Multicultural Whitechapel

Around ten years ago, I embarked on a period of training needed to become a Street Pastor. I had to do a number of whole day sessions in Brixton. The one thing I knew about Brixton were the infamous Brixton riots, and my expectations were coloured by that event. It was therefore with some surprise that my attention was drawn to an opera being sung with gusto as I left the underground station. Those familiar with the film “The Shawshank Redemption” will recall the illicit opera that the hero, Andy Dufresne, played for the prisoners. My reaction that day may have been akin to that of the prisoners, and reminded me yet again that I should take nothing for granted.

Two other things struck me on this my first visit to Brixton. The first was the preponderance and diversity of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) folk and the second was engaging with homeless people who were in the grounds of the church we were to have our training, which was a baptism of fire that would help prepare tor what later followed. A memorable item of training was a module titled “know your community”. One practical piece of work was being assigned a small area near where the training was taking place. We were to explore the area, observe and report back on what we had found. Ten years on and in the spirit of that training exercise, I undertook to do something similar, this time in the East side of London as opposed to the South, and while quite different still sharing that strong multi-cultural feel. The excuse was that I had unexpectedly arrived at the London Hospital, situated opposite Whitechapel underground station, for an appointment, one hour early, and this is how I chose to spend the time rather than waiting to be called.

While I am not all that familiar with Whitechapel (although I did study for a degree at Queen Mary College, just down the road in Mile End Road, in the early seventies), my late mother did grow up in these parts and she often recounted how life was just prior to the Second World War. Because her parents’ house was bombed out during the war, her family came to Southend to live, where she met my dad and among other things had me. She made mention that except for a sizable Jewish population, who had to endure fascist marches and significant anti-semetism, almost all the inhabitants were white British and a significant number of these were very poor.

The first thing I should say is how impressed I was with the hospital setup, a credit to the community. The second thing is to identify my route – it was along the Whitechapel Road to the next underground station (Aldgate East) and back. Time did not allow me to explore the side streets or linger around the many interesting buildings on the way, and as for delving further into its fascinating history that I will leave for another day. Resident wise, it seemed that off the road blocks of flats were the main buildings where people lived. In the distance I could clearly make out one of the new buildings in the London landscape: the Gherkin. The third thing is regarding the ethnic mix, which I would say is predominately BME – the majority being South Asian and with a smattering of Afro-Caribbean and Chinese. My guess was religion wise, at least as far as the South Asians went, the majority were Muslims (with a number of ladies wearing burkas) with a significant Hindu minority and most ladies were in traditional dress. Quite a few of the older men wore traditional dress but the young men western style. They were using their mobiles and weren’t so different from other young men.

Comparing with a typical town high street, there were similarities e.g. chain stores like Tescos, banks like HSBC, travel agents, charity shops and shops that sold mobile phone bits and bobs but there were differences too and significantly so given there was a distinct ethnic feel to many of the shops. For example, many of the yummy looking food shops were not part of chains and they sold food that local BME folk would eat. Some of the banks were ethnic, notably Islamic, as were some of the community centres and charity shops. There was a lot of places, including market stalls, selling Indian clothes, food and other stuff I associate with India, which made me feel I could have easily been in the middle of Bombay. I noted a youth centre situated in a building that once was a Founding School, reminding me of Whitechapel’s rich cultural heritage and history. This was not the only example of adaptation with the times.

Two buildings struck me – one old but not that old and the other definitely new. The first was Booth House, named after William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. From what I could make out, it was for admin purposes and as a homeless shelter. I am reminded that Booth started his work, around 1860, in the Whitechapel Road, moved by the plight of poverty he saw then. The second building was the East London mosque, an impressive example of modern Islamic architecture if ever there was. As if I needed reminding, Islam is a powerful force in the area and with its cultural and charity centres one that expects to be around and making an impact for some time to come. Perhaps the most moving site was a small open area (Altab Ali Park) named in memory of a 25 year old Bangledeshi clothing worker who  had been murdered in a racist attack in 1978. It was also on or near a site of an ancient church and it also noted some of the atrocities inflicted by Pakistan on some in what is now known as Bangladesh. All these factors got me thinking about some harsh realities, not least in linking the Jewish ethnic tensions and worse in the 1930’s as my mother had observed and what had taken place more recently with immigration from the Indian sub-continent.

One hour is hardly enough time to get to know any community I happen to be in, but it struck me that if I were to go Street Pastoring along the Whitechapel Road what I was able to pick up could come in handy when engaging with folk. While with its circa 16% BME community, my own town of Southend has changed considerably since I was a lad, yet this does not compare with what has been seen in London’s East End in recent years. Given some of the debates around immigration, British values, multi-culturalism, Islamic extremism etc. (all of which I have blogged about) what we are seeing now cannot be ignored because it impacts on the type of society we live in. I suspect different people will react differently if they had seen what I saw today, and we know they do. What I saw is just that – what I saw. Without pontificating or politicizing, I see it is as an opportunity to serve the community where we are placed.

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