Like many others in the further reaches of east London, Wise Road, E15, is an unremarkable, curved street of Victorian workers’ cottages that have seen better days. The road hangs off the south side of Stratford High Street like a U-bend under a sink.
I turned into it recently, during three weeks of walking through the neighbourhoods that ring the site of the 2012 Olympics, and came across a Somali man with a mop, washing a dark blue minicab. Each house around him was identically painted and numbered, indicating social housing, and outside each door was a similar, not entirely tidy, stack of orange bins.
In the afternoon light, Wise Road had an orderly, but not a loved aspect. In keeping with the effort to freshen up the area ahead of the Games, however—an exercise known by the organisers as “Look and Feel”—the road had recently been repaved. Laid down in fresh tarmac and red brick, a neat swish had been written into the road, taking cars around a newly-planted tree.
The taxi driver was called Mohamoud Ahmed Ali. He was wearing a heavy coat and bifocal glasses. Ali left east Africa in 1993 and settled in Newham not long after. We talked about the coming of the Olympics, and after the usual chuntering about congestion (almost all conversations with locals about the Games involve several minutes on traffic and the lack of tickets—they received no allocation, or priority booking), Ali pointed to his house. It was the last on Wise Road, hard up against “Aurora,” an unfinished £50m development of 180 apartments, which towered over it.
“Before the sun we see,” said Ali. “Now they covered it.” Because his wife, especially, doesn’t like the idea of being looked down on by their new neighbours, his family no longer uses their garden. “It is difficult for us,” said Ali. But he was no longer angry. The Olympics, the envisaged decades of transformation facing this corner of London, are old news in places like Wise Road. “Everyone benefits,” said Ali, using a phrase that stayed with me, “because some people benefit in bad ways.”
The cold gathered. Bubbles slipped down Ali’s car. I asked him about the influx of residents who will colonise the tower blocks going up around Wise Road—43 and 19 stories high—turning Stratford High Street into a boulevard you might find in Atlanta or Beijing. He shrugged. New faces are part of life in Newham. “As soon as we come, we see that people were changing. A lot of them were black, now it is eastern Europe,” said Ali. “Now I don’t know, I leave house, I don’t care.”
The only time Ali got worked up in our conversation was when I asked him whether he would watch the Olympics on television. He looked at me as if I did not understand anything. “No,” he said. “I want to get money. It is one month when we all have to work hard.” Then he got ready to go on his shift.
Until this autumn, despite living in London almost my entire life, I had only been to the principal site of the Games once. On a sulphurous Sunday night, late in 2007, I was looking for a Pentecostal mega-church I wanted to write about. But it had just been bought out of its warehouse by the Olympic Delivery Authority for £10m. A security guard and two reedy traveller children (20 traveller families, bricks falling around them, were the last to be evicted from the site, in 2009) pointed me away.
I did not return until this September, when I went on a bus tour of the almost-completed park. On a day of mixed-up cloud and sun, we were shown the impressive, dark cuboid of the handball arena; the oddly fine power station; the underwhelming, built-from-a-kit stadium; and were allowed to take pictures of the wondrous still pools inside Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre. Two days before it opened, Stratford’s Westfield shopping mall shone in the east as we drove through the still-unreadable slopes of the rest of the 500-acre site. Our tour guide described five new “living and working spaces” for thousands of families that would one day rise. There would be an outdoor arena for fan-fests, we were told. There would be places to sit every 50 metres. There would be nectar-rich plants.
Even from the windows of a moving bus, it was possible to discern the contrast between what is emerging within the Olympic Park—a £9bn, fantasy rhomboid the size of Hyde Park—and life in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest that border it. The brief drive from the 16ft-high sterile fence to the school in Leyton where we disembarked showed a cityscape not normally blessed with this kind of attention: allotments, a waste and recycling centre, railway sidings, the bleak convenience of a 24-hour Asda. Afterwards, I decided to go on a tour of my own through this meeting place of people and masterplan, to try to figure out how individuals in this part of town—the true Londoners of the Olympics—relate to what is taking place within their midst.
The first thing to know is that until 1965, the site of these Olympics was not in London. Before being superseded by the A12, the river Lea was for more than 1,000 years the eastern edge of the city. Beyond it lay marshes and mills and Straightford (the Street of the Ford) that took the old Roman road up to Colchester. The land’s proximity to London, and its exclusion from it, made it a place for people that could thrive off the Great Wen without being fully implicated in it. Obnoxious industries—tanners and gunpowder-makers in the 16th century, later distillers, metalworkers and brewers of sulphuric acid—could set up shop and not be disturbed. In the 19th century, the lack of regulation and the building of a massive railway yard in Stratford led to the furious, bacterial growth of the parish of West Ham: 6,485 homes in 1801 became 267,000 a century later. The death rate was the same as modern-day Angola.
