No. 59 Brick Lane, is perhaps an address that best stands testament to both diversity and adversity. It is a notable landmark that housed consecutive religions and has seen a change in the spirit of the place.
In 1743 a Huguenot Chapel, the Neuve Eglise, was built as a place of worship for the local community was erected at 59 Brick Lane. By then, it was peppered with Protestant Irishmen escaping religious discrimination and poverty. By 1819 the building had passed on to the Wesleyan Methodists who occupied it till 1897. After that, the Machzikei Hadas, an orthodox Jewish group converted it into The Spitalfields Great Synagogue. Finally, when Muslim Bengali immigrants settled in great numbers, the building finally metamorphosed into its current form – The Jamme Masjid; The Great Mosque.
Till date, the mid-Georgian building stands proud; handsome and externally unaltered.
The chapel that became a synagogue that became a mosque. It serves as a great microcosm of the ever-changing nature of Bricklane – London’s most diverse locality.
First known as Whitechapel road, Brick Lane is said to have been renamed so because of its clay-rich soil that met the increased demand for bricks and tiles post the 1666 Great Fire of London that diminished so many of the city’s wooden buildings. Then the opening of a local brewery established the area as a communal market for livestock and produce. It was only with the inflow of French Protestant Huguenots that buildings began to sprout around its sides, housing the weaver community that popularised Brick Lane as a Silk and textile market.
In the following centuries, Brick Lane saw an inflow from various communities, each of which it welcomed and assimilated. From the late 1800’s, the influx of a Jewish populace saw the establishment of local food joints, some of which still dot the walk down Brick Lane. For instance, Beigel Bake, a 24-hour bakery known for its traditional Jewish-style salt beef bagels is one such establishment. The most prolific influence over Brick Lane, however, has been that of the Bangladeshi community that came to seek greener pastures from the violence and impoverishment back home.
This constant ingress of diversity wasn’t met without resistance, as many ethnicities faced racial attacks at the hands of white supremacist groups. The Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were both important movements born out of the rising need for tolerance that Brick Lane has so iconically stood for.
The settling of the Bangladeshi diaspora has had one of the most indelible effects on the shifting culture and ethnicities of Brick Lane. Evoking an uncanny resemblance to street life in the Asian subcontinent, one could find Bengali staples sold from street stalls and dozens of shops with names that connected back to their Sylheti roots. Their arrival transformed the area into the unofficial ‘curry capital,’ serving a cuisine that is now inseparable from the British palette.
The curry houses introduced an entirely new spice spectrum into the eating habits of the local British population by serving initially ersatz dishes that later became anglicised favourites. From being exoticized to becoming synonymous with postwar British eating, it has been a notable journey for these curry houses. Despite tepid critiques highlighting their gaudy interiors and dated menus, there are still many who consider the curry as intrinsic to the emotional connection they have with the flavours. The Brick Lane curry has found acceptance.
A muse for artists
Brick Lane has undergone rapid regeneration since the late 1990s and has been the epicentre of transformation for Shoreditch, an area well described as a pulsating and trendy microcosm of London’s artistic. Today the lane’s meanderings are lined with affordable restaurants, vintage and imitation designer clothing, and converted warehouse galleries hosting the eclectic and the chic. Brick lane has now become a niche experience of constant reinvention across history, offering a heady mix of what is unique and kitsch.
Its transient and effervescent spirit is probably why it is so hard to relate to the landscapes of bygone eras that previous documentation describes. You can see a simpler and less-chaotic time being depicted in the fascinating monochrome photo series by Raju Vaidyanathan, as well as a throwback to the older, Jewish days of the area in Rachel Liechtenstein’s ‘On Brick Lane,’ which pieces together the remnants of the once flourishing Jewish community of Brick Lane.
It is this multicultural nature of Brick Lane that seems to attract artists from all over the world to come and mark its walls, almost as testimony layered on the ever-changing canvas. Photographer Phil Maxwell has been documenting Brick Lane for decades, through its tumultuous history, down till today as it struggles with its communal and commercial duality. Many see its artscapes as abstract expressions of a multifaceted, covert internal struggle of the most photogenic sort, asserting itself through welters of lines, words, and colour.
Brick Lane through its many avatars teaches us a spiritual lesson of letting go, and to value each fleeting moment. By 2014, The Tower Hamlets council officially renamed an electoral ward Spitalfields/Banglatown and then erected lamp posts painted red and green, reminiscent of the Bangladeshi flag and implicative of the communal stronghold over the area. However, yet again, it stands at the threshold of another cycle of vicissitude as its curry houses fight for existence against new laws and changing attitudes of recent generations.
Maybe this relinquishing of connection will be the final catalyst, as the young graduates of the community colleges will one day move up and out, and Brick Lane will reincarnate; but there is one thing it’ll never stop being – a home for outsiders and a place of acceptance.
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