The Spice Girls have left the stage. The Closing ceremonies are closed. The Olympics are over. “Come out of the cupboard you boys and girls.” Hundreds of thousands are packing up their naff mascot cuddly toy souvenirs and de-camping the host city, though there were fewer tourists than in regular, non-Games years. Pin collectors, athletes, sponsor corporation executives, IOC bureaucrats, politicians, pop stars, copyright lawyers, army guys and cops — lots and lots of cops — all are evacuating London.
The effusive Olympic spirit which, according to the breathless accounts of pundits and boosters, seized the nation has reached its crescendo and is now dissipating. The poor, Dickensian, bedraggled, speculated, gentrified, evicted, regenerated, invaded, real-estate-inflated, occupied East End is abandoned to fitfully sleep off this hangover and stagger forward into the promised post-Games legacy. It’s a familiar morning-after feeling for those of us living in Hackney on the Pacific, Vancouver’s East Side. But the Games have a rather unfulfilling aftertaste. You never get what was promised and you won’t ever get back what was lost.
But you do get condos.
For the 2012 Summer Games, a massive 2.5 square kilometres of Olympic Park was dropped, seemingly from Orbit, onto Hackney Wick and Stratford, totally overwriting streets, parks, marsh, social housing (which the Brits call ‘council estates’ for some unfathomable reason) and lives that used to exist in and around this Olympic site, just the largest of many. These communities, already fading from memory, now form just another stratum on the thousand-year archeological record of human habitation on the Thames, to be found somewhere between evidence of a Victorian-era textile works and a midden of Olympic-branded water bottles.
But this is not the first time these neighbourhoods have been pulverized.
During the waning years of World War II, London was pounded by V-1 flying bombs, fired from German bases. But the technology of the day was less than accurate. Hitler’s military strategists began to range-find by reading the London morning papers to discover where exactly their rockets had struck. Nazi rocketeers would then recalculate their flight paths for the following launches to more precisely hit major targets like the Tower Bridge.
Soon the British cottoned on to this, and began having the papers publish incorrect accounts of what was hit, overemphasizing strikes in the west of the city and underreporting those in the east. The misdirected Vergeltungswaffen and their rain of fire was thusly steered away from Whitehall, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace and other seats of power deemed so critical to British morale that they could not be lost. The Nazis had been zeroing-in and bombs had to fall somewhere.
Deep under the central London pavement, in the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill, with assistance from Fleet Street newspapers, was re-calibrating Third Reich rocket-sites to direct their deadly weapons far to the east of where they were aiming. In the Empire’s grand tradition, London’s poor, already harder hit by the Blitz for living near factories and the docklands, were called upon to once again sacrifice for King and Country. German V-1 rockets were redirected from the property of the government and Royal Family to the homes and hearths and heads of London’s poor.
To make matters worse, East Londoners did not generally have bomb shelters. Despite classic British war time mythology, the government had forbidden anyone to seek refuge in the London underground. Laurie Penny describes how residents took matters into their own hands. In the best working class ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tradition, locals organized with the Communist Party, defied authorities, forced open the Underground and sheltered from the fascist ordinance in neat, orderly rows in the liberated catacombs of the Tube system. “The faded sepia pictures of families bedding down on the platforms of the Central line are still iconic,” says Penny.
This time around, the poor were promised benefits for the sacrifice of their communities. According to Hackney Council:
“After the 2012 Games, the Olympic Park will be transformed into a series of neighbourhoods set around a major new park, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Each neighbourhood will have new homes and community facilities such as schools, health centres, shops and cafes. Much of the new park will be in Hackney, re-providing green space which was used to deliver the Games.”
Even if this future dreamscape is built, the original residents, having fled, been evicted or relocated, may not be moving back. Housing prices have increased by more than a third since the 2006 Strategic Regeneration Framework promises were announced. The planned housing will likely be out of reach of those forced to make way for the Games.
In Vancouver, more than two years after the Games, gentrification on the Downtown Eastside continues apiece and the promised legacy social housing has yet to materialize in a significant way. This includes the units promised at the Olympic athletes’ Village, which consists mostly of condos for the rich and up-scale rentals.
“Our house, that was where we used to sleep / Our house, in the middle of our street.” -Madness, original UK mod band that played the Closing Ceremonies.
The Impact on Communities Coalition gives a failing grade to progress on Vancouver Olympic legacy promises around social, economic, recreational, civil liberty and cultural benefits and impacts. The former have been generally widely publicized while the latter suffer a lack of accountability, wallow in distorted figures or disappear in a blizzard of paper.
In London, East Enders were promised that over the coming years, the Games will deliver to them the “same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London.” Given the failure of the 2012 Games to benefit the UK economy, the record of unfulfilled legacy promises from past Games and the centuries of neglect and exploitation that the host boroughs have suffered, residents have reason to be skeptical.
In an era of unprecedented austerity, Lord Coe and Prime Minister Cameron found the billions to throw an unbelievably lavish party on top of some of the poorest communities in Europe. For two weeks, Charles Dickens and Jacques Rogge did battle for the soul of Hackney, with a soundtrack provided by Freddy Mercury and Posh Spice.
To many of my friends in London, the Olympics probably did seem a little like the Blitz. Now they emerge from crowded Tube stations, commute times returning to normal, blinking in the bright sunshine of legacy, which all too soon is dampened by London’s familiar overcast skies.
And if you listen very carefully, over the traffic, you just might hear Simon LeBon rehearsing ‘Rio,’ and he’s only got four years to get it right…
Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.