Down memory lane

Brick Lane has been home to immigrants and outsiders for hundreds of years. Can it survive its repac

The East End used to be London's heart of darkness, as Peter Ackroyd once described it. For centuries synonymous with crime and extreme poverty, it has been home to an array of immigrant communities - from the Huguenots and the Jews to the Bangladeshis. Its reinvention as a hip tourist destination, with Brick Lane at its centre, would have horrified my own grandmother, whose family had a shoe shop there. "If my father came back from his grave and saw this he'd say they'd all gone meshugge," a former Jewish resident tells Rachel Lichtenstein. Brick Lane was not a place to aspire to - or even linger in. The sooner it was consigned to the past, the better. Lichtenstein is the latest in a line of visionary East End chroniclers to rescue that past. She is part of an inspired literary and historical reinvention of the neighbourhood - along with Iain Sinclair, Patrick Wright and Ackroyd - which has recast the streets with a resonant symbolism.

When Lichtenstein first began exploring the neighbourhood in the early 1990s, the great Bill Fishman took her under his wing. Fishman started writing the history of the area when it was far from fashionable or desirable in the 1970s - still the haunt of skinheads and not fully emerged from a period of neglect. She then began working with Sinclair, and together they wrote Rodinsky's Room, a captivating piece of historical sleuthing into Spitalfields' past. Lichtenstein's focus then was Brick Lane's Jewish history. As a child, she was fascinated by her grandparents' memories of living there and the glimpses they gave her into a vanishing world of Yiddish, immigrant culture. The area was known then as "little Jerusalem" - most of the shop signs were written in Yiddish and English, the street hummed with the sound of the rag-trade sweatshops at work, and on Saturdays Orthodox Jews could be seen on their way to the synagogue in their fur-trimmed hats.

As a young artist, Lichtenstein went to live in the neighbourhood and was deeply involved in the community and inspired by its past, which became central to her creative work. In common with many other Brick Lane chroniclers to whom she talks in her book, Lichtenstein developed an obsession with the area. In one memorable scene in Rodinsky's Room, she describes how she stops an art "happening" in full flow when she realises that the performers are destroying Jewish religious texts and historical records. For a brief moment she becomes part of the performance: Brick Lane's guardian of the past confronting the philistine newcomers.

For Lichtenstein, the past animates the present. This is not just an intellectual exercise, but a deeply felt reality for her - and for all the writers and historians she speaks to in the book. Although she is well aware that the neighbourhood has become a mythologised landscape - from Jack the Ripper to the Krays - she is concerned not only to record the past, but to preserve a way of life.

Brick Lane embodies a rare cultural continuity in London's history of immigration - the synagogue where Jewish immigrants prayed is now a mosque; many of the Bangladeshi population work in the same trades as their Jewish antecedents; the street gangs of the 1960s have been replaced by young Somalis and Bangladeshis. Lichtenstein herself has even literally married the past with the present - her husband's father is a Pakistani Muslim who sold spices to the street's restaurants. Yet On Brick Lane is pervaded with a poignant regret that this tradition of continuity is in its last years.

The book lacks the passion and intensity of Rodinsky's Room - it is a more conventional oral history of the neighbourhood, a patchwork of reminiscences. Although the Jewish history features prominently - with highly evocative detail of the street life - it does not dominate. Lichtenstein has in a sense exorcised her past. When she first arrived there in the early 1990s, she had no interest in the Bangladeshi community; it was no more than an "exotic soundscape" for her research into the history of the neighbourhood. But she has now created a comprehensive, deeply researched portrait of the street through the eyes of the people who live and work there. Every chapter is linked to the next, as each Brick Lane local she interviews guides her to the following encounter. A hand-drawn diagram of the interviewees' names at the beginning of the book is superimposed over a map of the area, representing a network of interconnecting, collective memories. This graphic representation of the book cleverly suggests that memory shapes the identity and geography of a neighbourhood.

The life of Brick Lane's Banglatown comes through vividly - the touts hustling for business outside the fashionable curry houses that once catered only for the new immigrants; the displays of jackfruit, mangoes and frozen fish from the rivers of Bangladesh; the cocky, streetwise kids who call Brick Lane "the hood" and cruise up and down the streets on Eid. There are some fascinating, candid interviews with the younger generation of Bangladeshis, who want to break away from their parents without losing their roots.

