There are two places in London that would be the pride of any other major city in the world, yet which face an imminent threat to their survival. They are the Latin Village in Seven Sisters, and Banglatown in Spitalfields. Although there are big differences between the two, they also have much in common. Both are places renowned for their minority-ethnic population, both are in areas of historic deprivation and both are bursting at the seams with small independent businesses. Spitalfields and Seven Sisters have long been tough areas with high levels of poverty, but the ethnic minorities that have given London so much of its energy and interest have made them home – and made them hum.
The “Indian” restaurants of Brick Lane (run mainly by men who originate from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh) are world famous, and in normal times draw hordes of tourists, as well as students and office workers. The broader area has grocery shops, textile sellers and tailors that cater to the large Bangladeshi community. It is, says Sean Carey of the University of Manchester, a co-author on a recent project called Beyond Banglatown, “totally unique: there is no other place like it in the world”.
The Latin Village is a market-cum-community hub centred around an abandoned department store. Before the pandemic, visitors could pop in for an empanada, to wire money, to get their nails done – or to find out where to get jobs or rental housing. Among its admirers is the United Nations.
Such places are living demonstrations of the importance of migration to London and the UK, and show how migrant communities can grasp the opportunities with which they are presented and turn run-down areas into sites of business, employment and cultural interest. Yet in both cases, they are suffering from a lack of official imagination and care. For centuries, Spitalfields has been home to waves of migration, from French Huguenots, to Germans, to Ashkenazi Jews, to Yemenis and Bangladeshis and Somalis. Yet no blue plaques commemorate the South Asian seamen who built up the area, nor does the area benefit from interest from either English Heritage or Visit London.
The latest battle on Brick Lane is over the redevelopment of the giant Truman Brewery site that sits in its middle, and where there are plans to put in a tall new office block as well as shops. Local businesses fear, with some justification, that this will mean higher rents but no more customers and the decline of the area. For years, the traders of the Latin Village have been facing the prospect of their site being torn down and rebuilt by a developer – who originally had no plans to include their market. The developer recently pulled out, and the future of the area is now up in the air.
Cities change and they should welcome new people and new energy, but their stewards should also respect the things that make them interesting and diverse. Politicians at town halls and in City Hall talk about inclusive development and high streets for all: places such as Latin Village and Banglatown will provide the test for whether they really mean it.