Brick Lane: Racialisation of Space23 minute read

Project Identification:

Brick Lane, formally Whitechapel Lane before the 15th century, is situated in the East End of London between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. Now seen as the ‘curry capital’ of London, Brick Lane is associated with a rich heritage of immigrant workers bringing with them their skills, trades and foods. Notable influxes of migrant waves since the end of the 17th century have arguably created the foundations for a Brick Lane associated with ethnic ‘enclaves’ of migrant communities. What this paper will consider is how these multiple influxes of migrants have created racialisation of space into these enclaves. Moreover, although this racialisation changes form and has different connotations, we can still see traces of the past in the process of this racialisation.

Therefore the project aims of this investigation will be to:

  • establish how racialisation of space is linked to a historical set of practices of ‘othering’, where a clear sense of an inside /outside is created
  • consider the extent to which historical exoticisation rooted in colonial and imperial ideologies is still occurring in the present
  • consider how concepts surrounding the idea of smell and dirt are used as a form of othering, both historically and in the present
  • consider the role of protest and control and how the state and development has affected the racialisation of space over time

Background of Brick Lane and the idea of ‘palimpsest’

A brief history of the migrant influxes starts with the late 17th century influx of French Huguenot migrants followed by the settlement of “Irish populations in the 18th century, Jewish refugees in the 19th and more recently Bangladeshi immigrants have all settled in the area.” (Mavrommatis, 2006). In 19th century Brick Lane, it has been stated that almost 100% of the population were Jewish (Shaw et al, 2004) . The Jewish community in Victorian times has been extensively considered and probed as part of understanding the poverty and inequality throughout history in London’s East End. Moreover, the poverty that has existed in the East End has arguably been part of framing the East as accepting of ethnic minority settlement and difference.

Changes to buildings in Brick Lane also become part of the narrative of the changing demographics. Both Mavrommatis (2006) and Claire (2011) comment on what is now the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, which itself can be seen as a literal palimpsest as it “has functioned as a chapel for the Huguenots, a synagogue for the Jews, and currently, as a mosque for the local Muslim Bangladeshi population.” (Mavrommatis, 2006). We can see how the physical landscape of Brick Lane has changed over time to represent the cultures of the dominant migrant communities.

The concept of palimpsest describes something that has been written over but that still makes visible the histories and what came before. In this context, it means a space which has been subject to cultural and social changes over time, evoking new layers of culture but can still uncover the hidden histories and culture which have constructed the space. As space which contains “layering and superimposition” of culture and history. (Dillon, 2005:256). The multiple influxes of migrants in Brick Lane have created multiple layers of culture. This multi-layering can be understood under the palimpsest.

This enquiry will make evident the changing and layering of histories in Brick Lane, and whilst not always signifying a direct use of the term palimpsest throughout, notable links to the past histories of Brick Lane are made visible in the entirety of this paper.


Firstly, a literature review of the racialisation of space was conducted. This was then located to the East End, and Brick Lane specifically, in part of a process of grounding the theoretical understanding of space to the specific site. The literature also
provided narrations of Brick Lane at several points in history,
which combined with an enquiry into the concept of palimpsest, provided a conceptual grounding for this paper.

Extensive primary research has been collected from Brick Lane to engage with site. The use of ethnographic methodology allowed for the situation of historical sites and past memories to be spatially placed in the mind of the researcher. Prolonged ‘hanging around’ the site produced observations of negotiations of space and everyday geographies in Brick Lane.

Ethnographic techniques are beneficial in cultural geography in the pursuit of being an observer in an environment without disrupting its nature. This allows the researcher to create a written accounts of the visual and inscribe discourse (Cosgrove and Jackson, 1987). In this sense, they produce accounts of what people do and not just what they say (Crang, 2002). However, the research should not be considered as a non-engaging person in ethnographic research. Rather, it is important to consider that they are still very much active in their interpretation of the negotiations of space (Herbert, 2000).

Engaging with the site through archival material, alongside ethnographic research of the site, has been key to being able to build up an understanding of the multiple layers of history in Brick Lane. Both the archival material from the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, such as census data and maps, as well as the Booth archives produced extensive accounts of 19th and 20th century histories in the East End.

Archival material is limited in its interpretation because it needs to be situated in the historical setting that it was produced. For example, when considering the work of Booth’s enquiry, the social and political aims of his enquiries were also taken into account as limitations.

