup.

As dusk sets in, portions of the lane glow with the neon signs of curry houses. Touts hang outside each one, trying to coax in those who pass. Bollywood music rattles out from the doorways of small grocery stores. During the day, women wearing full burkas wander the streets shopping. Halfway along the lane is a building which began life as Huguenot church, then became a synagogue. Now it is a busy mosque that sounds the call to prayer each day.

But the Bangladeshis aren’t the latest group to have moved to Brick Lane. More recently, it has become the adopted home of a huge number of artists and creative types. Some of the first artists to move here included Gilbert and George, followed by Tracey Emin. They came largely because the area’s rough image meant rents were cheap – just £16 a month when Gilbert and George first moved in.

Since then the area’s gentrification and increasing cool has pushed rents up a lot, but its cultural vibrancy means it still appeals to the creative class, and numerous design studios and galleries are now dotted around. The new crowd contrast greatly with the Bangladeshi population that still dominates the lane, but one thing they do share is a bubbling desire to prove themselves. They’ve continued the neighborhood’s tradition of vitality and dynamism.

A walk down the main section of Brick Lane reveals an amazing array of street art. The face of a man has been carved out of the plaster on one wall. A pair of luminous pink aliens stand in recessed doorway holding hands. A huge, detailed drawing of a bird stretches across the end of a row of terraces. The art is giving the street’s rundown buildings a new vibrancy.

This creativity isn’t restricted to Brick Lane’s walls. It’s also there in the way the new creative set dresses and acts. In the evenings, Brick Lane now fills with people in bold alternative fashions – from flowery retro dresses to three quarter length trousers and doc-martin boots. Art is mingling with life, giving definition to people’s characters and to the urban space around it.

Like each influx before them, the artists are making their own mark on Brick Lane. Each community has come and laid down aspects of their own culture on the street, so that Brick Lane now overflows with their interwoven tapestry, a unique atmosphere.

This entry was written by Nicholas Olczak , posted on Monday January 09 2012at 10:01 pm , filed under Europe, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Delving Brick Lane’s Layers”

  • Good piece, but what about the Irish? They were more concentrated on the docks to the south of Whitechapel, but a lot ended up all over the East End, including Brick Lane, after the Irish famine in the 1860s. The prostitutes, beggars and thieves who “greeted” the immigrant Jews to the area in the 1880s were largely of the Irish community – the children of famine refugees.

  • What happens when the current wave of artists and hipsters leaves Brick Lane? Will they leave a few cafés and galleries as reminders of their presence, a bit like the bagel shops and curry houses left behind by Jews and Bangladeshis? Or will the gentrification they sparked subsume the entire neighbourhood, erasing all traces of its multilayered identity?

  • Donnacha – thanks for pointing out my omission. Chris – I’ve been slow to reply to this question because, to be honest, I don’t entirely know, and I think its hard to speculate about what will happen in the future. My sense is that artists moving to Shoreditch for cheap rent have now already been priced out and moved to other areas of London especially places south of the river. Peckham, for example, is supposed to have seen a lot more artists moving in, some squatting. The ‘artiness’ of Brick Lane’s maintained by some design firms, like LBI, who aren’t so hard up, and other wealthier artist types – who don’t show any signs of leaving soon. At present though, I don’t feel their ‘gentrification’ is of a nature that it strongly changes the underlying character of the area. As for the hipsters, I think they’ve slowly moved up further north towards Dalston. But, as I say, this is just based on what I’ve sensed not hard research.