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Brick Lane: Merging Cultures in an Urban Context

13 April 2010

Popularly known for its trendy pubs, fashion hotspots, and Bengali food, London’s Brick Lane is again in the news headlines, this time over plans to build two archways resembling the shape of a Muslim head scarf at the entrance to the popular east London neighbourhood. Though now increasingly identified with Bengali Muslims, Brick Lane’s rich historical heritage is defined by immigrants, including Huguenots and Jews. Hannah Kaplan, an MRG intern of Jewish-American descent, tours the street to discover how minority identity and culture plays out in an urban context.

Walking down the streets of Brick Lane’s predominantly Bangladeshi community, it is easy to forget you are in the heart of London. Between multi-lingual signs denoting streets in both English and Bengali, row after row of popular curry restaurants attracting diners from all over the city, and elaborate displays of gulab jamun, jelabi, and other South Asian sweets, the second you enter Brick Lane you are instantly absorbed into the distinct culture of the area.

This is a neighbourhood historically renowned for its rich cultural diversity. Today, it is identified by the wide range of religious and cultural influences that have contributed to Brick Lane, but by far, the largest population (more than 68%) is that of the Bengali community.

However, this strong Bengali presence has not always been the norm. Prior to Bangladesh’s independence in the 1970s and surge in immigration as Bangladeshis travelled to London in search of work opportunities and safety, Brick Lane was known as a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. The Jews themselves had escaped oppression and violence throughout Eastern Europe as anti-Semitic sentiment manifested itself in the pogroms and attacks that were gaining momentum towards the end of the 19th century. By 1900, the Jewish population of the East End was as high as 95% and kosher restaurants, synagogues, and Yiddish theatre venues once stood where the more recent Bengali establishments can now be found.

I began to consider, as I walked through the streets observing the culture of this unique neighbourhood, the ever-shifting nature of minority communities existing, and more importantly, coexisting, within the greater urban context. As an American Jew of Eastern European descent myself, I was curious about the Ashkenazi Jews, descended from the medieval communities residing in Germany and Eastern Europe, who had once settled in London. How much were their histories and families like my own? And more importantly, what had become of the intricate network of family and community bonds that had been established during more than a century of living and working around Brick Lane?

Today, there is very little trace of the Brick Lane Jewish influence that had been so prevalent decades earlier. In fact, the only testaments to this community – two bagel shops, a textile emporium and an art gallery with the name “Katz” inlaid in its brick work – allude to the previous history of the street.

I was curious to know more about how the Jewish community had slowly given way to the Bengali community of Brick Lane, and additionally, how the Bengali community had been integrated into the greater British population. Both minority populations would have encountered the age-old experience of overcoming obstacles inherent in immigration and integration. How then, do these communities maintain their customs, values and identities, while living, working and increasingly participating in broader society?

Read the second part of this article here.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.