Visitations to art and photographic exhibitions, such as the collection ‘Brick Lane Born’ by Raju Vaidyanathan allowed for significant contributions to visual representations of the racialisation of space. Maps displaying the ethnic composition of the area were also used for visual representation. When considering the role of the state, government documents of interest from Tower Hamlets council, historical and current census data and the use of maps was explored. Reflexivity around the use of mapping was considered. Maps are often dangerously seen as being empirically correct and objective. However, when looking at research of maps, it is important to consider what is made visible and what is omitted (Kirby, 1996). Labelling, format and colours all need to be considered as functioning tools. This enables the consideration to be made that maps are still subjective visual interpretations of space.

Literature Review

Literature Review

Sibley (1998) argues that both the real and the imaginary geographies of the city are racialised. The racialisation of space can be understood as an investigation into the politics and attitudes towards ethnically diverse communities and how these communities are seen to inscribe upon space. Focusing on the site Brick Lane, the literature presents Brick Lane as a monocultural enclave with a commercially visible image of Bangladeshi identity (Newns, n.d.:169). This racialisation of space therefore involves a process of differentiation and highlighting the ethnic clustering and residential segregation of the Bangladeshi community.

The racialisation of space in Brick Lane arises from the creation of boundaries of those who belong and do not belong in space. Sibsey (1998) argue that this notion of inclusion and exclusion results in a process of ‘othering’ ethnic groups which continue to promote the racialisation of space. This process entails “active production and reproduction of racialised segregation through institutional racism” (Phillips, 2006:29). Moreover, the racialised construction of ‘whiteness’ and ‘otherness’ has been long maintained in the East End as part of racist ideologies and anxieties over the dominance of ethnic and cultural others (Phillips, 2006; Bonnett, 2000).

Buettner (2008) argues that the changing demographics in Brick Lane when the Bengali influx emerged presented sights of exotically dressed people from the Indian sub-continent, foreign language signs and the scents and cooking smells. As a result of these notable cultural signifiers, Brick Lane is viewed as an authentic “version of Bangladeshi culture that can be easily read by those passing through” (Newns, n.d.:170). This authenticity is linked to the idea of the ‘exotic’ and foreign. Gilroy (1995) argues that there has been a long-standing Western European tendency to exoticise the other. Our understanding of race allows us to consider the extent to which the marginal other are reduced to one homogenous ‘exotic’. (Hooks 1992, Buettner 2008). Newns (n.d.) argues that the racialisation of space in Brick Lane is historically rooted in the colonial histories of stereotyping and signposting foreign cultures.

The signposting of difference as one “is actively produced”, as well as “culture is actively made” (Mitchell, 2001:79). Joyce (2003) argues that the creation of culture contributes to the construction of social class. Therefore, control of culture due to anxieties of race and diversity in the city. As in the 19th century, when anti-Semitic discourses vilified the Jewish migrants settling in London’s East End (Phillips, 1988), racist ideologies and religious or cultural fears have converged to produce anxiety over the cultural aliens. This highlights the intersections with race and class and the continuing association with the East End as an area of poverty and deprivation (Phillips, 2006).

Finally, the last body of literature this paper will draw on surrounds the role of smell and sensory narratives of the city. The importance of the role of food in Brick Lane needs to considered first. Part of exoticising Brick Lane comes from “food’s social, political and cultural function and our individual experience of different foods” (Frost, 2011: 231). Historically, the changes in the types of food in the Brick Lane area were citied with deep sources of resentment for the smells of curry (Buettoner, 875). Frost argues, however, that in Brick Lane “curry both unites and divides” (Frost, 2011: 23). This highlights the fact that smell can be a way of classifying anxieties surrounding migration (Manalansan 2006), but that food also plays a critical role in migrant experiences (Kershen 2002).

Historical analysis of racialisation of Brick Lane

Race and ‘othering’

Figure 4: Extract from the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902.
Figure 4: Extract from the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902.

The multi-layering of different cultures that have existed in Brick Lane produces a palimpsestuous microcosm of racialised space in Brick Lane. However, establishing that there has always existed a production and construction of the ‘other’ since Jewish histories of Brick Lane provides historical roots to our current understanding of race and space. As Sibsey (1998) argues, notions of inclusion and exclusion within space results from ‘othering’ ethnic groups which has historically taken place in the East End and continues to promote the racialised spaces of exclusion today.

Following the French Huguenots, Jewish influxes of migrants started settling in the East End. Spitalfields saw the largest influx of Jewish population and as Shaw et al (2004) argue, Brick Lane itself was comprised of almost 100% Jewish residents.

