Brick Lane is a street of many differing parts. It spans a diverse city stretch: from Whitechapel Road in the south bordered by the Altab Ali Park and the Whitechapel Art Gallery; to a congregation of Bangladeshi restaurants that are concentrated at the southern end incorporating the Brick Lane Mosque and reaching up to Fournier Street; to a midway point marked by The Old Truman Brewery cultural hub; to a group of independent shops specialising in niche and boutique clothes and goods that extends to Shoreditch High Street.
The street falls within an area of pronounced urban change, marked by a number of redevelopment initiatives that have altered the nature of the urban fabric of the area and the street. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area also occurs alongside the displacement of established patterns of life and livelihood. On Brick Lane this broadly translates into a tale of two streets in one, with distinctive northern and southern ends.
Our research of the economic and social configurations of Brick Lane began with a face-to-face survey of businesses between October 2018 and July 2019. We recorded 191 units, 18 of which were vacant. While vacant units were spread across the streets, they were more pronounced at the southern end. Our face-to-face survey with shop proprietors and employees within 79 of these units allowed us to document retail and commercial activities from recent pop-up restaurants to longstanding Bangladeshi restaurants and convenience stores. We divided our survey into two halves, with the dividing line at Hanbury Street, just south of The Old Truman Brewery. The northern end is marked out by niche and boutique retailers, selling comparatively expensive goods and services, including the Dark Sugars chocolatier and the recently temporarily closed ‘Cereal Killer Cafe’, a store that has been associated with the gentrification of the area. The southern end, which contains most of the Bangladeshi restaurants, also has an emerging market of food retailers such as Salad Box and Vegan Yes Shoreditch that are generally fairly affordable, as well as specialising in foods oriented to emerging health and dietary trends.
We also conducted ethnographic research on, and in, the Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, between September 2018 and February 2020. This comprised an updated and expanded repeat of Carey’s 2004 qualitative survey; a series of in-depth interviews with longstanding restaurant owners, former restaurant owners and key stakeholders who had played a significant role in shaping the development of Banglatown; and participant observation in the restaurants and cafés along Brick Lane, to observe everyday practices such as opening and closing times and changes in the pattern of service throughout the day.