Lichtenstein has chosen her interviewees carefully. All are idiosyncratic characters and each embodies a phase in the street's history: from her mentors Fishman and Sinclair to fashionable new residents such as Tracey Emin, leading lights of the Bangladeshi community and unsung local heroes. Reverend Ken Leech, who has lived in the neighbourhood since the 1950s, fought the fascists in Brick Lane in the early 1970s. Skinheads would intimidate the growing Bengali community - charging down the street throwing missiles of concrete blocks and bottles. Derek Cox has been a youth worker in the area since the 1960s and is a legendary figure in the Bangladeshi community; some of the young Bangladeshis Lichtenstein talks to describe him as an inspiration.

Both Leech and Cox remember the neighbourhood at its most dismal - a derelict gangland area of sweatshops, infested with rats. The romantic reinvention of the neighbourhood's history seems to have begun with pioneering Jews (Fishman, but also Alan Dein and David Jacobs) who became obsessed with the area's vanishing history in the 1970s. It then took Sinclair, along with the equally brilliant Patrick Wright, to develop a whole new narrative for reinterpreting its past.

The neighbourhood's powerful imaginative appeal infects most of the people Lichtenstein meets. For Sinclair, it was exotic and gothic. He became part of the working-class fabric of the neighbourhood - he got a job in the Truman Brewery and even as a gardener in the churchyard of Hawksmoor's magnificent Christ Church. The chapters on the Truman Brewery - now redeveloped as the centre of the neighbourhood's hip revival - are among the most fascinating in the book. It was a town within a town, a hidden world where, according to Sinclair, most of the employees existed in a hallucinatory inebriated stupor. In one famous piece of brewery lore, a worker who was a firewatcher during the Blitz went to investigate a bomb that had landed in a Jewish burial ground in Whitechapel: he saw "a gathering of prophetic elders sitting on the roof of the building at the end of the grounds. The bomb had blown people out of their graves and their body parts had scattered everywhere."

All of the writers and artists Lichtenstein meets speak of Brick Lane in mystical terms. It's difficult to know how much this is down to the influence of Sinclair's lyrical, mystical reinterpretation of its history. The poet Stephen Watts, who has known the area for the same length of time and lived there since the 1970s, speaks in a similar spiritual language of metaphors: "the place has its own poetry . . . there is a tidal wave of sound and memory rushing down that street". As a neighbourhood with a history of immigration, a transitional home for outsiders, it is clearly a place where mavericks and artists feel at ease. For the writer Sukhdev Sandhu, the street has a charged spirituality, a sense of sacred secrets. It is also somewhere he can belong. Other residents - such as Tracey Emin - make the same observations: "throughout history it has been filled with people who never quite fitted in and that's the reason why I feel comfortable there".

In one sense, On Brick Lane is a rescue mission to gather up the living memories of the street before it is entirely sanitised and gentrified. Very few of the people Lichtenstein speaks to are happy about the speed with which the street is changing. The turning point came in the 1980s, when the first "new Georgians" began restoring the glorious Huguenot houses in the area. At the end of the decade, the brewery was sold and shortly afterwards Spitalfields' fruit and vegetable market ceased to exist. The stage was set for redevelopment. Observant Muslims now complain of feeling threatened by the young clubbers and drinkers who frequent the fashionable bars. One pub was petrol-bombed by Asian youths last year. Long-time residents - artists and Bangladeshi families - are being driven out by the property prices, and the new rich of the dotcom generation are on their way in.

Sinclair has written that "we excavate the history we need, bend the past to colonise the present", and the celebration of Brick Lane's history provides an alternative narrative for modern Britain. Sandhu sees the neighbourhood as a small utopia: "a model for the rest of the country or even the rest of the world. I have learned to live with otherness here in so many different ways." Yet, for Lichtenstein, this affectionate, absorbing book is clearly a farewell - she rather sadly ends the book doubting when she will return to the neighbourhood. There will be further redevelopment for the Olympics and property will continue to increase in value once the East London Line extension has been finished. The current residents are likely to continue to leave the area and Brick Lane will, some predict, become another Covent Garden: a heritage, tourist site with little echo of its working, vibrant past.

Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?