By the early 21st century, after the Blitz and 30 years of industrial decline, the tract of scrub and river and low-rise warehouses identified by the London Development Agency as a propitious site for the 2012 Olympics carried this history. Talking to people who knew it as it was, I heard it described as a place to work, to walk the dog, to chuck out the fridge. There were breakers’ yards, a fish-smoking factory, 52 pylons and hundreds of allotments where vegetables grew in ground later deemed too toxic to build on. More than anything, it was somewhere that most people walked by or travelled around. For those who went inside, it was easy to disappear.
This anonymity is all but gone now: biometric scanners and hundreds of Nepali Gurkhas have controlled access to the Olympic site since 2007. But it persists, in tiny pockets, to the north of the park. One morning, at the base of Hackney Marshes, I watched a young traveller girl without shoes fill an empty tin of protein mix with bits and bobs she found in the bushes while construction workers laid grit for a new pavement. A few days later, I came across a Polish couple living in the woods. The man had a bright red welt on his left arm and walked heavily, with a crutch. The woman, tending the fire, smiled. The campsite was well-swept. There was a celeriac waiting to be cooked and mushrooms on a plate. I asked the man if he was looking forward to the Olympics. “Too many Iraqis,” he said. “Too many Pakistanis.”
The western and southern edges of the park hold what remains of its industrial past. Just over the canal, hard against the A12, is Hackney Wick, a warren of industrial yards and artist’s enterprises, have-a-go churches and attempted property developments. Coming round a corner, you are as likely to encounter a skip on a lorry as a man in yellow corduroys, riding a bicycle. In the newsagents, I saw an ad put up by a French musician looking to set up a band: “Want to turn pro. ASAP.”
For all the creative sheen, however, Hackney Wick is still a place—no more than a barge-length from the Games—of gas canisters and cement crushers, of furniture workshops and poultry processors. As such, like everywhere else outside the bubble of the park, it is also living the downturn. “It’s not a question of being greedy,” said David Walker, a commercial estate agent, looking for tenants for a yard across the water from the Olympics. “It is a question of trying to find people who are prepared to pay a rent.” One of the more striking buildings in Hackney Wick is Riverside Wharf, a block of 112 live/work units, repossessed by the bank and empty for more than a year, overlooking the western entrance to the Olympic Park.
The picture changes to the east, where the building of the Games gives way to street-upon-estate of quiet, overcrowded housing. This is where you encounter the whole world in Leyton and Plaistow and Forest Gate. Russian is spoken at the bus stops, the Boucherie du Métro offers halal, unstunned meat and women in bright Bangladeshi saris drive cheap cars. There is no such thing as a unified local reaction to the coming of the Olympics, or what will follow, in such a kaleidoscopic place. “This is not the Jubilee in 1977,” as one old shopkeeper put it.
I spent an hour one day in the Leyton Jamia Masjid, a small mosque. The secretaries, Ghulam Thakor and Fareed Yousuf, told me that the sum of their official interaction with the Olympics had been a visit from the police, to brief them about security. “A lot of strangers,” said Thakor, nodding. “A lot of strange people will be here.” The secretaries imagined that, after the Games, the Olympic Park would be bought by a big company, or Middle Eastern sheikh. In this they were partly right: the athletes’ village has been acquired by the Qatari royal family in a joint venture with the property company Delancey.
I left and headed south, towards Stratford, the hub of this corner of London, and the Checkpoint Charlie connecting its present and future. On the way, I came across Lloyd Roberts, a broad man in a T-shirt, leaning on his fence. Roberts lives on the other side of the road from the Olympics. We could feel the wind coming across the site and hear the rumbling of diggers. Roberts was upbeat about the change. He didn’t know anyone who got work in the park (the Olympic Delivery Authority say 20 per cent of the 40,000 jobs went to locals, but admits there is no way of knowing how recently they arrived) but he had friends with jobs in Westfield, which now employs about the same number of people in Newham as the NHS. “Some friends that I know have come off drugs,” said Roberts. “They are working now as security guards at Westfield. It has changed their life.”
In Stratford proper, the future is reached by crossing the bridge to Westfield and the rest of the emerging Stratford City. The bridge, which has escalators and a perpetual crowd of teenagers, working their orange BlackBerrys and wearing G-Star Raw, crosses over sparkling train platforms and signs for car parks with more than 1,000 spaces available. Inside, the long gleam of the mall, the Orthodox Jews messing around with their children in the playpen, confirm to you that shopping is now Britain’s dominant cultural activity.
