diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Today, blimey, is ten years since the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

You can't have missed the anniversary, it's been everywhere. TV news platforms have published a multitude of features as have most of the serious newspapers, umpteen Twitter feeds and any media presence with a sporting or community bias. Even the IOC released an upbeat anniversary press release praising 2012's legacy, and Radio 4 broadcast a one-hour retrospective documentary the other week which is extremely good, assuming you can stomach any more post-Olympic blowout.

I couldn't skip the occasion, sorry, because the 2012 Games have been at the heart of so much of what this blog's been about over the last two decades. Little did I know when I moved to Bow that an Olympic Stadium would soon be built half a mile from my front door, serendipitously making me the blogger-on-the-spot for the biggest regeneration project on the planet. The Lower Lea Valley started out as a forgotten industrial backwater, was transformed into a spectacular global sporting arena, is still transforming today and I've been on the spot to watch it all happening.

It's ridiculous that anyone ever looked at some grubby rivers near Stratford and thought an Olympic Games could be hosted here. It's astonishing that the IOC took the suggestion seriously and incredible that they ended up voting for it. It's amazing that London duly delivered while keeping the country generally onside. It's phenomenal that the event succeeded in elevating the Paralympics to almost equal status. And it's brilliant that ten years later the physical legacy is a thriving neighbourhood - not perfect, but so much better than it could have been.

As a local, the Park really came into its own during lockdown when I had a world class waterside environment at my disposal and you probably didn't, sorry. The very soul of the place is deeply engrained in me, mainly thanks to a combined epidemiological disaster and geographical accident. I'm one of the few people who remembers what various parts of the site looked like before the Games, immersed myself in the Olympic experience while it was taking place and hung around to watch the ongoing evolution pan out. I walked past the Fridge Mountain before it was a Water Polo Arena and will be back soon when it's part of the V&A.

During the run up to the Games one of the biggest issues related to the destruction of a network of unsung community facilities and unsexy local businesses. Some took the money and fled, turning a decent profit in the process, while others folded because their grubby trades were no longer welcome hereabouts. I still have a copy of the 261-page eviction order, spiral bound and sealed by the LDA, which was hung anonymously on a multitude of parcels of land to confirm extinction of livelihood in November 2005. If the past history of the site interests you a phenomenal website called Ground Breakers tells "the back story of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from the Bronze Age to the Digital Age", including the option to download the whole lot as a 100+ page pdf.

Ostensibly this mass erasure was for sport but ultimately a lot of it was really for housing, turbocharging what would otherwise have been the slow residentialisation of the Lower Lea Valley. Tens of thousands now live on former railway sidings, ex-industrial estates and evacuated bus depots. Even so, of the five proposed Olympic neighbourhoods only Chobham Manor is now substantially complete, and that only topped off its final block in the last few months. Stratford Wharf has been mostly reappropriated by a university campus and the cultural cluster of East Bank, neither yet unveiled. East Wick so far boasts just one small flat-packed quarter, and only this month has a long strip of the northern park been fenced off for further enabling works. Meanwhile Sweetwater and Pudding Mill have yet to see the construction of a single flat even ten years after the Games, and still won't be finished by 2030.

What's become increasingly clear since 2012 is that economic destruction has continued to swallow up small businesses as the consequences of this regeneration event continue to ripple outwards. The Games themselves never touched Hackney Wick but the developers moved in all the same and are busy converting it into a stack of concierge-friendly brick boxes. Ditto Fish Island which is inexorably having its character sucked out in favour of leaseholds, service charges and top notch fitted kitchens. Meanwhile the City's fruit and veg markets are relocating to Barking because the site's more valuable as flats, the fringes of Maryland and Bow are powerless to resist and every last gap along Stratford High Street has either been upwardly redeveloped or is about to be. And still it comes.

2012's recreational legacy is seemingly strong with all the main venues still in use. The stadium is a premiership football ground, the Aquatics Centre is the local swimming pool and the Velodrome is about to become an unlikely outpost of Birmingham's Commonwealth Games. But the stadium still haemorrhaged public money, the pool is inherently defensive rather than welcoming, the hockey pitches are empty 99% of the time and the mountain bike course never has anyone on it because its custodians insist on pay-before-you play. As a local resident the best bit of QEOP is undeniably the open space between the venues, not the impenetrable bastions of commercial engagement.

Only a minority of visitors to QEOP come for the sport, most are here to walk, cycle, play or simply graze. It's great to see so many here, the park's a total social success, but the temptation is always to pile on more calories rather than wear them off. The first two post-Games cafes have been augmented by additional riverside tables, a parade of hipster options near Here East, a showy restaurant pavilion, a streetfood canteen at Hackney Bridge and infilled coffee shops as appropriate. Throw in the hospitality-based gentrification of Hackney Wick and the cavalcade of corporate dining options at Westfield and it seems you can't just tempt people with a pretty park, you have to tempt their stomach too.

I reckon I've written over 300 blogposts about the Olympics and its local impact during the last 20 years. You may have arrived here as the result of one. I intend to post another tomorrow, and I haven't yet decided whether or not to run with this 10th anniversary for the rest of the week. I think it's important to document how things are now because all too soon it changes, and it's easy to forget how once it was entirely different and will soon be entirely different again. For example here's what I wrote on the blog on 27th July 2012 at the tipping point between before and after.
And if you're hoping I might finally shut up about the Games once the last athletes have gone home, no such luck. We local residents still have to live with the aftermath, and that's a story with at least another ten years to tell. Will the Olympic Park become a tumbleweed white elephant, surrounded by unsaleable shoebox flats, visited by nobody? Or will we gain a rich legacy, blessed by incomparable sporting facilities, with a fresh inclusive community starting to grow? East London's Olympic story still has a long way yet to run, and tonight's Opening Ceremony is merely the end of the beginning.
You mainly saw a fortnight or two of sport. Those of us who live nearby have been living with the Games for the last 17 years, and still its impact fizzes on.

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