Popularly known for its trendy pubs, fashion hotspots and Bengali food, London’s Brick Lane is again in the news headlines, this time over plans to build two archways resembling the shape of a Muslim head scarf at the entrance to the popular east London neighbourhood. Though now increasingly identified with Bengali Muslims, Brick Lane’s rich historical heritage is defined by immigrants, including Huguenots and Jews. In this second instalment of her blog Hannah Kaplan, an MRG intern of Jewish-American descent, tours the street to discover how minority identity and culture plays out in an urban context.
I found clues to the question of integration in the streets of Brick Lane – inquiries into where I might be able to speak to members of the Jewish community were often met with shrugs of shoulders or shaking of heads. The employees of one of the two existing Jewish bagel shops replied to my inquiry with the simple response, “They’re not here, they’ve all moved out.”
In fact, it occurred to me that perhaps this was a reflection of what populations of all great cities experience – change and adaptation. According to Icons , an organization chronicling the cultural heritage of Great Britain, when Jewish immigrants first arrived in London, they were often met with resistance or suspicion. Traditional Yiddish speakers possessed very little with which to establish a new life for themselves. These Jewish immigrants gradually became integrated into the social network of the city, establishing businesses and relationships within the broader British community.
While first generation Jewish immigrants may have struggled to establish a life for themselves in London, generations down the line, the Jewish community is firmly integrated in the cultural identity of London. However, the location of these communities has with time, and changing socio-economic trends, altered. Today, there are only traces of this influence as grandchildren and great-grandchildren of earlier immigrants have moved on to other neighbourhoods and communities, such as Golders Green and Hendon.
Like the Eastern Jewish population before them, the Bengali community has encountered their own challenges of assimilation. Prejudice and language and cultural obstacles have meant that the process of establishing themselves as part of the British social fabric has at times, been met with controversy. Most recently, a £1.8 million project proposing the construction of two archways at either end of Brick Lane, resembling the shape of a woman’s hijab or veil, has come up against criticism as the local community is divided over the degree to which the neighbourhood should enforce religious identity. While some believe such a specifically Muslim symbol encourages community pride and cohesion, critics claim that these arches represent female subordination or religious bias.
Speaking to a young Bengali restaurant owner, it was clear that while he was proudly Bengali and Muslim, he considered himself in equal parts to be British as well. When questioned about the proposed archways, he expressed his concern and opposition to the plan, saying that it would in turn ostracise other residents of the community. He extolled the virtues of a multi-cultural society and believed that, while he identified himself as a member of a minority community within London, he was still part of British society at large.
Clearly, the constantly changing and shifting nature of a major cosmopolitan centre means that within any society there can exist distinct divides and differences in ethos between community members. Brick Lane is no exception to the rule – a bustling centre of diversity, but one that is just as sensitive to changing immigration trends and cultural influences.
In essence, this is what lies at the very heart of the city, the constant state of change that occurs within every community, every minority group, and every sense of ethnic identity. It is this demographic flux that makes the urban context so unique, the manner in which the identity, practices, restaurants, shops, and houses of worship of one group slowly but surely are augmented by the constantly changing communities that share neighbourhoods.