Mapping shifts in retail from 2014 to 2018, it is evident that a significant portion of the street’s ground floor retail activities is still oriented to food and drink (43%), with a growing market in hair and beauty services (5%).
In 2014 there were 35 curry restaurants on Brick Lane (excluding Osborn Street), all clustered south of Truman Brewery. By 2019 this had dropped to 20. Most of the curry restaurants (80%) remained restaurants and diversified the food on offer rather than sell up.
Ground floor retail activity
We found that the majority of units are independent (91%) or not in a chain or franchise, and most proprietors rent their premises (86%). There was a mixture of long-established shops dating as far back as 1936 and arrivals as recent as two weeks ago. While 56% of shops have been on the street for 10 year or more, 44% have been on the street for five years or less, indicating a street economy forged between new developments and longer histories of retail associated with the strong presence of a Bangladeshi-owned restaurant trade.
Despite the decline in the curry trade Brick Lane as a street hosts a significant number of jobs. We recorded 394 jobs in 79 units which averages five per unit; 43% of these jobs were part time. It is important to note that this is likely to be an underestimate, as large chains were not surveyed, and the estimate does not include surrounding areas or non-retail workspaces. Over half - 52% - of shops are run by the proprietor but are sustained by employment beyond kin networks.
PROPRIETORS AND SHOP MANAGERS
High streets are important places of employment, particularly for historically disadvantaged and marginalised groups. The ‘Super-Diverse Streets’ study shows how street retail on local high streets across UK cities has historically been a place of self-employed work for migrants and ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) groups, outside of more discriminatory labour markets. In addition, the ‘High Streets for All’ report (2017) commissioned by the Greater London Authority, shows how four London high streets provide a range of employment opportunities, including for first entry into work and part-time work. On Brick Lane, 36% of traders who we spoke to were born in Bangladesh, mostly from Sylhet. The second largest group were UK born (35%), with 11% born in Europe.
The south end of the street is significantly more proficient in multiple languages than the north, with 24% of respondents (largely shop proprietors but also including managers) speaking four or more languages, versus 5% for the north. Overall, 31% of respondents spoke two languages and 29% spoke four. In total, 62% of respondents had gone to university (of which those on the south side had mostly obtained business degrees while the north side had degrees in fashion) and 38% had completed high school. Brick Lane today is therefore a diverse street comprising people from all over the world. It is a street that is rooted in East London but connects to global geographies.