On Brick Lane (Hamish Hamilton, 2007) the first in the London street series trilogy was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize. This unique book takes readers on an unforgettable journey through the vanished past, the disappearing present and the emerging future of one of Britain’s most mythologized and misunderstood streets. Home to successive waves of immigrants, from eighteenth century Huguenot weavers to the Jewish refugees of the 1880s to the late twentieth-century Bangladeshi community, Brick Lane is now one of the most fashionable areas.
The street is a place of extremes that is constantly reinventing itself - at once a multicultural melting pot and sacred site, bounded by Hawksmoor churches, abandoned synagogues and newly developed mosques, with the Old Truman Brewery at its heart.
Extensively researched from a range of sources, On Brick Lane gives an authentic voice to people from the many communities who know the street intimately, from the famous, to the infamous and the obscure. Tales of market traders, anarchist priests, Jewish tailors, Bengali teenagers, gangsters, brewery workers and celebrities interweave with Lichtenstein’s own account of over a decade of living and working in the area as an artist, archivist and writer. She describes her own research process, the people she meets along the way and their wildly differing perspectives on the same street.
Interspersed within this text are a collection of archival and contemporary photographs, along with quotes from literature and poetry. Together they combine to create an endlessly intriguing portrait of Brick Lane, which is as alive and fascinating as the neighbourhood it so movingly celebrates.
This beautiful book is a work of retrieval, an archaeology of memory, that provides testament to a disappearing world whilst addressing misrepresentations of the area, the Jewish east end, and of the Bangladeshi community who give Rachel their opinions unfiltered.
Brick Lane had been a mythical landscape for me as a child. I heard stories about it from my grandparents who had their first shop, Gedaliah Lichtenstein’s Watchmakers & Jewellers, at no.67 from 1934. They were Polish Jewish refugees, hard working people with a rich cultural and intellectual life. My grandmother told me about her friend, the great Yiddish poet Avram Stencl who lived in Cheshire Street, just off the lane in the heart of the sprawling Sunday market. Stencl called Brick Lane and the surrounding area of Whitechapel ‘his holy acres, his shtetl, his Jerusalem in Britain’. The thriving Jewish community and the vigorous street life around him became the subject matter for most of his poetry. The first time I visited the street in the early 1990’s as a young art student there were only the faintest traces left of that world.
Since then I must have walked up and down Brick Lane thousands of times, initially to look for signs of its Jewish past, checking doorposts for marks left by mezuzahs and rescuing books from damp cupboards in abandoned synagogues. Standing outside the site of the former Russian steam baths I devoured stories from an old Hasid who owned a shop there. Over the following decade I spent countless hours interviewing members of the elderly Jewish community, collecting stories of places and people, snapshots, fragments, whispers and hidden traces until I could mentally map the area as it had once been. With the help of East London historian, Professor Bill Fishman I became a tour guide of the Jewish East End, relaying and gathering more information. People shared memories from childhood with me, of Yiddish speaking homes, cheder lessons after school, fighting with fascists in the street. Many of these stories featured Brick Lane, the street, which had been at the heart of the Jewish East End from the late 1880s until the outbreak of the World War II.
Like Sinclair, Lichtenstein is a cultural archaeologist, digging up forgotten stories from the metropolis. Her chapter on Brick Lane's Old Truman Brewery provides a marvelous elegy for another lost world.
Brick Lane is a lot of things to a lot of people, not least Rachel Lichtenstein. Describing herself as an artist, archivist and writer, she has spent five long years juggling her various skills to pull together a magnificent chronicle of one of the capital’s most renowned streets.
Lichtenstein, a tenacious researcher, managed to locate some of the last of the Jews and recorded their memories of Hebrew classes and street battles with fascists. In the process, she explored the new Brick Lane and, as she struggled to come to terms with its latest incarnation, met and befriended some of the extraordinary people living on the fringes of modern society. Her book, On Brick Lane, is an unashamedly sentimental ode to a vanished past, the writing enriched by precious anecdotes, reminiscences and reflections unearthed during dozens of interviews. It is also a pathetic and artfully woven portrait of the contemporary East End - the human landscape through which Lichtenstein treads - one of bewildering diversity. But in an age when modern, consumer culture is erasing so much of the past, Lichtenstein's anguish and instinct to preserve memory is admirable.
A mesmerising return to the memory-nest of Rachel Lichtenstein's heartland. By listening with such care, and sympathetic attention, she teases out the voices of the living and the dead. Here is a mapping to set beside Mayhew and Jack London, a valid attempt to identify eternal verities in a place that is vanishing, re-inventing itself, even as she walks across it.
On Brick Lane is a collage of beady-eyed topographical study, family history and oral testimony illustrated with numerous photographs and extracts from a wide variety of texts written by people in whose footsteps Lichtenstein is following. Her Brick Lane, like that of countless others, is no more. Still, she has created an intriguing, vivid memorial to it.