The history of Brick Lane Mosque tells the story of the East End’s immigrant past

Brick Lane Mosque. Image: Lemur12.

There’s a mosque a short walk from Whitechapel station on Brick Lane, one of the many that serve the large Bengali population who live in the East End. Originally called the London Great Mosque (“Jamme Masjid” in Bengali), it is now known only as the Brick Lane Mosque, following the building of much larger Islamic centres around London, such as one nearby on Whitechapel Road.

High above the separate entrances for men and women on a stone sundial are carved the Latin words “Umbra Sumus”. These words and the date above them betray the long history of the building that has stood unassumingly on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane for almost 250 years. A building housing the religions of the successive waves of immigrants, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, who have defined the East End and London itself for hundreds of years.

The building was originally built in 1743 as a church by the French Huguenots who settled in London after fleeing religious persecution in France. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by the French King Louis XIV in 1685, saw the rolling back of hard won civil rights for Protestant religious minorities and their subsequent emigration from France. Those that came to London settled in the Brick Lane area and a thriving weaving industry developed. When this declined due to industrialisation in the north of England, the Huguenots moved West, contributing to the large French population in Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith, and Fulham. So their church on Brick Lane fell out of use.

The poverty of the area, as well as its proximity to the London docklands, meant that it remained the starting point for the historic stream of immigrants to the city. Following the Huguenots, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia settled in the area during the 19th century.


Earlier the building on the corner of Fournier Street had briefly been used as a mission for the evangelical Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews, an indigenous attempt to convert the immigrant community to the native religion. This was a short-lived and unsuccessful endeavour and the building soon became the main point of worship for the Jewish community, the “Great Synagogue”. Just as the Huguenots left before them, the new residents of Brick Lane and its surrounding area eventually moved out of the East End towards the leafy suburbs of North London.

Only four of the 150 synagogues that were built in Tower Hamlets remain today and the Great Synagogue on Brick Lane was one of those lost to history. The building was repurposed as a mosque for the Bengalis who inherited this part of London from the Jewish community. The current residents of Brick Lane mostly immigrated from Bangladesh after the country gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Seeking work or fleeing the terrible war for secession from West Pakistan, which saw the creation of the modern state of Bangladesh, the ethnically Bengali community in Tower Hamlets grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century and now make up 32 per cent of the borough's total population.

Immigrants from across the world have thrived in the East End in spite of intense poverty and racism from those who came before. It was Jewish immigrants who stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists on Cable Street. Next door to the nearby East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road you can find Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bengali man who was murdered in a racially motivated attack during racial tension in the East End.

The pain and success of those who have lived in the East End is written on the streets of London, in the architecture, monuments, shops and lasting communities now scattered across the city. Each wave of immigrants leaving a shadow of themselves on the city long after they have gone and their children have become Londoners. Umbra Sumus means “We are shadows”; prophetic words carved in a long-dead language, by people who themselves died long ago.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.