Can 'posh' Olympics reboot London's cockney East End?

London's East Enders famously survived the Luftwaffe, the ravages of industrialization and churning immigration. But how will they deal with the promised gentrification from the Olympic Games, Tom Parry asks.
Perched at the edge of London's main Olympic Park, Westfield mall expects to be an entrance point for up to three-quarters of those attending the 2012 Games. (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

The glimmering stores of the mammoth new Westfield mall in East End London offer just about everything a well-heeled shopper could want. Hugo Boss suits, Prada purses, Armani jeans. If you've got the money, you've come to the right place.

The mall, which bills itself as the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, opened less than a year ago on the doorstep of London's new Olympic Park, financed in part with Canadian money.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board owns 25 per cent of this $2.5-billion complex, which boasts a 24-hour casino, 14 bowling lanes and over 70 restaurants.

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Over the next two weeks, as throngs of visitors descend on the city for the Summer Games, Westfield could be their first real glimpse of London. In fact, many of them will probably have to walk through the mall on their way to the main Olympic Park.

But the mall and the East End neighbourhood surrounding it are two different worlds.

Across a busy street is the neighbourhood's old shopping centre and even older High Street. The stores here cater to a less affluent local clientele.

Alongside a supermarket and pharmacy, there are pawnshops, cheque-cashing outlets and small grocery stores that serve a remarkably diverse population.

The neighbourhood is called Stratford (not to be confused with Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon) and is in Newham, the main borough hosting the Olympic Games.

It's one of the most racially mixed places in the country. In the last census, only about a third of residents described themselves as "white British." The rest were a mix of ethnicities, primarily Asian and Caribbean.

'Could be worse'

Newham is also poor. The unemployment rate in the borough stands at 14 per cent, roughly double the rate for London as a whole.

Like many East Londoners, butcher Les Barry has had to put up with the Olympic construction noise and dust over the past five years and is wondering if it is all worth it. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

Incomes are lower than in the rest of the capital. A recent report by Save the Children found that roughly a quarter of the children in the borough live in poverty, making it the third-worst district in the country.

When London made its bid for the 2012 Olympics, one of its stated goals was to revitalize and regenerate its famously cockney East End and improve the lives of the people who live here. (Until fairly recently, raw sewage ran through the nearby waterway.)

But as the people of Newham and the other East London boroughs prepare to welcome the world, there are some here who say they've yet to see the benefit of hosting one of the planet's premier sporting events.

Terry Teh, owner of a clothing store in Stratford's old shopping mall, calls the Olympics a waste of money and he's skeptical about what kind of boost it will bring to the area.

"Could be good. Could be bad," he says.

"Hopefully, it will benefit us in the long run. But what sort of people are going to be moving in here?"

More posh?

Teh worries that if the Olympics do lead to East London becoming gentrified, more posh as they say in Britain, the people who live here now will be forced out. And that seems to be a widely held view.

It's a different East End inside the Westfield mall, with its marble floors and, in some places, crystal chandeliers. (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

Tariq Khan, who runs a small cosmetics shop, says he'll be cheering on the British team during the Games. But he can't shake the feeling the Olympics are mostly for the rich.

"They're not inviting us," he says, meaning him and his neighbours, "they're inviting the world."

Olympic organizers insist their goal is to lift up and improve all of East London and that people there will be better off thanks to the Games.

East-Enders could certainly use some help. This is an area that has seen hard times.

Once home to industry and busy shipping docks, the area suffered greatly during and after the Second World War.

The Luftwaffe bombed the East End relentlessly during the Blitz, striking ports, warehouses and factories.

After the war, industry dwindled, leaving the soil contaminated with toxins. The docks, meanwhile, closed as shipping moved further down the Thames.

Cockney roots

Paul Brickell, an executive director at the London Legacy Development Corporation, knows the history of this area and all about the romance attached to East End London's cockney roots.

But he also knows of its degradation and decline. He tells the story of his grandfather, who worked as a plumber at a chemical plant.

"Every Friday he emptied chemical waste into the river and turned the water purple. This was a great place. But it was also a rotten place."

Brickell's agency is charged with ensuring the Games leave London — and East London in particular — a better place.

Governments have been trying to rejuvenate the area for years and the 2012 Olympics are their most ambitious effort since the era of post-war reconstruction began.

When the Games wrap up, the area will have new parks, new sports facilities, new office space and thousands of new homes.

The Athlete's Village will be turned into apartments. Of the 2,818 units, 1,379 will be designated affordable housing.

The plan is to create five new neighbourhoods with up to another 8,000 or so homes over the next 20 years.

Brickell calls the Olympics "a massive step in a long journey. "It's 25 years of development in five years," he says.

The door is open

The sparkling new sporting venues of the Olympic Park and the opulent shops of the Westfield Shopping Centre — where rock stars have performed and soccer hero David Beckham showed up yesterday — have already changed East London.

What's important is making sure the change is for the better, says John Lock, director of the University of East London's 2012 office, which has been studying the impact of the Games on the area and its people.

"London is a place that has managed to make a lot of people feel welcome," he says. " The trick is going to be to keep it like that."

A photo of the Stratford, East London, Olympic site in 2006 as construction was getting underway. That's Central London in the middle distance. (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

For Lock, that doesn't mean turning East London into a playground for the wealthy. As he sees it, the people overseeing the redevelopment have to keep asking themselves, "Are we displacing people?"

Lock says East London has always been about change but that over the years it has also become a transitory place.

People come here from all over the world. But when they find success, they quickly move out, typically to a more affluent area. His hope is that the Olympics will stop that trend.

"This is a place people are happy to be but not a place that's an end state. It's good, it's congenial, the door is open. But the point is to make people say 'I like it here. I want to stay.' That's when we can say we've created a better place."