The Olympics combine two things I love (East London and sport) with several I don’t (global corporations, militarisation, flag-waving, jingoism, media prattling, men in blazers, lanyards, shopping) to create a situation on which I feel compelled to post. Housing remains the focus of this blog, but in the unlikely event that cyberspace creates some kind of archaeological record, I’d like my feelings to be known. I also try to limit the length of my musings and keep the personal out of it, but on this issue, I find it difficult to do both. I hardly know where to start or finish.
There is a very important housing issue concealed beneath the current hyper- babble. Only 17% of the new homes built within the Olympic Park will be for rent at a price that can be even loosely described as ‘affordable’ – a pitiful ‘legacy’ from £9.3 billion of public investment and appropriation of vast tracts of previously publicly-owned land. You could fill the Olympic stadium with the number of people on the housing waiting lists in the five Olympic boroughs. Last night’s BBC news (in what may be a diminishing example of serious journalism about the Games) reported people in Newham paying £150 a week to live in a shed. Of course, I have a housing axe to grind, but the question of who is and is not able to live in what is due to become the ‘new neighbourhood’ of E20 is highly revealing, as is the creation of a post-code that was previously associated with a fictitious, soap opera East End.
Having witnessed the transformation of ‘docklands’, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to find part of a place I call home changed before my eyes. But the annexation and corporate remodeling of the docks took thirty years. Stratford has become a place I don’t recognise in two. As my (brilliant) daughter just said, it’s fast forward gentrification.
The International Herald Tribune phoned me yesterday (this is always happening) and invited me to comment on the possible benefits of the Olympics. I must be on a list of people who will say something stroppy. I was at pains, as I have been since the London Games were announced, not to be depicted as a Jeremiah who always brings a note for PE. I’ve probably wasted more of my life playing and watching sport than anything else. But the last thing the Olympics is about is sport. There’s already a sub-current of criticism against the corporate branding, junk food and t-shirt cartels, wanton consumerism, infringement of civil liberties and spatial exclusion that have taken over east London. Such issues will probably be suppressed while the party is on (unless something goes badly wrong) and we’ll find the puke in the flower-pot and cigarette burns in the carpet when it’s over, but the signs are already there, as I saw yesterday when I went on what may be my last visit to Stratford for a while.
I needed socks, which seemed a suitably mundane reason to go to ‘Stratford City – Westfield’: has there ever been a more crass or inaccurate piece of geographic re-branding? As you come out of the tube station, the directions make it clear that the Olympic experience and the Shopping experience have become one and the same. A bit like going through duty-free before you get on the plane or the gift-shop before you leave the museum, it is almost impossible to get to the sport without passing the ‘biggest mall in Europe’. I was in Barcelona recently, where there seems to be a much greater sense that the Olympics gave more than they took and where the main stadia are camouflaged by the park of Montjuic. In place of a shopping centre, they had an art gallery and the main arena was built for the Peoples’ Games of 1936. Times change, cities are different, but the in-your-face brutalism of what they’ve done down the road will not be easily hidden, which might be a good thing if some latter-day Shelley ever wants to write a poem about it.
While trying to find the Primark I came across the champagne bar, one of many differences between Westfield and the 1960s shopping centre over the road (where I used to work in the Sainsburys). With its pound-shops, market stalls and obvious profusion of poor people, it’s hard to see how the old precinct can have a place in the imaginings of Stratford’s future conjured by the Games makers. There seems to have been an attempt to screen the Olympic family from the unpleasantness of working class families by erecting a rather bizarre installation of giant green fish, an interesting, but probably unintended allusion to Walter Benjamin’s comparison between shopping centres and aquariums. Another very striking contrast between the two places is the level of security. The media coverage had prepared me for what is probably the closest I’ll come to living in 1970s Belfast, but it was still a bit shocking to see people queuing up to have their photos taken with giant stuffed soldier teddy bears (more G4S replacements?) and policemen carrying machine guns. But whoever or whatever the thousands or security personnel are protecting, it isn’t the people who go to the precinct, where I didn’t see a single one.
As I said to the journalist from the IHT, at a certain point in these mega attempts at urban regeneration, you have to resort to saying ‘time will tell’. It is possible that by 2014, 2012 will be seen as the catalyst for making east London a better place to be. Possible, but unlikely. The dead weight of economic reality hangs over the Olympic Park like the blimp that flew over it last night, ready for a Hindenburg-like explosion, but by then the five-ring circus will have moved on.