The Olympic Games have a split-personality disorder. On the one hand, they are a paragon of nationalism, pitting country against country in a race to medal counts. On the other, their very nomenclature speaks to the host city, which at least in democracies generally has to finance the physical overhaul of a whole neighborhood to put on the biggest quadrennial sporting event-cum-entertainment spectacle this side of the World Cup.
Both impulses have been on display in London since the 2012 Summer Olympics formally began on Friday night. The quirky, almost self-parodying opening ceremony paid tribute to a panoply of British tropes — from the English countryside to the National Health Service to Mr. Bean, Mary Poppins, Voldemort and the Beatles — while 80,000 spectators piled into the stadium that rises out of the low-lying rooftops of London’s East End.
The East End has been the working-class foil to the city’s imperial grandeur since at least the Industrial Revolution, which earned a brief nod during the Age of Industry scene, only to quickly segue to an actress portraying Queen Elizabeth flying into the stadium with a Union Jack parachute. As Bob Costas reports with a backdrop of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge or some other icon of Britannia, most television spectators will be unaware of the 2012 Games’ contentious urban social legacy.
London — the impoverished, striving, multicultural London that is the actual setting for the latest edition of the world’s greatest sporting event — is almost nowhere to be seen.
The regeneration of London’s East End, specifically the six boroughs contiguous to the Olympic Park and centered on a tertiary rail station that has become a new transit centerpiece for the region, is the social legacy of the Games. However, urban renewal schemes, driven by one-time events and showy new infrastructure that eats up huge swaths of land, continue to be a dicey form of neighborhood revitalization.
The East End’s six boroughs are diverse, striving and impoverished. Credit: Flickr user ashabot
The crux of the matter is this: The East End’s Olympic boroughs are the poorest in London, and the landscape is a mishmash of post-industrial decay, low-rise neighborhoods and pockets of public housing. In some places, World War II bomb damage remains unrepaired. As London absorbed its ex-colonial population in the postwar years, these less expensive districts of the capital became hugely diverse. Over 100 languages are spoken in the Borough of Newham. This is the kind of London, increasingly different from the white British Isles that the opening ceremonies were a paean to, heralded as essential to “London’s precarious brilliance” in a recent special report by The Economist.
Newham and its neighbors have struggled through a reputation for crime, poverty and public neglect. Is putting the Olympic Games in their backyard going to solve those inner-city ills overnight? Certainly sparkling new sports facilities, a train station that connects forgotten Stratford with continental Europe, and a gleaming shopping mall have created a sense of local pride and eliminated some crime hotspots.
But will the spillover effect of a mall impact the Indo-Afro-Caribbean-Pakistani mix of bangles, mangos and bindis on Newham’s Green Street, which successfully fought off a chain supermarket to preserve its local market? This is Jane Jacobs activism with a Robert Moses-esque highway looming on the horizon — in the form of an Olympic master plan.
The housing market has most definitely already felt the pinch. With British austerity measures impacting rental subsidies, housing officials in boroughs like Newham, where Olympic activity has raised rents, are contemplating a big change: Sending the needy three hours outside the city. Shelter, a non-governmental housing charity, has produced an affordability map that shows the dwindling number of affordable districts as a result of the subsidy changes.
Nearly 200 cyclists were arrested when London’s Critical Mass bike ride neared Olympic Park. Credit: Simon Li on Flickr
With Russian billionaires seemingly on every block in the posher parts of town, to some extent it is no surprise that — in a kind of favela-ization of one of the developed world’s financial capitals — landlords are illegally building sheds in East End gardens as housing units, a tactic reminiscent of South African townships. Market-rate renters, meanwhile, have faced shady tactics to evict them before the games start, in order to reap Olympic rates for visitors and tourists. Landlords believed they could fetch in a week what they charge in a month (or more), and thus felt no qualms in hiking rents or demanding that renters leave during the games.
The remaking of London’s East End hasn’t been accompanied by literal forced evictions — such tactics are usually the prerogative of more authoritarian governments. However, London’s army of security, nearly double the British contingent in Afghanistan, hasn’t hesitated to clamp down on dissent, and the proliferation of closed-circuit cameras has been a cause for concern. While the men’s and women’s road cycling races proceeded unmolested, 182 cyclists were arrested for running their usual last-Friday-of-the-month Critical Mass route within a handlebar’s distance of the opening ceremonies.
Ultimately, the urban reshaping at work continues a long and troubled Olympic tradition. In the book Planet of Slums, urban critic Mike Davis writes:
In preparation for the 1936 Olympics, the Nazis ruthlessly purged homeless people and slum-dwellers from areas of Berlin likely to be seen by international visitors. While subsequent Olympics — including those in Mexico City, Athens, and Barcelona — were accompanied by urban renewal and evictions, the 1988 Seoul games were truly unprecedented in the scale of the official crackdown on poor homeowners, squatters, and tenants: as many as 720,000 people were relocated in Seoul and Incheon, leading a Catholic NGO to claim that South Korea vied with South Africa as ‘the country in which eviction by force is most brutal and inhuman.’ Beijing seems to be following the Seoul precedent in its preparations for the 2008 games.
Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, echoed Davis’s sentiments in a 2007 e-mail: “It is definitely true that cities have long used sporting events as excuses to engage in mass evictions. Beijing has pushed out more than 300,000 people from various low-income neighborhoods in the run up to the Olympics next year. South Africa is muscling out squatters and shanty communities in anticipation of the football world cup in 2010.”
With Rio 2016 coming ever closer, the London games are only a prelude to some of the biggest Olympic housing and social activism debates the world of mega-sporting events has seen.
For those in London, the Free Word Center will host a screening of the film In the Shadow of the Games , about the consequences of the Olympics on East London, on August 6.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.