The journey to a new country for a new life is often a frightening one. The weather can be very different, your stomach responds differently to the new foods, and there is a difference in how the air smells because of the heat or the frequency of rain. Not to mention, learning a new language is the gateway to entering this new world.
But for many migrants it didn’t mean forgetting the old, and often they would bring pieces of their homeland with them. Recreating old smells and sounds and sights felt transportive and nostalgic in reminding them of what was once home. And when enough people do it, there is the flourishing sense of a community and a cultural identity that refuses to perish.
After a while, you get somewhere like Brick Lane.
There was a time when Bengali restaurants packed the area and Brick Lane was synonymous with Bengali culture. Even the road signs have Bangla translations. The rich smells of Bengali curries and sweet stores create a small window into Bengali culture and the occasional sense that even if you couldn’t go to Bangladesh, you could experience a snippet of it here.
The importance of this cultural presence is reinforced when we consider what the British Bangladeshi community endured on the streets of East End throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Assault and abuse at the hands of the far-right were common, as were BNP politicians making local inroads.
Bengali families were frequently attacked, particularly the women, so much so that they often walked in groups for protection. The boiling point had been on 4th May 1978, when the murder of a young Bengali man named Altab Ali resulted in local fury. Today, there is a park named after him, symbolic of a life taken but also of the resistance to bigotry.
It would, however, be liberal idealism to assume that everything about this story of Bangladeshi migration in East End has been rosy. The other side of this tale has been the constant presence of poverty brought about by years of neglect under governments such as Margaret Thatcher’s and onwards.
Seen as low-skilled and formerly lacking in formal education, the Bengali community were written off immediately for high-paid white-collar jobs unlike their Indian peers, confined instead to mostly the hospitality sector. The conditions of blue-collar wages coupled with the possibilities of deportations meant that the early generations were always held back.
Today the borough struggles with high levels of inequality. Though it is where the financial district is housed, it’s also where 57% of children are living in impoverished households compared to 38% of the rest of the borough, and at 7.7%, has the highest level of unemployment in the city. To live in Tower Hamlets is to witness parts of society abandoned to squalor. This has inevitably affected many British Bangladeshi households, and put them at the risk of gentrification.
Recently, the risk of British-Bangladeshis families being forced out has become an issue once again. The last fifteen years have witnessed a 60% decrease in restaurants owned by Bangladeshis in Brick Lane amidst a climate of rising rents and business rates. This has been compounded most certainly by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many local businesses losing their workers due to being unable to pay them.
The current threat comes in the shape of plans in redeveloping the Old Truman Brewery, a large undeveloped site in the Spitalfields, to include office and retail spaces as well as a gym. There are concerns that if this takes place, local Bengali businesses could be left struggling even further if residential rents and business rates go up due to the influx of those interested by the redevelopment.
The threat of gentrification has always loomed in the East End and unsurprisingly so; it is highly regarded for its rich cultural tapestry and history, but the class of landlords and property developers intent on reconfiguring the town aren’t interested in the survival of local curry houses. It’s almost natural that one would rather replace the presence of working-class communities with the cultural touch of their own class, in this scenario, trendy cafes mushrooming into spaces once occupied by the Bengali community.
An example of this is what happened in Spitalfields to the local community a few years ago. A charity called Eastend Homes revealed plans to replace the former council estates with modern flats which would be sold onto the private market. The proceeds generated from the sales would go towards the refurbishment of existing social housing stock. But, as the BBC reported, there would be a human price to pay for all of it.
Many within the community reported their fears of being pushed out as a consequence of rents being too high or the homes too expensive for purchase. For example, it was reported that one of the new two-bed flats that replaced the old council estates was being rented out at nearly £3,000 a month while there was a one-bed flat on sale for £600,000.
Such prices would almost immediately put many within the local Bengali community at risk. It also underlines how quickly the culture and history of a place can become commodified by capitalism. The East End was always historically poor but throbbed with a strong cultural atmosphere that has attracted middle-class professionals who want the association of the place without actually having to live with the people who made it what it is.
The current economic climate is pushing out young British Bangladeshi families and seeing them replaced with affluent urban creatives. This is not a criticism of the people who run the independent local cafes as they are certainly preferable to the coffee chains. But the cultural contributions that Jewish, Irish, and then the Bengali community made to the East End deserves more than a flat white.
It deserves help from the government and the local council, to provide more for the families and not leave them at the mercy of private developers who can reshape the demographic of an entire town with imposition of high rents.
This story of gentrification in the staple of East End highlights several national ills left unaddressed. The British-Bangladeshi demographic generally does not have the economic capital to resist the changes of gentrification and is one of the worst faring groups in the country in terms of salary and unemployment levels.
This is connected to Bangladesh being a severely poor country during the time when many migrated to the UK in the seventies and eighties, as without a formal education they couldn’t access the skilled job market and instead filled out jobs in restaurants and taxi services. Thus, the second-generation British Bangladeshis have been born to families often floating narrowly above the poverty threshold, making the academic excellence all the more impressive.
The second aspect to all of this is the fundamental imbalance in our society where towns and small cities are abandoned in favour of big cities, particularly London. A failure to invest fairly across the country has forced many to leave their families and homes and seek opportunities in London, congesting the job market in the city. With London becoming ever more powerful and wealthy, there have been winners and losers, and its poorest households have been one of the major casualties.
It would be a cultural tragedy if the British Bangladeshi community were quietly ejected from Brick Lane by capitalism. The community has decorated the town with the deep smells and sights of the Bengali culture, and it deserves more than to become the victims of the latest hipster café or unaffordable apartments.