Brick Lane feels like the ultimate cosmopolitan urban space in the weekends. What is the history of this unique street and how diverse is it at present?
In between the skyscrapers of London’s financial heart the City and the ethnically coloured streets of Whitechapel there is iconic and lively Brick Lane. Brick Lane, part of London’s East End, is renowned throughout the United Kingdom for its multicultural character and rich migrant history.
Visit Brick Lane on a Sunday and you imagine yourself in an utmost heterogeneous space: a hustle and bustle of people from all over the world, a buzz of many languages, food stalls offering a diversity of cuisines and striding to emit the strongest aroma. Brick Lane during Sunday markets is where the world comes together: a hub of mixing cultures and ethnicities. If this is not a cosmopolitan space, what is? Cosmopolitanism in short can be described as the celebration of difference and in practice requires a deep level of interaction between people with diverse backgrounds. As such, it goes further than multiculturalism.
Brick Lane is definitely multicultural. Besides a large Bengali community, Brick Lane is inhabited by Somalis and many Southern and Eastern Europeans.
The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid is a unique symbol of the diversity of religions that have been and are practiced in Brick Lane and the rich history this street harbours. The building is currently a Mosque, but has been a house of faith to both Christians and Jews before it became a mosque in the 1970s. Due to the interesting and varied history of Brick Lane, there is also a diversity of (historical) tours organized in the Brick Lane area. Brick Lane’s location close to the Port of London made it a first stop for many immigrants throughout the centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Huguenots, who fled from persecution in France, settled in Spitalfields – the area of which Brick Lane is part. At the end of the nineteenth century many Jewish immigrants settled in Spitalfields and became tailors or worked in clothing sweatshops. In those days, the East End was a very deprived, impoverished area. From 1945 mainly West Indians and Bangla Deshis settled in the East End. In the 1960s the area experienced a lot of racist violence. These tensions have subsided, and the East End of the 21st century is regarded by many as one of London’s most dynamic and innovative urban districts.
The Bengali community, which have dominated the street since the 1970s, manage to attract many visitors by promoting Brick Lane as curry capital, which they have given the commercial label Banglatown. Currently however they are no longer the main reason for tourists to visit Brick Lane; the Sunday food and vintage markets, art galleries and booming nightlife of Brick Lane draw increasing numbers of people into the area. City workers are also gaining interest in Brick Lane and dare to enter this area which was primarily known as dodgy and deprived only a few decades ago.
At the heart of today’s Brick Lane is also a thriving creative scene. Street art is flourishing; artists from all over the world come to Brick Lane and the surrounding streets to express their creativity. Initially attracted by Brick Lane’s casual and run-down character, street artists now deliberately put their stamp on Brick Lane. Their work is at present indispensable to Brick Lane’s appearance and attracts many tourists and visitors.
All these different presences and pasts, cultures and activities mingle together and create Brick Lane’s unique character of cultural diversity. But however casual and natural the cosmopolitan-vibe feels on a Sunday, aspects of Brick Lane’s diverse and unique character are being commercialized. The Sunday market celebrates cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism, but a closer look at life in Brick Lane leads one to question the amount of interaction between its ‘diverse’ locals. Street art is a form of rebellion and pops up in environments that are not aesthetically pleasing, but looses its casualness when surrounded by a creative industry. Still, it cannot be denied that Brick Lane knows how to host diversity.