They went and did it, the sexless, knuckle-headed, jobsworth bastards. The council, big business, town planners, the 2012 Olympics, plastic policemen, little Hitlers. They ruined what for a lot of people was the most exciting art and fashion community they’d seen in years. A slow strangulation. A tidal wave of utterly abysmal, wasteful policing. They gave it a dose of stupid so strong it would have knocked Charlie Sheen off his stool. Sure, they did it in my own backyard -Brick Lane in London’s East End - so I’m angry about that in particular, but they’ve done it before in Camden, London, in Williamsburg in New York, the Mission District in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, too. The tsunami of gentrification, redevelopment, centralised power, the smoothie generation - call it what you like - is trying to clean our streets up without our consent.
 
  For Brick Lane, it started in the blistering summer of 2010. The pincer of state and big business tightened its grip on the East End of London. Commercial developments threatened the future of hang-out bars like The Foundry - soon to be an 18-storey Park Plaza hotel - and the price of renting even the most disgusting hovel skyrocketed. With so much money flooding in, the council put more of its resources into making sure those who weren’t willing to be lassoed into the corporate fold buggered off. Aside from taking a just-say-yes approach to all planning permission and sponsorship offers, one of their main tasks was to harass, threaten and fine the traders at Brick Lane flea market on Sundays. It’s a market that’s been in existence for well over a century. In recent years it found itself at the centre of London's fashion and arts district. And it was no accident. The outsider atmosphere was one of the main reasons why trendy young things were attracted to London’s East End at the end of the ’90s. That and cheap rent.
 
  But Tower Hamlets council are either too stupid or too callous to care about something as ephemeral as a bohemian atmosphere. A spokesman said: “Trading without a license is illegal under the London Local Authorities Act, and many of the people who sell things at Brick Lane are blocking the highway, causing a health and safety hazard, as well as undercutting the trade of legitimate shops and market traders in the area.”
 
  Tower Hamlets and Hackney councils deployed highly visible Enforcement Officers, otherwise known as policemen without A-levels, to get rid of the buskers and casual traders selling everything from old cameras to secondhand clothes out of suitcases at the Brick Lane flea market on Sundays. Yes, the very same people  who helped make the area fashionable in the first place.
 
  It takes either a real dim-wit or an incredibly cold-hearted bastard to think that turning the coolest and most spontaneous artistic village in Europe, which is also steeped in a rich tradition of unregulated commerce, into a homogenous, identikit version of everywhere else is a good idea. But that’s exactly what the council and property developers have done, god bless their dull and corrupted souls.
One Sunday afternoon last August I saw the council’s blindness in action on Brick Lane. A crowd of ten people gathered to intervene as two men were being fined £150, without trial, for illegal street trading by Tower Hamlets. They were the only two people to be fined out of about a hundred flea market traders, who were told to move on or risk being fined. One of the two men being fined appeared to have a mental disability and a severe speech impediment. He gestured and groaned, waving his fixed penalty notice in the officers’ faces, but he was unable to communicate his point. The other, Mohammed Ahmed, 27, from Seven Sisters, who didn't speak too-good English, was protesting that he was being singled out prejudicially. The officers didn’t listen. “You have been warned. We’ve been warning everyone and anyone all day,” said an officer as they handed him his ticket.
Brick_Lane_Trader.jpg
A gutter market trader.
 
  The officers refused, when asked, to confirm that Mr Ahmed or the other man, who was physically unable to say his own name, had ever been warned, as they said they had. Instead they pointed to a small yellow sign daubed in graffiti which states that trading without a license is illegal. “That’s their warning,” said the officer. “There comes a time when you have to say enough is enough.” 
 
  The community of people around Brick Lane has wanted to tear down that little yellow sign for as long as I’ve been going there, and probably way before that, too. The flea market is over a hundred years old, dating back to the Jewish migration in the 19th century, and the road has been the home of rebels and dissidents for centuries. “I think people shouldn’t be moved,” said Lewis Floyd Henry, 34, a musician who, despite drawing big crowds with his one-man garage rock band at the market, was regularly shooed along by council officers. “It’s a mecca of music and fashion like Carnaby Street was in the 60s, and that’s why people come here. We should embrace that. People should be allowed to come down and express themselves. If you stop people playing music or selling clothes without a license, you slowly kill the vibe. Look at Carnaby Street. It’s just like any other high street. We don’t want Brick Lane to become like that.” 
 

 
bricklane_market.jpg
Brick Lane's famous flea market.

 

The unique atmosphere of Brick Lane translates into a thriving economy for the nearby businesses. Many of the official shops and market stalls want the council to allow people to carry on selling without permits, regardless of what the London Local Authorities Act says about unregulated street trading. They know that the East End’s reputation as the centre of fashion and art has economic as well as cultural value. “It helps our business because people come down to Brick Lane to see it,” said Luke Farris, 24, manager of the Brick Lane Thrift Store. “People who work in these shops will have all sold clothes on Brick Lane on a Sunday. I used to do it myself, so how can we be against it? The council are rude, aggressive and heavy-handed, and if they keep pushing people away, it will become just like Spitalfields and Camden, which have become so generic. And that will hurt us all, because people will stop coming here and go elsewhere.”
 
  Likewise, the old-school market sellers couldn’t give a toss about whether the people at the flea market have bought a license to trade. Nigel Biggs, 44, from Kent, had been trading legally just off Brick Lane for 15 years. “They’re not doing anyone any harm," he said. "The market is dying, so I’m in favour of anything that breathes life into it.”
 
  Cretins in suits and uniforms are turning our cultural fabric into a bonfire of banalities. They hide behind a law that they don't have to enforce. Why they choose to enforce it because it is anyone’s guess. Pressure from big business? Pedantry? Bourgeois parochialism? Just because they can? Whatever the answer, they are hypocrites. Photo-copying from textbooks is illegal, but teachers in Tower Hamlets rely on it for their students’ lessons. Illegal traders at Brick Lane are no different: they may technically (and harmlessly) be breaking the law, but they are part of the lifeblood of the area. By running them out of town the authorities are diminishing our reasons to live in this city.
 
 
Text: Lewis G Parker

 

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