Beyond Banglatown: continuity, change and new urban economies in Brick Lane

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences


Brick Lane in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is one of Britain's most iconic streets and for over 25 years has been synonymous with the curry houses of Banglatown. Brick Lane/Banglatown is perhaps the most famous example of urban regeneration and ethnic branding through food, and the restaurants and annual festivals attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. However, the identity of this once iconic street is now under erasure, with the proliferation of alternative food and retail businesses and increasing gentrification. There are also changes and challenges internal to the sector, through the over-expansion and diversification of markets, migration controls and intergenerational shifts in education and employment.

This ethnographic study will explore the challenges and changes to Banglatown through an in-depth focus on the restaurant sector in and around Brick Lane. Using an innovative mix of historical, visual, quantitative and qualitative data, this project will map the changing face of Brick Lane over time and today. It will trace the development of Banglatown since its emergence as part of the urban regeneration schemes of the 1980s to the present time, and place this as part of a longer history of Indian food and eateries in London, linked to Empire, migration and trade. This small-scale and spatially bounded analysis will provide a unique lens onto broader questions and tensions around: diaspora, migration and settlement; ethnicity, inequality and the labour market; culture, consumption and economy; religion, gender and generation; multiculturalism, conviviality and everyday practices in global cities. While the focus is primarily on the Bangladeshi restaurant sector in Brick Lane, the project will use this as a stepping off point to consider the changes and challenges confronting this marginalised religious and ethnic minority community, the multi-billion pound Indian food retail sector in Britain, and the wider processes of cultural, social and economic transformation in the lives of ordinary streets.

To date there has been no in-depth ethnographic study which considers holistically the changing nature of the Indian restaurant trade, the role of space in shaping ethnic businesses, and their significance as a place of global branding, interaction and encounter in multicultural societies and cities. The focus on ethnic minority businesses in a time of austerity, post-Brexit uncertainty and policy retrenchment makes this a particularly timely and important project. Through an interdisciplinary and mixed methods approach, we will gain a three-dimensional portrait of this important sector at a crucial moment and also, importantly, locate this within a fourth dimension - of change over time. The project team uniquely brings over 80 years' experience of research and writing in the field: on ethnicity and migration (Alexander, Chatterji), Bangladeshi identity and diaspora (Alexander, Chatterji, Carey); Brick Lane and Banglatown (Alexander, Carey); the restaurant trade (Carey); urbanism and ordinary streets (Hall); ethnography and visual methods (Alexander, Hall). Alexander and Chatterji's recent AHRC funded interdisciplinary research on the formation of the Bengal diaspora in Britain, Carey's unrivalled involvement with the restaurateurs of Brick Lane over 25 years, and Hall's methodologically and empirically ground-breaking visual and spatial analysis of London's multi-cultural economies, in particular, promise new insights into the everyday life of Brick Lane at a moment of significant change and challenge. Our dissemination strategies promise to maximise impact locally and nationally, through our advisory group, drawn from leading figures in the media, government, business and policy sectors. The project thus promises original and significant contributions to empirical data, theoretical frameworks, methodological practice, policy and dissemination.

Planned Impact

National and local policymakers: tourism, retail and leisure are key planks in the development and branding of 'global cities', as well as a source of social and economic regeneration of multi-ethnic urban centres. The 'Indian' restaurant sector - and iconic cultural quarters such as Brick Lane/Banglatown - embodies an important symbolic cultural and economic resource, providing a space of commerce and competition, but also of everyday multiculturalism. The changing economic and political climate has however placed such spaces under threat from increasing inequality, ethnic diversification and gentrification. Increasing control of non-EU migration has particularly impacted these sectors, where BME and migrant workers are over-represented. These issues are likely to be heightened in the post-Brexit context. The proposed research will explore the changes in, and consequences for, these three key policy areas (branding, equality and migration), providing new empirical and longitudinal data which explores the changes within this important sector, its contemporary challenges and what impact national, city and local policies have in shaping the sector.

Business sector organisations: there has been little research on the 'Indian' restaurant sector in the UK, and this project will be of significant interest to business and enterprise groups through providing detailed empirical and longitudinal research and policy analysis. Organisations such as the British Bangladeshi Chamber of Commerce have been centrally involved in lobbying government, while the sector has itself been recently challenged by moves for unionisation amongst its workforce, and the diversification of the market. The fast changing nature of this sector means that there is no detailed empirical work which has explored the contemporary context and its transformation of the sector as a whole and/or within specific local contexts. The Senior Researcher has long-established links with key organisations in the sector and will utilise these to facilitate access and to provide a conduit for disseminating findings and generating collaborative work/policy recommendations.

Third sector organisations: Data show that ethnic inequality in the key areas of income, education and employment is an ongoing concern, with some groups (such as Bangladeshis) still severely disadvantaged. In times of economic crisis, BME groups, particularly young people, are likely to be disproportionately affected in the labour market, while self-employment remains a vulnerable career pathway, impacting across the life course, families and communities. The ethnic restaurant sector is subject to a range of challenges which will have ramifications for Bangladeshi communities, as well as other migrant and minority ethnic communities entering this rapidly diversifying, competitive and fast-changing sector. This research will provide rich accessible data which illuminates the broader policy context and the experiences of business owners and local communities in a time of austerity and post-Brexit uncertainty.

Schools/students: building on our previous AHRC funded research on the Bengal diaspora and inclusive histories, the project will be of interest to schools and students on the OCR GCSE Migration to Britain course, which includes project work on iconic locations, including Spitalfields/Brick Lane. This project will provide innovative primary and secondary source material linked to our web resource (

National, local and ethnic media: based on the experience of previous work by the PI and Senior Researcher, and the iconic status of Brick Lane, the project is expected to generate data of interest to sectoral, ethnic and national media. We will work with contacts at the BBC to develop and disseminate a film on the project findings.

The project team will be advised by a steering group to maximise impact across these five user groups (see pathways to impact).


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Title Where Does Chicken Tikka Masala Actually Come From? 
Description Al-Jazeera+ film which features the Beyond Banglatown project and team 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The film has had over 127,000 views on YouTube and 250,000 on Facebook. 
Description Members of the Beyond Banglatown project team contributed to an Al-Jazeera+ programme on the Indian restaurant trade in Britain. Sean Carey also wrote a blog on the project for The Young Foundation
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

Description COES lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact COES conference on Migraiton - Santiago, Chile. Invited plenary.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Do Brick Lane's Curry Houses have a future? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Blog for Young Foundation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Talk for British Bangladeshi Chamber of Commerce 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Talk by Dr Sean Carey to Bangladeshi Chamber of Commerce
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Young Foundation blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Young Foundation blog on the restaurant trade
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018