Brick Lane is not unique among the streets of the world in the fact that it bears the evidence of shifting demographics, but it is certainly a fantastically diverse and colorful example of the phenomenon. Even a short walk along part of this long street, which runs mostly north-south-ish in London’s East End, passes through divergent communities and multiple layers of cultural archaeology. And while it might be short in distance (say, 1/3 of a mile), this walk is long in experience and deep in delight.
Our walk began at Fournier Street, on the corner of which stands an appropriately bricky eighteenth-century building whose tenant list already reveals part of the history of the district. The Brick Lane Mosque has been used as such since 1976, but was formerly a synagogue (from 1898), before that a church (used by Methodists since 1819), before that serving for a decade at a time as the headquarters of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” and a Wesleyan chapel; originally it was built as La Neuve Eglise for French Huguenots in 1743. To further complicate (and/or enrich) matters, its minaret (which lights up at night) was added in 2010, paid for by the Bishops Square development near Liverpool Street Station.
This section of the street is pretty much free of architectural monuments after the mosque, leaving one tempted to fall back on the old chestnut of describing the 3- and 4-story structures that line Brick Lane as “nondescript buildings.” Maybe once upon a time these (mostly) 18th- and 19th- century blocks were unremarkable, but by 2014 they have achieved an impressive patina through use by layers of use through the centuries. Not much reflects the earliest history of this road that is really, really old and gets its name from a brick factory that was built before the first Queen Elizabeth took the throne. Successive groups of immigrants have moved to this part of the city, oftentimes to take over the silk and weaving shops that were prevalent through the nineteenth century, when the business dried up. In the 1970s Bangladeshis became the predominant ethnic group in Brick Lane. Their presence is evident in the street signs written in Bengali and lamp posts painted in the colors of the flag of Bangladesh, as well as the preponderance of curry shops along the street.
Perhaps like pizza being taken over by Americans from its Italian immigrants, curry rose in popularity along with the multiplication of Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, through the rest of London and wider in the country. So popular did the immigrant cuisine–admittedly with some alterations–become, in 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to “celebrate Britishness” and its longtime multicultural character, claimed that “Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.” The acknowledgement of Bangladeshi culture as an integrated part of Britishness was made official by the renaming of the district as “Spitalfields and Banglatown,” also in 2001.
Recently, Brick Lane has continued to show signs of change as its character (and relatively cheap rents) have drawn the attention of artsy types. Just off the path of our walk, the Rag Factory, a repurposed building housing studios, performance and exhibition spaces, is not far from the intersection of Brick Lane and Fashion Street (originally the Hugeuenot name “Fossan” Street, the word was later corrupted into “Fashion,” and recently became a magnet for designers). Walking north, such establishments as the Cafe Mumbai, Mango Masala, Eastern Eye Balti, Bengal Village, the Curry Bazaar, and Cafe Bangla cede way to the Vibe Bar, the Laden Showroom, Rockit, Vintage, the Brick Lane Gallery, the venerable Beigel Bake. What might seem like a rather abrupt transition between the Bangladeshis and the more recent settlers, around Woodseer Street, is visually bridged by a new scrim on many of those old buildings. The once-plain walls along the path have been turned into a fantastic open-air street art gallery. The big crane by Belgian artist Roa is probably the most notable work in the gallery above, but we are partial to the portrait of local hero Charlie Burns (d. 2012) by Londoner Ben Slow–it’s beautiful, and painted to look like its fading away, along with Charlie’s Brick Lane.
Having started at the church-synagogue-mosque at the intersection with Fournier Street, the walk ends at a rather different, and rather new, cultural icon just below Bethnal Green Road. Fika, named after the tradition of Swedish coffee break and opened some five or six years ago, is a bar and restaurant that is pretty serious about its Nordicness, featuring kladdkaka and gravadlax on the menu. We might be just a few blocks north of the mosque, but it feels farther away. Not as far as Stockholm is from Dhaka, the difference between the ends of this short walk is better measured in messier terms than mere miles. The self-consciousness of cultural construction to the north is palpable, but maybe that’s been the case whenever a new wave has flowed down Brick Lane, going back to the Huguenots. Regrettable neighborhood gentrification? Maybe. Expected urban evolution? Undoubtedly. It’s the natural way in these unnatural things that we call cities and that are, afterall, the artifacts of everyone who passes through them and takes the time to leave part of their story behind.