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Beyond the Olympics in London’s East End

On the Roman Road, in the east of London, market vendors proffer their wares much as they have since the 19th century. “Lovely apples, ten for a pound!” one old boy yells from his fruit and veg stall. “Fifty pence for you, my darling!” he adds as a big-hipped young woman walks by. The East End is not a place of subtlety.

Perhaps appropriately, two brash new modern structures of concrete and metal have now appeared down the street. A red sculpture of twisted steel, known as the Orbit, makes its alien advance on the sky, and before it extend the giant white struts of the Olympic stadium. In July, the greatest show on earth, the Summer Olympics, will take place here. At Mickey’s Sweets (established 25 years!”) I ask the owner for his forecast of the Games: Will Usain Bolt break another world record? Will Britain triumph in the velodrome? Rather than opine on athletics, he sells me a quarter of licorice and responds gruffly: “Traffic’ll be terrible.”

After London won the bid for the 2012 Games, it wasn’t long before the British national character reasserted itself. We are not, as you may have noticed, the most excitable of people. Twenty-four hours of flag-waving (much of it directed gleefully at the French, whose Paris bid had failed) was enough for us to start feeling embarrassed by the hype and to retreat to the sanctuary of our cynicism. To worry about how much it would cost. To predict transportation chaos. To fret that our fireworks wouldn’t live up to Beijing’s. To notice that our Olympics logo looked like Lisa Simpson performing a sex act.

Maybe these concerns help explain why the mood in London is still one of ambivalence toward our Olympics summer. As previous host cities can attest, the Olympics is not the most flexible of guests; opening your city to the games is like issuing a dinner invitation to someone of gargantuan and very specific appetites. A few pre-party jitters (Where’s everyone going to sleep? Who’s going to clean up afterwards? Do we have enough allergy-free snacks?) are only natural. We’re used to a lot of guests in London, and they’re always welcome, so long as they don’t push into our queues or trip us up with their wheelie bags. But when your city invites 600,000 people for a three-week fiesta, you suddenly need a strategy for how to impress all of those visitors.

Part of the problem is that the main action will be happening in a section of town our mothers used to tell us to avoid. The East End district, where the vast majority of the Games will be held, is diplomatically described as “vibrant.” This is a handy way of referencing its hipster community—concentrated in the couple of miles between the Hoxton and Shoreditch neighborhoods—while also incorporating the wider area’s legacy of gangsters, racial tensions, and youth crime. Yes, the district has its landmarks, but they tend to have nicknames like Murder Mile. There is a large proportion of Londoners who never travel to that side of town. And until recently, I was one of them.

I live less than five miles from the Olympic Park. I’ve been a resident of north London for nearly a decade, and until the Games came, the only thing that drew me east was the Eurostar passing through on its way to France. So while everyone is buzzing about the “regeneration” of East London overall, the most interesting path for me—and for the braver visitor—is to explore the Olympics fringe, where you’ll find the truly historic East End as well as London’s most cutting-edge art communities.

Many Games-goers will start at the Stratford International Station, a newly built glass-and-chrome transport nexus. In close proximity sits Europe’s largest urban shopping center, the Westfield megamall, where thousands of shoppers were bustling about on the weekend I visited, recession be damned. Although visitors will feel instantly at home in a supersize complex filled with the same retail brands (Calvin Klein, Nike, the Gap) that they left behind in their countries of origin, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. What does it say about our values that the first thing we want them to experience is the same homogenous consumerism they can (mostly) get at home?

Outside the hermetic confines of the mall, you can make out the south end of the 500-acre Olympic Park, studded with stadiums. The new infrastructure around it, including the tower blocks that make up the athletes’ village and the roads that service and bypass them, emerges grayly from a dustbowl of construction. Security officials guard empty stretches of tarmac and stand vigil over traffic barriers on traffic-free roads: There’s an air of import without substance, a desert of concrete waiting to flower.

It’s an inhospitable environment for pedestrians, so I catch a bus toward the Stratford neighborhood’s High Street. The program of local regeneration has created bizarre adjacencies. We trundle past a long stretch of modern, bland, and thus far empty apartment complexes built to house the hoped-for influx of new residents. No one gets on or gets off. Instead, the bus’s diverse mix of riders, a cross section of the population—black, Asian, Eastern European—disembarks at Broadway, the down-at-the-heels main street filled with kebab shops and pawnbrokers.

Not all of the planned redevelopments will be completed in time for the Games. The canal that sidles along the outer bounds of the Park (and its 20-foot security fence) presents a green and pleasant towpath on one side and an ugly squall of industrial brown site on the other. This brown site is Fish Island, an isolated area of 19th- and 20th- century factories and warehouses marked out as one of the prime locales for improvement in the aftermath of the Games. But currently it houses a colony of artists who squat in its run-down buildings.

In the island’s café-cum-collective-hangout, young men with train conductor caps and scrubby beards huddle over their coffee like latter-day Toulouse-Lautrecs. One, a comic book illustrator called Rufus, invites me back to the studio he shares with his girlfriend, Nicola, who creates and sells cushions emblazoned with four-letter words. “Fish Island is like a secret community,” says Rufus. “Everyone knows each other.”

But many land and property owners, mindful of the area’s redevelopment, have begun increasing rents by as much as 40 percent, and Rufus predicts that new apartment construction after the Games will force the artists out of their not-altogether-legal residences. “We’ve already got the city wankers arriving because it’s cool to live in a warehouse,” he says bitterly. “And now we’ve got the tourists coming too. …” One of this neighborhood’s rare yet thriving cultural centers is doomed by the East End’s lucky Olympic break. Within a year, it could be gone, if things go according to plan.

By the time I reach the Bow area, to the west of the Olympic Park, and come to the Roman Road, with its greasy-spoon cafés, racks of “thermal bloomers,” and real cockney accents, I’m torn. Is Olympic transformation threatening the “real” life of the East End, or is it improving and championing it? Do we want people to see the before, or the after? It’s easy to get sentimental for the past when your nose catches a whiff of jellied eels, but this is still Tower Hamlets, the first borough of London to elect a member of the far-right British National Party to its council, a place where the large immigrant community has not always been welcome. Talk too long to that pleasant-seeming fishmonger and you may well hear things you wish you hadn’t.

Looking north, swaths of 1950s social housing, from double-story terraces to high-rise apartments, are a timely reminder of the East End’s last great rebuilding project. Under bombardment by the Germans in the Second World War, much of the East End was destroyed, and with it the slums that had trapped the city’s most poor and vulnerable in their destitution. My granny, who was born in Bow and lived through the Blitz, always said it was the best thing to happen to the place. In the 1970s, immigration altered the character of the area once more.

No one can say in all certainty that the Olympics is going to transform a city for the better—just ask Montrealers if they’d like their money back, or take a trip to Athens’s derelict, rubbish-strewn Village. But what the Games can do is concentrate the mind on what’s already there. The stadiums, and the Westfield, will draw visitors to an underexplored part of town. Stray just a little from the custom-made Olympic paths, and the real East End opens up a charmingly chaotic narrative of other lives and little-known histories. Even Londoners will learn something about their city this summer. A

Illustration by Matthew Billington. This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue.