It’s a literal London rite of passage to weave your way up Brick Lane, avoiding the aggressive bhuna touts, confused gaggles of tourists and frustrated chugging traffic. The famous East End street has quite a history: every era, every up and down has left its imprint on it, but the result is often as much treacherous, best-avoided mish-mash as storied urban palimpsest. Now there’s another turn of the wheel for the Curry Mile.
Tower Hamlets Council is conducting a month-long consultation to canvass Londoners’ opinions as to whether Brick Lane should be pedestrianised. Of course, the street was never intended for vehicle traffic. And while London does have some ‘lanes’ that feel more like the M4 (hi, Park Lane), Brick Lane definitely isn’t one of them. But should that mean automatic pedestrianisation?
The improvement measures are part of Tower Hamlets’ ‘Liveable Streets’ initiative, which aims to reduce traffic and pollution and make streets more usable by cyclists, pedestrians, and disabled residents and visitors. It’s a scheme that has not been without its critics, who argue that many low-income families rely on cars and vans for work, and that such initiatives often lead to higher rents and property values at the expense of existing residents and businesses.
There’s no doubt that at the moment, Brick Lane ain’t great for the old social distancing. Even with its restaurants and venues shut, it’s still perpetually thronged with people. It’s already an LTN (low traffic neighbourhood – another pretty fraught decision from 2020). Now the proposal is to close the street completely to cars and vans at the weekend and after 5.30pm on weekdays. The intention seems to be to make it a more attractive place for people to hang out, rather than pack the pavements to avoid the traffic. Which sounds like sense.
But there’s more to it than that. The area’s famous curry trade has been on the decline for years, pitted against a new wave of cuisine from the Subcontinent and the gentrification of the East End, with higher rates and upmarket boutique businesses moving in. A great article in the New Statesman last summer talked to restaurateurs on the street about the waning of Brick Lane’s curry houses, and the sense that the industry was no longer seen as a priority for the council or government. Covid and the consequent loss of the tourist trade might be the final straw. This new proposal chimes with the idea that some interests want the old, shouty, rough-around-the-edges Brick Lane done away with for good.
So the pedestrianisation of Brick Lane might not be the innocuous bit of local planning it first appears. If it happens, it could spell the end of an era for the street as a genuine East End working neighbourhood full of small businesses vying for trade, and see it reimagined as yet another London playground for a more affluent demographic.