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Photograph: Shutterstock
Photograph: Shutterstock

The campaign group fighting to protect the spirit of Brick Lane

Nijjor Manush is giving the famous street’s Bangladeshi business owners a platform

Written by
F Bakar

It was still dark when the banners started going up on Brick Lane. By the time dawn broke, a message hung from the buildings: ‘Stop the Truman Brewery Shopping Mall’.

The east London street became a hub for the Bengali and Bangladeshi communities in the ’60s and ’70s, as families fled war and came to London to look for work. As they settled, Brick Lane became a little Bangladesh. Now the strip is lined with desi sweetshops, street signs in Bangla, lampposts painted green and red (the colours of the Bangladeshi flag) and curry houses. But rising rents and falling profits have started to displace the community.

In 2020, a special report by race think tank the Runnymede Trust found that there were just 23 curry houses on Brick Lane, compared to 60 in the mid-2000s. Now plans to develop the site of the Old Truman Brewery into office buildings with a shopping mall, restaurants and gyms have the community worried.

The Truman redevelopment isn’t offering things that Londoners don’t want. But it comes with a cost. ‘This mall would strip Brick Lane of its historical and cultural roots,’ says Dr Fatima Rajina, one of the activists who hung the banners. ‘Local businesses who have been here for decades won’t be able to compete.’

Rajina is a member of Nijjor Manush, a British Bangladeshi campaign group that takes inspiration from the Asian Youth Movements of the 1970s, when activists highlighted concerns of South Asians. Nijjor Manush is trying to do the same for Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi business owners.

If you chat to them, it’s clear that they need a platform. Ashikur Rahman from A&Y off-licence says: ‘The development will decimate small businesses. We can’t keep up.’ Jamal, owner of cornershop Taj Stores, has mixed feelings. ‘It’s good to create jobs and draw people in,’ he says. ‘But it will cause problems.’

Once bustling with tourists, Brick Lane has been empty during lockdown. Shams Uddin has worked at the Monsoon restaurant since 1978 and owned it since 1999. ‘It’s a different Brick Lane now,’ he says. ‘I’m worried about the future.’ Since Covid hit London, Tower Hamlets Council has paid £73.5 million in grants to more than 5,000 businesses under emergency measures. But after shelling out for high rents and bills, there wasn’t much left for businesses like Uddin’s. ‘I still have to pay suppliers, but I don’t have the customers,’ he says.

Nijjor Manush’s work is already having a positive impact, though. After 99 percent of respondents to a public proposal opposed the plans for the Truman Brewery, including residents, businesses and local amenity groups, the development committee of Tower Hamlets Council met in April to vote on Brick Lane’s future. They decided to defer the Truman Brewery proposal. The brewery will have to account for the impact of its plan on local businesses.

The battle between Nijjor Manush and developers is one that’s been fought across our city many times, but it’s worth paying attention to. If it can protect the character of the street, while still allowing our city to evolve, we might have a blueprint for preserving cultures and businesses across the capital. ‘Brick Lane is my life,’ says Uddin. ‘I’m alive because Brick Lane is alive.’

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