On the surface of it, Whitechapel is not the prettiest part of the city. The buildings along the High Road are jaunty and irregular, with occasional gaps here and there as though teeth had been punched out of the mouth of an ageing boxer. The shop fronts are gaudy and bold, and there are an inordinate number of fried Chicken shops. Even the colourful plastic façade of David Adjaye’s well-used Idea Store is a relic of a bygone age of investment into underprivileged areas like this.
Despite the signs of neglect, an examination of the types of business and shop that make up the beginning of the A11 high street hint that the area has an independent streak. By no means are there the organic cafes and independent coffee chains of nearby gentrified areas, but neither is this a cookie-cutter high street consisting of large chain stores and franchises. In absence of these types of business are numerous indian sweet shops, clothes stores and mobile phone booths mostly run by members of the local Bangladeshi community. During weekdays, on the unnaturally wide pavement of Whitechapel Road you will find a ‘warts-and-all’ street market where you can probably find any kind of fish, green vegetable or headscarf. The presence of a robust, independent street life hint at something that goes beyond the surface of the high street – that Whitechapel has certain ingredients that mean it is predisposed to developing its own local economy.
Curiously, this may largely be a result of the fact that Whitechapel has always been left to its own devices. Historically, being just outside the walls of the city of London has meant that it has always had to develop its own distinct form of industry and culture, free from the rules imposed within the jurisdiction of the City proper. The breweries, tanneries slaughterhouses and other ‘less fragrant’ activities of the 16th century that were not permitted within the city established themselves here. Similarly In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish merchants (who were not permitted to trade within the city of London) established a thriving clothing and fabric manufacturing industry, the so called ‘rag trade’, that the area is still remembered for.
Currently, although certain parts of Whitechapel have specialist identities, as a whole, the area lacks a certain coherence. If we examine a slice of the neighbourhood that begins at the Whitechapel station, down to the railway arches bordering Cable street in the South, the most prominent strips are Whitechapel road, which specialises in asian goods and groceries, and parallel to that, Commercial road, which is still the city’s centre for clothing wholesalers. In between these two broad strips are large blocks consisting of mixed social and privately owned housing, broken up by small pockets of light industrial units. These contain businesses that are run by, and serve the local Bangladeshi community, peppered with other small businesses located in Whitechapel for its good connections and proximity to the city. It is not unusual to find a motorbike tune-up garage next to an Islamic Sunday school, or a halal butcher next to a Jewish clothing wholesaler.
Differences aside, all or most of these businesses are small, owned by families or individuals, or are reincarnations of old enterprises. Although Whitechapel feels relatively fragmented (by virtue of being left to its own devices) a curious order has evolved that seems particularly suitable to supporting the kind small and fledgling businesses that live here.
During peak times, the Chapman Street Market is teeming with people and cars that come from all over the local area to stock up on frozen fish, green vegetables, sacks of rice, or any number of assorted edibles. The street emerged as a by-product of the construction of the DLR about ten years ago. A number of business units were created for lease in the infilled railway arches. It is now full of Bangladeshi owned cash and carrys, selling imported fresh and frozen produce. The owner of Bondor Bazaar told us that within the space of a year, all of the arches were filled. Once one shop became established, it blazed a path for many other entrepreneurs to set up immediately after, rapidly generating a critical mass of business. The arches have dual access, facing the residential estate and Watney Street to the north, and loading access to the rear. This mini strip of commerce emerged of its own accord, and is dependant upon being visible from the Watney Street, and its proximity to Shadwell station for its success.
In contrast, across Canon Street Road, a few hundred metres away in the older Victorian Cable street Railway Arches, are businesses with much slower metabolisms, that have been around much longer. Although they are within an almost identical building type, these buildings have little to do with the current local residential population, although they are intimately connected with the longer legacy and history of Whitechapel. Steinberg’s trimmings and haberdashery has been operating from the same railway arch here for almost one hundred years, a rare veteran of the rag trade. Still owned by the same Jewish family, the business has chosen not to move because the strategic location serves them well. Similarly, J+J cabs, a black cab valet service catches passing trade as Black cabs drop in on their way from the East back down Cable street into the city.
