“We serve food you can’t find anywhere else”: what life is like in Banglatown in London

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Deciding to visit Brick Lane in East London on a rainy Monday at noon in January did not give me hope that it would be the busy street you often see portrayed in popular culture.

But it was even quieter than I expected. Some restaurants had satisfied customers who enjoyed delicious traditional Bengali and Indian cuisine, but many were empty. Some places have even been shipped.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I’m sure it would be a different story. Just about any central location with food and drink on offer is busy on weekends. But that didn’t stop me from wondering what the locals thought of Brick Lane in 2020.

The many cultures of Brick Lane

A center of history, culture and incredible cuisine, Brick Lane has had many identities in the past.

In the 15th century, brick and tile manufacturers settled on the street, hence the name of Brick Lane. But by the 17th century, the focus had shifted from brick to beer. The famous brewery family, the Trumans, started their business on the street and you can still see their Black Eagle brewery today. There was also an influx of French Huguenots when they were driven from their own country in the 17th century.

In keeping with much of the East End, Brick Lane became a refuge for many immigrants fleeing to escape persecution in their own country during the 19th and 20th centuries. And so the region became known for its Jewish and Irish populations.

Banglatown was fairly quiet during our visit
(Image: Darren Pepe)

It was only more recently that Brick Lane found its current identity from Banglatown.

In the second half of the last century, Brick Lane became one of the most popular places for immigrants from Bangladesh, especially for the Bengalis in the Sylheti region.

For a while, Banglatown was in full swing of culture and got its name as the best place to find curry in London, especially if you want traditional food.

We visited the street, which goes from Whitechapel to Spitalfields via Bethnal Green, to discover Banglatown for ourselves.

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“The community here is lost, it’s not so tight anymore”

Going down Brick Lane and enjoying its surprisingly calm nature, we decided to speak to some restaurateurs, many of whom were also residents of Brick Lane.

Rashid, 69, has owned Bengal Cuisine for 25 years. When he moved to Brick Lane, he was among the only Bengali restaurants on the road.

“After 10 years, Brick Lane has become very attractive because of the city’s regeneration program, from which we have received a lot of support,” said Rashid.

“I was able to rethink my restaurant, you can see that everything is open and there is a lot of space. After that, this business was booming.

“Initially, we were among five or six restaurants, but after our success, we saw new places emerge. At one time, there were about 50 restaurants in this small area.”

Rashid says Banglatown is on the decline
(Image: Darren Pepe)

But the reality is very different for Brick Lane now. Rashid explained how people have seen good deals for about 10 years, but everything has started to decline in the past five years.

“I think the reason is because of the development of the surrounding restaurant. Places like Spitalfields have become very popular. Our customers are from the city and Spitalfields is on the way, so we’ve lost a lot of customers there,” said he explained.

“There is also a food market often in the middle of Brick Lane. It is good quality food and inexpensive because they have no rent to pay.”

Rashid said that the bottom line of desperate restaurants for customers has been touted, a feature that has given Brick Lane a reputation and may have even turned off some customers. This is something he does not allow at Bengal Cuisine.

“So many restaurants have already closed and now we are close to closing,” said Rashid.

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Living in Little London

“As the market stalls thrive, we are killed with high rents. Surviving is very difficult.

“Besides, the community here is disappearing, it’s not that tight anymore. It’s because house prices, like shop rent, are so high. Places are so expensive. A house costs about £ 1 million. “

Rashid bought his first home in the area for £ 56,000 25 years ago. The same place is worth £ 1 million today.

“People come here to socialize. There is a big community in this little space ‘

While times may change, 40-year-old Miah sees some hope in the tiny Banglatown.

Miah, who lives near Brick Lane, has worked at Amar Gaon as a manager there for about a year.

He said: “It is a popular restaurant. We have a mix of people who come for their lunch, to live the traditional experience of Bengali.

Miah still has a sense of community in Banglatown
(Image: Darren Pepe)

“They love it because we serve traditional dishes that they can’t find elsewhere.”

But the main point raised by Miah was the community in this area. Although some people may be evicted, he believes pockets of the community remain.

“People come here to socialize,” he said.

“There is a large community in this small space. People gather here. Few restaurants offer this traditional cuisine, there is only one other. It is traditionally Bengali.”

“I was raised here and it has changed so much”

For Abdul Ahad, Brick Lane has undergone a major transformation in the time he lived and worked there.

He owned his restaurant, the popular City Spice where celebrities were spotted, for 15 years.

Abdul grew up around Banglatown and says it has changed dramatically
(Image: Darren Pepe)

“I was raised here and it has changed dramatically,” he said.

Abdul added: “A lot of people have moved from here. Many traditional restaurants have also left, there are only a few left. The community here has also changed.”

Asked why he thinks this is so, Abdul explains that rents are “much higher” now than they have been proportionately in the past.

He says he continues with the restaurant “because this food is important”.

“It is part of the heritage,” he added.

“Business is fair but not good. We are all in trouble. The costs are too high.”

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When I discovered everyday life on Brick Lane, I felt more surprised than expected. When you see it in the photo, it’s often crowded with people, all eating street food or going into restaurants to try out cooking. But perhaps this is only a small part of his reality.

There are not as many Bengali and Indian restaurants on Brick Lane as there used to be, and although the community is working hard to keep Banglatown alive, its future is uncertain.

Do you have something to say about the London area where you live or work? Email lucy.skoulding@reachplc.com