Sunday, 23 October 2011

Planet Olympics has landed in East London

The way in which the face of east London has changed with the arrival of the London Olympics says much about the society in which we live.
The area that makes up the Olympic Park has no doubt been transformed. Travelling out on the train, the Olympic Stadium, the aquatics centre and the cycling velodrome all make impressive architectural landmarks in the area.
Then there was the recent opening of the Westfield shopping centre, next to Stratford station with its impressive array of shops and restaurants.
I live about two miles or two tube stops from the whole Olympic site. In this area the impact of the games becomes ever closer, as it seems open space gets gulped up by the process.
The Metropolitan Police have taken a part of Wanstead flats (open grassland made up of football pitches and forest) to establish a temporary headquarters, with holding cells attached. There has been much local opposition to the structure as it is believed once the precedent has been established there will be more future encroachment on what is for all intense and purposes greenbelt land. It is owned by the Corporation of London, which has steadfastly opposed all building at least until now.
Elsewhere, any individual or organisation with some space to spare seems set on letting it out to visitors who will come for the games. A cricket pitch is to provide camping space for a number of Aussies, a rugby club is similarly making its grounds available to visitors. Many householders are looking to cash in by letting their properties out for the duration of the games.
It is this commercial aspect to the London Olympics that seems to override all else. The Olympics has resulted in a huge amount of development being poured into a poor area of East London. Indeed, when the Olympic bid was won, then London Mayor Ken Livingstone admitted it was the only real way he could see of getting development into this part of the capital.
One of the problems though has been that this whole commercial fest threatens to effectively come in as something entirely separate from the local community rather than being rooted in it. Perhaps the most obvious example of this has been the failure of so many local people to get tickets to any of the events. This occurrence ofcourse can be extended countrywide. Many of the tickets have gone to corporate concerns, again emphasising that it is corporate capital that counts in the UK and little else.
The Westfield centre is another interesting development. The owners deserve credit for making it a living wage zone; however, the whole structure is almost as something from an alien world parachuted into Stratford.
To put it in context, for the past 40 odd years Stratford has had the same shopping mall, a thoroughfare between the central road to London and the train station. Permanent shops exist around the outer reaches of the mall with some market style stalls down the middle. Sainsbury has been the one big store to position itself in the mall – the shop remaining pretty much unchanged for that whole period. A Morrison’s outside the mall, on the main road, was a more recent addition.
Now Westfield has arrived dwarfing all below it. No doubt Westfield will draw consumers in, just as other shopping extravaganzas like Lakeside and Bluewater have done, providing jobs into the future but the whole concept still remains alien to this locality.
A little way from the shopping centre is the Atherton Centre housing a number of swimming baths. I must admit a certain personal attachment to the place having learned to swim there myself. Now this community based centre is to be shut down. The Olympics is said to be providing other facilities, so the Atherton is no longer required. It is though a very long way to the aquatic centre from where the Atherton now stands and it is difficult not to think it will be far more costly to use the spanking new facility, than the old community based centre.
The overall concern with this Olympics is that it has been imposed on, rather than embedded in the community. An altar to the world of corporate greed, rather than a symbol of fraternity and sporting excellence. There will no doubt be a legacy from the games, new friendships made, much new housing in the area – a genuine transformation. It must be hoped that the churches and schools efforts to establish a legacy of peace does succeed. But it is difficult not to think it could have been so much more. Maybe sculptor Anish Kapoor’s Olympic monument with its strangely contorted form of the five metal rings says much about an identity crisis at the heart of this Olympic venture – a structure imposed on rather than part of the local terrain.

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