Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane, London
A few years back I worked in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets – home to almost 90,000 people of Bangladeshi origin. The best-known part, backdrop for a fictional book and film, is Brick Lane – a street lined with countless restaurants whose owners and chefs hail from Bangladesh. The choice is bewildering but fortunately, my visits are often with expert Dr. Sean ‘Curry’ Carey.
Hamtramck and Bangladesh Avenue
I heard about Hamtramck from a Bangladeshi-raised cabbie who lives there. He told me of his relatives in Tower Hamlets and how “we (meaning his Bangladeshi ‘compatriots’ there) now have a UK Member of Parliament” – so a bit like south east Michigan’s Hansen Clarke, the first U.S. Congressman of Bangladeshi descent.
I subsequently read up on Hamtramck – its Polish history and newer ethnic diversity (including Bangladeshi-Americans who now comprise over a fifth of the population). Some came before the (1971) independence but most have come since the late 1980s. Like their London counterparts, most are from the rural area of Sylhet.
Many first settled in Queens, New York before then opting for Detroit’s cheap housing, factory jobs and Muslim community. Why did some choose London and others New York I wondered? And what on earth must a Bangladeshi-Queens accent be like?!
Hamtramck has its own version of ‘Brick Lane’ – a stretch of Conant Street known locally as Bangladesh Avenue since 80 percent of businesses are owned by Bangladeshi-Americans. These are shops that locals can walk to and around – what Brits call a High Street. Not everyone is local – many are from the wider metro area and some even come from other Mid-West states.
When I visited, I was struck by the fact that the Avenue is wider than its London counterpart, the spaces between buildings bigger and the road more used by cars. Over time it can maybe build in a bit more intimacy and walkability (more like Detroit’s Greektown or Mexicantown).
Hamtramck has much by way of Bangladeshi food and culture
Like Brick Lane there are restaurants – albeit not as many. These include the oldest, Aladdin Sweets and Café – part of a chain whose other two franchises are in Queens. Aladdin’s prices are competitive and it boasts an impressive sweet selection. But the Bangladeshi restaurant sector does seem to have taken a hit – a couple of the best-known having closed in recent years. The lack of a collective marketing effort, such as a website, to publicize the area can surely not have helped.
The raw ingredients for cooking can be found at local groceries such as Asian Mart, Hera Food Mart and Bengal Spices. Here you’ll find Ilish, the national fish of Bangladesh; key spices, such as cumin and coriander; and Kala Jeera rice. Bengal Spices is also known for selling live (halal) poultry – if you’re chicken too, they’ll kill it for you!
With the dozen-plus clothing stores comes the buzz of color. Ladies can, for example, buy salwar (pants) and kameez (tunic) or the all-in-one abiya. Gents can get their pungubs (tunics) and sherwani (long formal coats). But non-Muslim and non-Asian women can also find shoes, jewelry, scarves, and perfumes.
The Islamic faith figures prominently
Just as Brick Lane and surrounds have large mosques so too do Bangladesh Avenue and Hamtramck (Bangladesh is 90% Muslim and 9% Hindu). One of the noises you may hear is the azān (call to prayer – in Arabic) – recited by the muezzin (caller) and broadcast via speakers from various mosques. The council allowed this in 2004 but criticism by some saw a further ordinance regulating the volume of all religious calls (the episode drew national attention and features heavily in a recent doctoral thesis).
Links to Bangladesh are strong but so too are local roots
Links to the mother country are strong. The 2000 Audio and Video store sells a large range of Bengali movies and music CDs. Many kids apparently still speak Bengali at home. The Ambassador has visited the area to discuss events ‘back home’ and to encourage giving to Bangladeshi causes.
But the Bangladeshi-Americans of Hamtramck (and Michigan) are here for the long-haul. They hold half of the city’s six council seats. The Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee (BAPAC) has sought to foster trade and investment between Michigan and Bangladesh and to encourage voting in the U.S. There is an information website too.
There are also two non-profit organizations, both of which date back to the 1970s, that promote Bengali religion and culture. So there is (Troy-based) ‘Bichitra religious and cultural organization‘ and the (Bloomfield Hills-based) Bichitra. However, in both cases the religious events celebrated seem exclusively Hindu.
The annual Bangladesh Festival (held on Conant several times) is captured nicely in this six-minute video. Attendance at the festival seems largely made up of Bangladeshi-Americans but can maybe broaden in attendance – to be fair the posters are in English so it’s hardly as if the Festival is trying to be exclusive.
Like the Poles and many other groups before them, Bangladeshi-Americans have become part of metro Detroit’s story.