One of the best views of all this is from the first-floor windows of Burger King in the old Stratford Centre, back in E15. (Stratford City and the rest of the Olympic Park have their own postcode, E20). I went there with Ben Soyemi, a 22-year-old student, who grew up on the 15th floor of a tower block in the Carpenters Road Estate, which was also visible in the foreground of the Olympic skyline. Like hundreds of others, Soyemi’s family was “decanted” from the estate, pending its eventual demolition, in 2006 and moved four miles away to Beckton. On the day of the move, Soyemi pretended he had classes and stayed away. “I hate change so much,” he said.
Soyemi’s childhood was particularly happy. He made films for the estate’s community TV station and rode his bike in the ambivalent territory that is now the Olympic Park. Carpenter’s Road was a friendly place. “You couldn’t go to the shop or the bus stop without talking to, like, a million people,” he said. But Soyemi was not blind to reality. The tower was clapped out. The walls crawled with tiny ants that ended up in his cornflakes. His mother was desperate to move. Soyemi’s feelings for his block eventually extended to Stratford as a whole. “It needed to be renewed,” he said. “You can’t argue with a new train station.”
Talking to Soyemi, I was struck by the category problem present in many of my conversations with local people about the building of the Olympics and its related regeneration (forecast by the Olympic Park Legacy Company to last 25 years). Physical alteration on such a scale, whatever its possibilities, carries with it a sense of loss, often of abstract things. But contemplating this, you find yourself in calculations that do not compute. How do you weigh invisible goods and bads—a happy childhood, combined memory—against billions of pounds of new infrastructure and a new John Lewis? What is the relationship between poor public health and fresh tarmac? A sense of place and a sterile fence? Ants and new, bourgeois neighbours? As my father likes to say, quoting an old university professor of his, it is like comparing a pound of butter and two o’clock.
And yet, somehow, this calculation—this coming together of the felt and the built—needs to be properly made. Whether the people of east London come to imagine themselves as masters of their new environment is the key to everything, and it has not happened yet. “There is an element of people now saying, ‘Well, we’ve all put this money in now. That’s it. Done,” Robin Wales, mayor of Newham, told me. “No it bloody isn’t. We’ve got to do the people side.” At the moment, if three weeks spent in the area is anything to go by, “the people side” of the Olympic development is a haphazard, basically dysfunctional exercise.
You cannot fault the industry of the acronyms (the ODA, LOCOG and the OPLC) and their unstopping schedule of open days: the offers of 48-hour priority booking for local people to watch test events for Paralympic goalball. It was never going to be easy to negotiate the relationship between a once-in-a-generation construction project—the billions magicked up somewhere between Westminster and the IOC—and some of the poorest and least empowered communities in Britain.
But still, my overriding feeling as I walked the fringes of the Olympic Park was of being caught between two entities, talking at once, communicating little. At times this dialogue was written across the very streets, in the call-and-reply of graffiti and local slogans versus the branded nonsense of 2012. “Chilled. Alive. Inspiring. Friendly,” said McDonald’s. “You can have it all,” responded the wall of a derelict factory. “Home is whatever you want it to be,” said the Stratford Halo development. “Syphilis is back in London,” retorted the graffiti. “You’re part of it.” “Horror. Horror. Horror.”
To those who feared the Olympics all along, it is already written which side of the conversation will drown out the other. “Look and Feel” will eradicate what was formerly human. The bard of this argument is Iain Sinclair, the writer and historian of London. “This is all about the destruction of the local to create a generic entity,” he told me. “Who are beneficiaries of all this? The only water you are allowed to buy is Coca-Cola. The only food you are allowed to buy is McDonald’s. The access to the site is through the Westfield shopping mall… It is like an invasion.”
We were talking that day many miles from east London, on the shore of the Isle of Grain, an expanse of sky and gas terminals near the mouth of the Thames Estuary. “This is very like what the Lower Lea Valley around Stratford was like,” said Sinclair. He worked for a time on the site of the Olympics in the 1970s, shifting sacks of talcum powder. “Scrubby countryside, a quarry, toxic dumps, military detritus, this is it.”
Few people living hard up against the Olympic Park are able to take a dogmatic line. Life for the last five years, and for years to come, is about trade-offs, of shouting over the diggers and trying to catch pieces of the falling silver. Mohamoud Ali has traded sunlight for taxi fares. Others are in the process of making worse and better deals. One day I met a woman who sat down and cried in Westfield when she got the news that her family of five could move from a one-room flat to a new council house, built just outside the park, after a wait of nine years. Her name was Laura Ashby, she was a teaching assistant, and she had lived in east London her entire life. “You either jump on the train,” she said, “or you don’t.”