The expanding house
Not too far away in Burslem street is Nilsa Supermarket. Embedded within a shopping parade in a 1970’s residential development, this supermarket supplies the local Bangladeshi community with essential items including halal meat, rice, milk and eggs as there is no commercial supermarket nearby. The owner, a young Bangladeshi, lives locally. He clearly states that his family run business has built up more than just a customer vendor relationship with the locals. The business has expanded several times over the last 20 years, initially operating out of one shop unit, it now occupies three units on the same shopping parade. The success of the business has allowed his family to open up other enterprises in Leicester, but being rooted in the area, he himself does not have any intention of moving the business away from the Whitechapel. This pattern of incremental expansion and investment is typical of many of the businesses in the area. Once successful they continue to reinvest in their business, indicative of a desire to invest in the area that brought them business success and security.
The Lahore kebab house provides a famous reiteration of this type of business. Located on the busy Commercial road, the business is thriving, serving much more than the local bangladeshi community. The owner, a Pakistani, has reinvested in the shop and expanded four times. He has since then opened stores in the ‘four corners’ of London, but maintains the East London location because it is extremely profitable. Whereas the Nilsa supermarket expanded laterally, the Lahore kebab house has become something of a little empire, occupying all three floors of the Georgian shop house, as well as some newer residential accommodation at the back, to offer three large dining halls and a lunch room.
The dense house
Another building typology that recurs within Whitechapel is the very dense shop house. In contrast to the single occupancy businesses above, these buildings have a larger number of occupants on each floor, and sometimes several on each floor. At 124-126 Commercial road, there are two clothing wholesalers on the ground floor, a college of Sufism on the first floor and another clothes saler on the second floor, and apartments above. Clearly, all businesses thought it would be beneficial to have a shop front on this main road. A glance down the road reveals many to-let signs. The high turnover of tenants indicate that this is the kind of location where landlords permit a fluidity of tenants, that naturally helps along small businesses who often require flexibility in leases.
There are a mismatch of businesses on Hessel street. A number of clothing wholesalers and manufactures, an Arabic school, a motorbike tuning shop, and a sewing machine supplier. Each proprietor has a wildly divergent background. There is a Brazilian ex-motorcross Champion who located here because of the proximity to the city, a Chinese entrepreneur who chose to locate here because it is cheaper than having a Commercial Road address, and a sewing machine mechanic who also retrained as a young persons’ guidance councillor in the 1980s when he realised that the UK clothing manufacturing industry was dying. The purpose built business units that run along the street are strange and boxy, almost utilitarian postmodernism in character, but can easily be adapted to suit this motley crew of businesses. The spaces above were clearly designed to host factories or warehouses, with generous ceiling heights and big north facing windows, and on the ground floor there are flexible areas with a parking space that are used by the various businesses as shop fronts, warehouses, offices motorbike tuning areas.
An unlikely model
If we spend long enough studying its streets, homes, shops and spaces in between, we can see what the ingredients are that make Whitechapel an almost fully successful, self sufficient neighbourhood. It has a strong local community whose young people wish to stay and reinvest in their area, a mixture of places to live work and play in close proximity, and good robust buildings that can host industry and business. At an urban scale, the by-product of its happenstance -incremental urban growth- are a number of yards and backstreets that provide businesses with useful service routes and ancillary spaces. This is not to say that Whitechapel is perfect. Its young people are facing bleaker educational prospects than their older sisters and brothers, families are enduring overcrowding due to a lack of adequate housing, and there is a dearth of recreational facilities. This cannot be remedied if it continues to be neglected and denied opportunities by unimaginative local government interventions and lack of investment. However, if its positive features are recognised and reinforced with some clever investment in the right places, it will have a much better chance of becoming the neighbourhood it ought to be, and so nearly is. Moreover, at an urban level we can learn a lot from the area. In contrast to the isolated industrial estates on the periphery of our cities, or the artificial ‘creative hubs’ of late, Whitehcapel provides a more tangible and accessible paradigm of how we can begin to nurture small and fledgling businesses, and begin to grow stronger neighbourhoods that with just a little extra attention and intelligent support by local gov, could reinvigorate many of the difficult in-between areas of our towns and cities.
This article was written by Amanda Rashid. The research for this project was carried out as part of the Resilient Urban Morphologies Project, run by Professor Howard Davis and The WorkHome Project run by Francis Hollis. Photography by Amanda Rashid, Priscilla Fernandes and Josie Venning.