From archival research, the process of othering in the East End can be seen to be deeply rooted in the white middle-class ideology of a cleansed London, free from the racial contamination of ‘others’. Charles Booth comments on Brick Lane’s surrounding streets as “The streets have all the appearances of semi vicious poverty”. His representation of Jewish immigrants in the East End is of a “dirty… less than human” race (Booth, 1989). Part of the othering of Jews was the creation of them as being seen as less than human – an alien species. Social Darwinism ideology legitimised the construction of hierarchical classifications of cultures and races. Moreover, these classifications gave further legitimacy to the restriction of aliens, especially Jews. Figure 4 shows an extract from the the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902.

In his police notebooks comment on the negotiation between himself and the Jewish communities, stating that “anyone can see what the other is” (Booth, B354:131). This highlights the fact that not only was the experience of othering occurring in the East End but that it was not natural to enter the space of the ‘other’, showing the production of Jewish ethnic enclaves in the East End. The anxieties of the other are therefore associated with the “mixing and merging… the breaking down of the boundaries” (Sibley, 1998:12). Being able to locate these others but not having to associate with them was part of being able to contain the contamination by racial Others (Hoggett, 1992).

By creating hierarchical boundaries between the Jews as others and white British, it was part of producing spatial boundaries. Although this paper will look at how the ‘othering’ of immigrants to Brick Lane has changed over time, it always remains consistent that this process is occurring.

Exoticising and fetishism with the ‘other’ – Empire ideology and narration

Having considered the act of othering as part of the racialisation of space in the East End more generally, this paper will now turn to the how notions of empire ideology through colonialisation in Brick Lane community produced an exoticism which is made visible in the present.

The history of British Raj as it was narrated to British citizens created an exoticisation and fetishisation of the ‘other’. From 1858 to 1947 the British Empire extended over British Raj. Within this period, travel guides, letters from British people in India, and poems all developed an imaging of the exotic in the mind of the white British. Figures 8 and 9 show that the language of “fragrance” and “flowers” are used extensively in writings on the British Raj as well as India as “an empire of the Sun, a gorgeous realm of gold”. As a result of such writings, when Bengali immigrants started settling in Brick Lane, there was arguably an already established imagining surrounding the culture and identity of these migrants (Chaudhuri, 1994). Unlike the Jewish migrants who settled the century before, the Bengali immigrants were greeted with an intrigue of foreign lands, practices and foods.

However, the stereotypical Oriental other was not solely an object of intrigue. The exploitation and treatment of colonised lands developed similar ideological traits into the minds and everyday resentments of the white British Londoner. The arrival of settlers from ex-colonies, who were on the whole of a lower socio-economic background, also had an effect on the labour market that caused many white lower income Londoners to resent their presence. Discourses have been developed which ignore the colonial histories of exploitation and treatment of colonised lands. Looking at how these histories are continued into the present, there is a sustained ideology of the exotic and foreign in the production and consumption of Brick Lane. The idea of “eating the other” resonated here. The Bangladeshi community is made visible as an exotic and foreign culture for the white British resident to explore as part of their leisure. However, the racialisation of space is made visible for this purpose of ‘authenticity’. This authenticity is seen as a key component of Brick Lane today (see figures 5,6 and 7).

igures 5, 6 and 7 of Brick Lane curry houses (from Author)
Figures 5, 6 and 7 of Brick Lane curry houses (from Author)

It is worth returning to the Jewish migrants here for comparison. Any contacts with Jews in London was largely unheard of until the work of Booth and Jews in London were primarily kept invisible for social and political purposes. As Keith argues, ‘visibility of ethnic difference or sameness depends on the analytical tools that are used to scrutinise the city’ (Keith, 2005:59). Therefore although this othering continues to take place it is met with a new form based on colonial histories of intrigue with the foreign lands. This highlights that importance of the use of language that determines the other as ‘exotic’ and as signifier of diversity (Todorov, 1994). Furthermore, this shows the juxtaposition between the positive associations of race and the negative smells and habits of natives.

Smell and dirt

The associations made to smell in the exoticisation of migrant communities can be seen as a component of the racialisation of space beyond the visual boundaries. Although there is not historical empirical evidence of these associations in Brick Lane specifically, it is still possible to probe the relationships that exist and how these have changed over time.

