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Keywords:

  • British Bangladeshis;
  • Brick Lane;
  • social space;
  • spatial practices;
  • community

Abstract

Based on a recent empirical project on ‘the Bengal diaspora’, the paper explores the construction and contestation of meanings around the iconic East London street, Brick Lane. Taking the 2006 protests around the film Brick Lane as its starting point, the paper draws on original interviews conducted in 2008 with a range of Bengali community representatives, to examine the narratives of space, community and belonging that emerge around the idea of Brick Lane as the ‘cultural heartland’ of the British Bangladeshi community. By exploring the representation, production and contestation of ‘social space’ through everyday practices, the paper engages with and contests the representation of minority ethnic ‘communities’ in the context of contemporary multicultural London and examines the process of ‘claiming’ and ‘making’ space in East London. In so doing, the paper contributes to a critical tradition that challenges essentialising and pathologizing accounts of ethnic communities and racialized spaces, or that places them outside of broader social and historical processes – redolent, for example, in contemporary discussions about ‘parallel lives’ or ‘the clash of civilizations’. By contrast, this paper views social space as made through movement and narration, with a particular emphasis on the social agency of local Bengali inhabitants and the multiple meanings that emerge from within this ‘imagined community’. However, rather than simply stressing the unfinished and processual nature of spatial meanings, the paper insists on the historical, embodied and affective dimensions of such meaning making, and a reckoning with the broader social and political landscape within which such meanings take shape. The focus on Brick Lane provides an empirically rich, geographically and historically located lens through which to explore the complex role of ethnicity as a marker of social space and of spatial practices of resistance and identity. By exploring Bengali Brick Lane through its narratives of past, present and future, these stories attest to the symbolic and emotional importance of such spaces, and to their complex imaginings.