As a Jew living in North west London I love spending time in this city’s creative epicentre, which for a number of years has been located over in the East End.
The area is awash with the latest trends worn by hipsters sporting the bushiest beards and skinniest of jeans. It’s been that way since cheap rents enticed a large artist community to colonise large studio space.
These days affordable living is being squeezed out, but the area hasn’t lost it’s cool factor. Designer cocktail bars proliferate and pop-ups can be seen on every street corner preparing the most innovative food fusions.
All that makes it even more incredible that 2 competing beigel bakeries in Brick Lane have been in existence for a combined total of 148 years, selling the same product in a similar stripped-back environment. Beigel Bake, the better known of the two has built up an iconic status for Londoners who come far and wide. Hungry customers arrive safe in the knowledge that they will receive a beigel so fresh it will invariably still be passed across the counter still warm.
My challenge as a portrait photographer was to submit one image to represent each hour of the day that Beigel Bake stays open. Twenty four in all. I undertook this project with 4 friends each with the same brief, for an exhibition showing as part of Photomonth.
The location was chosen on the basis that we couldn’t think of a place that better shows off the rich diversity of life in the metropolis today. Waifs and strays rub shoulders with city gents on a Tuesday morning, Italian tourists mingle with northern hen parties on a Saturday. Sundays are for cyclists and shoppers laden with flowers after returning from the flower market. And any night of the week cabbies pop in for a social and a cup of tea, as well as security guards at the dead of night and paramedics when they find time. All are served equally by women (usually) treating each customer as equal.
One of the first portraits I took for this project was a mother in a shiny electronic wheelchair sandwiched between a doting son and daughter. They were clinching brown paper bags of greasy salt beef beagles, the shop’s signature filling. Although the family had driven from Leytonstone she recounted fondly how her parents had led her to the same shop regularly when they lived nearby, and that their parents had done the same before them.
The business itself is owned and managed by 2 generations of family. Asher Cohen started the business after working for his brother next door, before eventually branching out and opening Beigel Bake in 1974. When Asher isn’t putting in a shift one of his two sons can be seen overseeing the sale and production of the 7,000 beigels that are produced each day. Despite all the gentrification going on all around the neighbourhood the price of a plain bagel is still only 25p, or under £4 with a generous slab of meet.
Brick Lane is a fun place to take a stroll and loitering at the top end was really not a struggle for this avid people-watcher. The most enjoyable times were on a Sunday when the street is at it’s most bustling, and at the short period of transition between night and day on a weekend morning, when clubbers arrive fresh from the party.
It was at such a time during the twilight hour that I came across a group who hadn’t been drinking. They were super cool DJs with an equally hip entourage. When they piled out of a van having made a beeline for Beigel Bake and I felt immensely proud that these individuals, celebrated within mainstream UK youth culture were engaging in a tradition inextricably linked with my own cultural and religious heritage.
Living in London it seems all too rare that tangible aspects of Jewish life are revered in the mainstream, as they undoubtably are at this round-the-clock London institution.