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Brick Lane: A Retrospective

Jamie Leader explores the rich history that made Brick Lane what it is today

Written by . Published on July 14th 2011.


Brick Lane: A Retrospective

BRICK Lane is a street steeped in history. Today it remains a pathway of resonant intrigue, a place of captivating sights and sound;. Although its wilfully bohemian gravitas may be waning in favour of other more obscure corners, the flaneur still walks to see and be seen, and it follows that anyone passing through can stroll the decaying street feeling a sense of the layers of time embedded in its crooked architecture.

To this day, Brick Lane is a place of fierce independence, attracting many would-be revolutionaries to its pavements, where they can safely discuss counter-culture ideals over a hamburger and Red Stripe.

The history of Brick Lane is a long and complex one. There is far more hidden in the murky volumes of time’s line, invisibly enfolded between the listed buildings, than just the contemporary fashionista. The Brick Lane is a history of development and trade, of ends and beginnings, incorporating the mythology of murder, whilst traditionally being a place of opportunity. It has long been especially associated as a springboard from which migrants have founded successful businesses, as well as a place from which they can trade their unique skills. Industrial immigrants have flocked here for centuries and the street remains a place of reinvention, a place in which new ideas are cultivated, founded and exhibited for the first time. 

The infamous Brick Lane Beigel BakeThe infamous Brick Lane Beigel Bake

The original Brick Lane market sprang from the seventeenth century Jewish community’s need for fresh fruit and vegetables. These people descended from the medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine in Germany known as Ashkenazi Jews. They started arriving after the rich Sephardic Jews had landed, just after Oliver Cromwell officially readmitted them back into the country after King Edward I banned them in 1290. The Jewish community had a dramatic effect upon Brick Lane and the surrounding areas of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. Unlike the rich Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who set up financial houses in the surrounding area, the Ashkenazi built their livings upon trade. They were tailors, cabinet makers, bookbinders, leather workers and cigarette producers, and through these entrepreneurial, practical skills they made formidable salesmen and bespoke craftsmen who produced fine woven silks and other desirable fabrics and materials for Londoners to purchase.

With this, nineteenth century synagogues were built whilst theatres and kosher restaurants sprang up as they further influenced the cultural landscape. Today, the most dominate trace of this rich legacy can be found in the two existing bagel shops. Although Jewish people integrated themselves into society, they were also independently proud people, a philosophy, which continues today in the embodiment of local residents. The synagogue on Brick Lane was in fact the original ultra-Orthodox one of its kind. This cultural radicalism upset the east end locals, and when Jack the Ripper reared his ugly head, the Jewish community were blamed as scapegoats for the inhumane acts. Over time, these people moved out, making room for a wave of migrants whose descendents are here to this day.

Brick LaneBrick Lane

As the inevitable winds of change did blow, turning over the dust, the synagogue became a mosque.  This was as a result of what continues to remain an important influence on the landscape today. Bangladesh was once a dominant founding port of the British Empire, and as these immigrants began working in the docks through British colonisation, they naturally made their way up London’s tributaries of streets to eventually settle in Brick Lane. The original Bengali restaurants were set up to cater for this all male work force, but family migration followed due to economic opportunity.  This then bloomed into the microcosm of Bengali colonisation famously found on Brick Lane today.

What were once Industrial centres, have now been replaced by nightclubs and galleries, reflecting Britain’s present industrial predicament. The central and dominating presence of the Old Truman Brewery can be traced back to the site from 1666 and expanded rapidly over the next 200 years. It was once the largest brewery in London and the second largest in Britain, meriting a mention in Charles Dickens David Copperfield. When eventually closing in 1988, the Old Truman Brewery site began to house businesses like restaurants and art spaces, along with many creative enterprises orbiting predominantly around fashion, art, music and media circles.

To this day, Brick Lane is a place of fierce independence, attracting many would-be revolutionaries to its pavements, where they can safely discuss counter-culture ideals over a hamburger and Red Stripe. The Spitalfields location is a saleable commodity in and of itself, attracting young tourists from all over the world. Through hosting numerous university exhibitions, and injecting a steadily flowing source of revenue into the area, Brick Lane still manages to flourish, albeit in a very different manner to the past.

Banksy Brick LaneBanksy Brick Lane

The iconoclastic heritage of this street continues with dominant themes of street art. These vibrant, street level appraisals of the modern world and its population, were initiated by world famous artists such as Bansky, who committed several iconic stencils to the brick over the genesis of his career.

With the Rough Trade East record store, All Star Bowling Lanes and Rokit vintage clothes shop, to pinpoint a few of the current mainstays, the centre of Brick Lane is thriving despite no longer producing any saleable products created from the location, like it once did during its industrial heyday.  Now we find a conglomerate of social activity and imposing social pariahs preying upon the green uninitiated, much akin to how Jack the Ripper sought out his victims. But Brick Lane is a place, as history shows, at home with necessitating desperation, and with that comes resource. 

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