Figure 10: One of Brick Lane Bakeries (from author)
Figure 10: One of Brick Lane Bakeries (from author)

Exoticism has been part of the creation of an “authentic” Brick Lane in terms of food and spices. However, there are further historical accounts of place through smell which have racial connotations in the East End. In Victorian times, the Jewish immigrants were often classified as dirty through their ‘stench’ or ‘dirty smells’ (Booth, 1903; Mayhew, 2009). Moreover, the political implications of these historical enquiries into the life of London’s poor should not be viewed separately from the narration. For Booth, a healthy London was a place of ‘whiteness’ cleansed of dirty smells and dirty practices that were associated with immigrants. (Campkin and Cox, 2007; Manalansan 2006). In this case, “the odour of the other … often serves as a scapegoat for certain antipathies toward the other” (Classen, 1992: 134). Consequently, the smells that migrants carry with them are both a source of anxiety and comfort (Manalansan, 2006).

Although the smells of Asian spices and curries are thought to be promoted in Brick Lane as a signifier of multiculture, exoticisation can also lead to the homogenisation of culture. The fact that Brick Lane is primarily associated with ‘Indian’ food and smell of spices shows the ‘other’ are made into one homogenised, oversimplified group. An example of this can be seen in the fact that the smell of bagels from Brick Lane bakeries is very much present at the north end of Brick Lane today, but these histories of Jewish culture in Brick Lane have been written over due to the needs to racialise space as one identifiable ethnicity/ group.

Racialisation as control

The racialisation of space in Brick Lane has historically occurred as a method of controlling race
and cultural identity.

Imaginings of multiculture or bicultural tend to promote it as problematic. The Home Affairs Committee 1981 stated that “both Asian and West Indian children may be in trouble by having a double identity” (Home Affairs Committee 1980– 81). Therefore, the experiences of second and third generation Bangladeshi migrants and identity politics comes into play in the racialisation of space Brick Lane.

‘Brick Lane Born’ exhibition by Raju Vaidyanathan gives insights into the identity politics in the 1980s and the boundaries created in pursuit of racialising space. The exhibition is currently touring the East End and is said to be the first collection exhibited by a Bangladeshi resident in Brick Lane. The collection depicts clear boundaries between white British and ethnically diverse residents, as well as a prominent role of policing in the area.

The racialisation of Brick Lane is thus bounded by two respects. The visible and the invisible. The visible community of the Bangladeshi immigrants is both promoted and constrained by the perception of the white British community. Whereas the invisibility of the Jewish community is a result of the absence of promotion from the white British community. Vaidyanathan’s photos feature Jewish communities in the form of shop workers and on the street. However, they are not integrated into the photos with other people within the community. This shows that they have been systematic isolated through generations of cultural invisibility.

This feeds into the idea of development and state controlling. One
noticeable change over time in Brick Lane has been the increasing role of the state. This creates a further layer in the racialisation of space. In Victorian times, the state had a very limited role in the control of Jewish immigration in the East End and even when the 1901 Aliens Act came in, there was still limited application of restrictions on immigration, partly due to the active invisibility of these migrant groups.

However, since the 1980s gentrification started taking place in Brick Lane. The influx of new creative white residents of Brick Lane has been part of the new imaging of Brick Lane. Figure 13 shows the conservation area of Brick Lane highlighting the pursuit of managing the cultural and historical identity of Brick Lane. But the aims of re-development highlight that the Bengladeshi community is made visible as part of a wider pursuit as an “asset of local economic development” (BGCC 3 1996:15). The role of the state and private actors has therefore provided a new layer to the process of racialisation of space in Brick Lane.


Space in Brick Lane has always been racialised and has always been a space for the ‘other’. What we have witnessed over time are different groups coming to dominate and be dominated within that space. Each group has a different relationship with the white British native community, some more positive than others. But within all, there are continuous strands that define all these relationships within the space. Moreover, this process of racialisation is not solely about ‘othering’ but racialisation of space part of a pursuit of controlling the other. The negative associations of race of all the immigrant communities remain consistent, especially perceptions of cultural and economic threat. Additionally, it has been discussed that smell has been a continuous signifier of race and otherness in Brick Lane.

Whilst the continuities concerning Brick Lane have been outlined above, there are also countless differences that are unique to each new community. These unique differences help to shape the dynamic environment of the racialised space, affecting both what came before and what comes after. Specifically, as outlined, is the new concept of exoticism with the Bangladeshi community. The role of the state has also been a new development in the layers of Brick Lane as a palimpsest. Whereas before the state reneged on its commitments to supporting the area in Victorian times, there has now been a rented focus on development and regeneration viewed through the cultural and ethnic lens. Brick Lane is therefore a primary example of a palimpsest because it is a fixed space which has undergone multiple and diverse changes over time that have shaped the character and nature of the space whilst the continuity and consistency of its original character as a space for the ‘other’ remains.


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