New York, an epicentre of the arts, has long been famed for embracing individuality and creative freedom. As part of our partnership with adidas Originals to mark the launch of their ‘Home of Classics’ pack, we reflect on the ‘classic’ institutions that make up iconic New York subcultures. By mapping these pillars of the local community, we begin to unpick the cultural mosaic of New York with the creatives that embody it. The Classics on their feet serve to mirror the story of their New York.
First up we ask model, artist and activist Richie Shazam to show us around his favourite Desi destination, nestled within Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He tells us how this spot acts as the intersection of multiple strands of his identity. “For me” he says “to be able to connect with your diasporic roots in one institution is really incredible. All of my different vantage points of identity can meet in one place”.
Situated in the East Village, home to a well-established South Asian diaspora, Royal Bangladesh has garnered a cult following via Instagram, famed for its charming decorations, including strings of luminous chilli-pepper lights adorning the ceilings. Yet with roots stretching back to 1978, Royal Bangladesh was a bastion of Bangladeshi culture for its immigrant community long before the social media generation discovered it.
New York’s reputation as a melting-pot of myriad cultures and groups highlights the successes and intricacies of inter-community living within a major hub. Ensuring the unique identity of any diasporic community flourishes in a new location, rather than disappearing into the ether, is what restaurants like Royal Bangladesh are all about. Richie says he is so enamoured by this eatery because “it’s one of the few places in New York where you can sit down next to a stranger in an intimate setting and everyone’s having a joyous time”.
“All of my emotional memories are stained on every street, every institution that gets broken down - I lose a part of me”
Acting as a microcosm for South Asian identity, he says Royal Bangladesh really showcases the “beauty of Indian culture... they make everyone feel welcome.'' The importance of maintaining the sanctity of Royal Bangladesh has been amplified as more and more restaurants and other businesses leave the area that was once known as ‘Little India’. In this area, most of the business owners were of Bangladeshi heritage, but chose to tap into American romanticised ideals of mystical India to attract footfall. Preserving the sentiment of classically South Asian landmarks in the East Village has become all the more urgent thanks to the ever-pervading threat of competition, something Richie - as someone with Indian heritage - finds deeply saddening. “All of my emotional memories are stained on every street, every institution that gets broken down - I lose a part of me”. To him, Royal Bangladesh is more than just a restaurant: it represents a spirit and a mentality.
Royal Bangladesh and neighbouring Panna II have experienced a surge in visitors thanks to popularisation from celebrities and influencers, but this attention feels superficial rather than complementary: diners adhering more to the aesthetic than the identity of the restaurant. Businesses, such as Royal Bangladesh, have to fight hard to swim upstream from the current wave of restaurant culture that favours quick bites rather than intimate, community dining spaces. South Asian cuisine, that sees Western takes on street food favourites such as chaat and kati rolls, are increasingly appearing in food outlets in the West Village. Within this context, the importance of Royal Bangladesh’s ability to stand tall above threats of erasure shouldn’t be understated. Allegiances to such treasured community-focused spaces constitutes an act of resistance to the culture of exclusivity: as Richie reaffirms “Royal Bangladesh is sacred”.