Thursday, July 15, 2004

I love London

When you cross the eastern limit of the City of London, you enter the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. To the south you initially enter Whitechapel (most famous for being the location of Jack the Ripper's Victorian murders), to the north you come to Spitalfields, and Brick Lane in Spitalfields is where I am right now.

Spitalfields is London's first immigrant neighbourhood. In the 17th century it was the destination of Huguenots who fled France (the first mass migration to Britain in quite a few centuries). By the nineteenth century the Huguenots had integrated into Broader English society and Spitalfields was the destination for Jewish emigres from elsewhere in Europe. (Britain's first Bagel shop is a legacy from that period and is just across the road from where I am now).

In the twentieth century that pattern repeated, the Jews integrated into broader British society and moved elsewhere, and Spitalfields then filled up with Bangladeshis, who now dominate the area. Down the road is a building that has been both a church and a synagogue in its time, and which is now a mosque, the only building in Britain (I think) that has performed all three roles.

However, over the last decade, the area has gentrified, as inner city living has become more popular and as London has grown as a financial capital, and young childless people in particular have taken advantage of the proximity to the City of London. Brick Lane has filled with Bangladeshi restaurants catering to non-Bangladeshi customers as much or more than Bangladeshis, and the street has also filled up with bars, cafes, music venues, and it has generally become one of the hippest places in London.

However, it is still principally an immigrant (Bangladeshi) area. Local prosperity has flowed into the area though, and shops catering to young customers of various races have flowed up under the ruins of the Bishopsgate goods yard to the top end of Brick Lane, which until recently was rather run down and was only interesting when there were markets on Sundays. (To me, it feels like the way prosperity grew down the bottom end of King Street in Newtown in Sydney in the 1990s). The local Bangladeshi shopkeepers and the like are doing their best to cater to the hip young crowd as well as locals.

Which is why I am in a newly opened internet cafe in the top half of Brick Lane. This is clearly trying to cater both for the clientele that wants internet access and the clientele that wants coffee. They seem to be doing okay with the internet access, but on the coffee score they are mixed. I was served by a woman in a hajib, and the coffee is only so-so. (These Bangladeshis haven't quite got Italian by way of Seattle coffee right yet). The internet cafe section is filled with Dell machines with 15 inch TFT screens that look a couple of years old: I suspect that repackaging ex-office PCs and selling them second hand to internet cafes is a nice little business for someone. The seating is not as comfortable as it should be. The cafe breaks one of the cardinal laws of cafes, which is that it doesn't greatly matter whether you have table service or counter service (or whether you want the customers to pay at the beginning of the end) but you should make which arrangement that you are using very clear. (There is a nice selection of newspapers for me to read). There is free wireless, but I am not sure if it is provided in this shop (I doubt it) or if it is coming from somewhere else nearby.

There are other internet / coffee shops nearby, but they are run by white people and not Bangladeshis. Some of the Bangladeshis are trying to move into the trade, which is clearly good. And I am sure they will iron the bugs out soon enough.

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