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Can Olympics salvage East London?
A crush of people surges out of the sparkling-new Olympic Park, speaking every language on Earth, window-shopping at the largest mall in Europe, passing the expensive restaurants and pubs, then crossing the bridge shoulder to shoulder.
At the other side of the bridge, most everyone turns right, toward the London Underground, heading away from the Stratford neighborhood in the London borough of Newham. It’s historically one of the poorest areas in Europe, with unemployment that runs through generations. There, more than 300 languages are spoken; a stopping ground for immigrants when they initially move to England, but before they leave for a nicer area as soon as they can. People have been heading away from Newham for centuries.
But now a small group of people goes straight, away from the tube stop, through the old and run-down Stratford Centre mall where dresses are being sold in kiosks for three pounds and mountains of fresh seafood are being scooped up and taken home. They walk into the part of Stratford where this area’s reputation was born. Dodgy row houses. Bags of garbage on the streets. The eighth-lowest income level of any municipality in England. Chain-link fences you won’t see anywhere else in wrought-iron London. A 20-story building of public housing.
And a surprising sense of optimism about what these Olympics — and London’s largest new green space since the 1700s — will mean for the future of an area that’s flummoxed urban planners for generations.
This is the heart of East London, and East London was the heart of the winning British bid for these Olympics: We will build the most sustainable Olympics ever, and the most sustainable Olympics ever will change the face of this area. To be sure, these Olympics were not built to entertain the people of East London, with tickets that cost hundreds of pounds. But the infusion of cash from the London Olympics could help transform the area.
“Obviously the tourists won’t still be here, but Stratford and East London is the next big thing,” said Jigar Patel, an Indian immigrant who co-owns a Stratford pub, King Edward VII, that’s done killer business off the Olympic tourists who’ve wandered this way. “You can’t predict anything that will happen after the Olympics. But obviously it won’t get worse than what it was.”
What it was? Nothing short of one of the poorest areas in Western Europe. The Olympic Park used to be a scrapyard, an industrial waste ground. The Aquatics Centre is located on what used to be one of the largest refrigerator mountains in Europe. The industrial area had been bombed-out during World War II; an excavation crew even found an unexploded World War II-era bomb when it was building the Olympic Park. It used to be known as “Stinky Stratford” for all the industrial waste and pollution. A chronic unemployment problem was passed from one generation to the next.
Anyone who thinks hosting an Olympics is a cure-all for a downtrodden area is naïve. The Olympic track record in places like Athens or Beijing, where vast swaths of Olympic lands now go unused, attests to that. The model here was the 1992 Barcelona Games, the most successful regeneration project of an Olympics. Those Games woke up the world to the wonders of Barcelona and revitalized the rough-and-tumble neighborhood east of the harbor. And the 2012 London Olympic organizers are the first to include “legacy” plans for the future of the area before anything ever got built.
East Londoners believe there’s already something here to build on, despite the reputation brought by centuries of poverty. Old Street in East London has become one of England’s tech hubs. Many of the tech companies that are making software and iPhone apps are located near a traffic circle; Londoners have taken to calling it “Silicon Roundabout.” Artists abound. The 91,000-square-foot Olympic media centre is going to be converted into a high-tech business park since the tech infrastructure is already in place. A high-speed Javelin train jets passengers from Stratford to central London in seven minutes. The Olympic operations center will be converted into a school that focuses on creative arts. The Olympic Village where the athletes live will be turned into mixed-income housing. Residents will be able to use the Olympic pool as a place to swim laps, and a revised version of the Olympic BMX track will be available for residents.
“It was a bad place in every way you can imagine,” Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, an independent watchdog group that oversees the London Olympics, told FOXSports.com. “Now you’re seeing it all change. One Olympics isn’t going to regenerate an entire community. It won’t be a gentrified ghetto. But Newham with jobs would be nice.”
At King Edward VII, David Bass, who has lived in Newham for nearly 35 years, took a sip of his Summer Lightning bitter and spoke about the awful reputation of this area’s past — and the possible hope for a better future.
“When I moved here in 1977, Stratford was basically a s**thole, a dump,” Bass said. “Stratford has always been a downtrodden area. It’s always been the lowest of the East End. It’s all being regenerated now. Obviously the Olympics has been a big push toward regeneration, but things were going on before.”
Of course, if the Brits are known for anything other than Earl Grey tea and bad food, it’s incessant complaining. Perhaps it’s because the gray skies bring brooding. At an out-of-the-way local pub called The Princess of Wales, Lee Headley, a barmaid who has lived here two decades, poured a pint and talked about the worst part of having the Olympics in her backyard: The rats.
“All the building has disturbed too much underground — the rodents, the pests, they’re everywhere,” she said. “Everywhere in Stratford is infested. Loads of them around and you can’t get rid of them.”
She spoke about all the new, expensive housing, and how none of the longtime residents will have a shot at it. A friend scolded her for talking bad on the Olympics. Where’s your East London pride?
“You got to talk the truth, luv,” she said. “It’s good, great. A lot of jobs. But what happens when the village shuts down? Who’s going to be here?”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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