Another Brick Lane Tale

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Brick Lane on a Sunday in August 2014. Personal archive

Much ink has been used on the topic of how the East End is now compared to the good ol’ days.

Of all the well-documented waves of immigrants that came here, Eastern Europeans like me are the newest. I was broke and friendless, having just been kicked out of a shared house in Stratford in February 2012 when a an old Bengali man gave me a room. Jakir, Hussain and other Bengalis from the neighbourhood often gave me work helping with their businesses when I found myself down and out. None of them ever complained about gentrification – on the contrary, they are better off for it. The value of their houses went up, the wealth of their customers as well, and E1, E2 and E3 became fashionable postcodes.

Expensive coffee shops that employ baristas and fast food restaurants with incongruous names have started appearing up Whitechapel Road, Commercial Road and Mile End Road with increased frequency, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else there.

How long does one live in the East End before he feels entitled to write about it? I first came to London from Southampton in 2012 to be an intern at a magazine with offices on Brick Lane, then started working for a British-Indian advertising agency in the Fruit and Wool Exchange on Brushfield Street. The Fruit and Wool Exchange is now but a façade, developers bought it and tore it down to build something else. Gone is The Gun, the pub on the corner, the Barclays bank on the other corner, and the advertising agency. The latter moved into an alley off Commercial Road. I moved to Stepney in 2013 and now I live in Spitalfields.

The East End I know is not an artificial, posh place for middle classes looking for some authentic edge, but a place where you can find a room for £350 a month (no deposit), buy a box of home-cooked Bangladeshi food for £1.60 (aloo tikki chaat, Bombay Grill, Whitechapel Rd x Vallance Road), go to a live concert for £5 (The Jamboree venue, Cable St.), have a beer for £3 (Whetherspoons Stepney Green, aka The Half Moon), or see a cinema film for £3.50 (Genesis Cinema on Wednesdays, Mile End Road).

You can buy a pair of good shoes for £20 in Roman Road market or in Middlesex Street on Sundays, eat the best lamb chop curry this side of the Himalayas for £7.50 on Fridays (Lahore Kebab House, Commercial Road) and enjoy the best view of Canary Wharf for free in King Edward Memorial Park. While on Roman Road, stop at the Fiesta Bar for a cup of tea (£0.75), but it won’t be the kind that looks good on Instagram.

At the more salubrious end, outside Liverpool Street station, somewhere between the Dirty Dicks pub and the Sushi Samba restaurant at the 30-something floor of the Salesforce Tower, is the Polo Bar, open 24 hours, 7 days a week, if you’re thirsty at stupid o’clock. A bottle of Italian beer is £3.50 and there’s also food.

I cut my hair every three weeks on Brick Lane for £6, in an Asian barber shop with the TV permanently turned loud on Pakistani news, next door to a barber shop where a clipper run is £25. Both businesses seem to be thriving.

The anarchists at the Freedom Press and bookshop between the KFC and the Burger King in Aldgate East don’t appear to mind sharing the pavement with devout Muslims from the East London Mosque and with aspiring postmodern artists at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Further up the road there’s the the computer freaks at the Hackspace in Hackney Road (which counterintuitively is part of Tower Hamlets, as is Victoria Park) and then in Allen Gardens, the park under the Overground train tracks you’ll find a gang drugged up bohemians incessantly beat the drums and smoke weed. There are others still, quite a lot of people neither of whom seem to have got the memo that their lives have been ended by this plague known as gentrification.

The East End – arguably between Bow Church, Wapping, Old Street and Victoria Park, is the most welcoming and tolerant neighbourhood of London in my opinion, where people have been learning to live together in relative harmony for many generations. History books say it hasn’t succumbed to the Blitzkrieg or the squalor of the Victorian slums; and those who claim to know its soul are saying it will be profiting from the river of money currently being poured inside it without sacrificing any of its charm.

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