London, United Kingdom – Despite a months-long campaign against the redevelopment of East London’s Brick Lane, a local council committee has voted for plans to build a shopping centre and corporate office block in the historic multicultural area, which has been home to successive waves of immigrant communities.
There were 7,000 objections to the project, which aims to redevelop the old Truman Brewery buildings, including from the Bengali East End Heritage Society.
This week’s decision was criticised by activists and organisers who argue the plans to rebuild harm minority communities and are part of a London-wide gentrification programme targeting working-class areas.
Founded in 1666, the Truman Brewery was once one of the largest in the world, sending India Pale Ale (IPA) to the British Raj.
Since closing in 1989, it has become a cultural hub used by 300 mainly small businesses and run by the Zeloof Partnership.
In terms of locale, Brick Lane is at the heart of the UK’s Bangladeshi community and immortalised as a cultural melting pot throughout British history.
Previous settlers in the area came from working-class French, Irish and Jewish communities. A French Huguenot chapel built in 1742 was later used by Christian missionaries, then in 1898 consecrated as a synagogue. In 1976, the building was converted into a mosque.
Nijjormanush, a group set up to organise UK Bengalis and Bangladeshis which has been campaigning against the Brick Lane redevelopment plan, was “deeply disappointed” with the recent outcome.
“The vote was a dereliction of duty of the part of the councillors, and exposed a deeper rot within Tower Hamlets Council. This reflects a wider trend of inner-city councils, particularly those dominated by the Labour Party, that offer full-blooded support for large businesses and gentrification plans over their working-class constituencies,” a spokesperson said.
The broader gentrification of Brick Lane and its surrounding areas did not start with the Truman Brewery proposal; over recent years the area has transformed from a largely inexpensive South Asian hub to a pricey hipster settlement.
Nijjormanush members said locals described to them how decades of change had made them “feel alien in the place they have long called home”.
The Labour MP for Poplar & Limehouse, Apsana Begum, took to Twitter to express her disappointment with the decision to allow the plan to go ahead.
“Very disappointing decision despite 7000+ local objections, including from my constituents. Local businesses & people will be driven out through rising rents. The rich, cultural vibrancy and heritage of the East End should never have been lost in the pursuit of financial gain,” she tweeted.
Out on Brick Lane, it was business as usual with people trying to attract customers into their famed curry houses – but opinion was divided.
Mohamed, 20, an owner of Curry Bazaar, told Al Jazeera: “We’re only just recovering from the pandemic. For us, it’s more harm than good. The shopping centre will bring more people to the area but only to the shopping centre, not here.”
Sitting outside a vape shop, 34-year-old Munim told Al Jazeera that he is undecided about the redevelopment plans, but hopes the local community is considered.
“It might be good, and it might be bad,” said the lifelong Brick Lane resident. “I’ve been here for a lot of years. If they have a scheme where they can actually incorporate some of the jobs to be given to young people here, then it brings more to the community.
“I’m not saying I’m for it, but they can make it look like it’s for the community.”
Shamsuddin, the 62-year-old owner of the Monsoon restaurant since 1976, is optimistic but called for the focus to shift from building plans to community funding.
“The shopping centre is a good idea. You don’t need to go to West [London] to buy something, you can come here and the community will benefit from it,” he said.
Tower Hamlets council said in a statement that while the committee agreed to the plan, permission to build would only be granted if the scheme “creates public benefits, including updated proposals for affordable workspace and independent retail”.
But Nijjormanush remains doubtful that any good can come from the project.
“At a time when the Bangladeshi community have experienced the worst impact of COVID,” the spokesperson said, referring to the disproportionate effect of the virus on some communities. “We don’t see how our communities can bounce back from this.”