Why I Love The Olympics

Growing up in an industrial wasteland taught me that it’s not the industry that bothers you as much as the ineluctable decline. You quickly get used to having chimneys looming over you and you can ignore the daily release of invasive toxic fumes.  More damaging is growing up in a declining area where there are few jobs, the buildings are falling down, the shops are becoming scabbier and no-one seems to be doing anything about it. The ugliness isn’t a problem, but you feel the decline; it creeps around in your stomach and under your skin. Not in a way that’s easy to explain; it’s certainly not quantifiable; but you can just feel the lack of care or attention. It’s a bit like being ignored, like you’ve been unjustly passed over in favour of a sibling or a classmate and you get an internal aching sense that the reason you aren’t being cared for is because you’re just not good enough.

Living in Widnes in the 80s/90s felt that way, and when I first arrived in Stratford in 2006 the area shared the feeling.  Scarred by the Forest Gate raid in the aftermath of 7/7 the young people I turned up to teach were noticeably hostile to the world – remarking how much more difficult life had become now that everyone eyed up their backpacks suspiciously – and the whole town had a sense of being a scab on the landscape of London.  In nearby Hackney things were picking up – Broadway market peddled ‘organic’ products, Shoreditch nobbers wore trendy glasses, and Hackney loft living became the new ‘it’ address of media types and chief executives alike.  Here, on this side of the A12, Stratford barely managed to snag a Poundland and inviting guests to my digs involved raised eyebrows and serious concerns about safety.

As I first walked to the school near West Ham Park where I would later teach I remember grimacing at the number of houses with metal-plated windows and quickening my step on street corners, having been warned that the area was a hotbed for prostitution.  The school building had been knocked up post-WWII and was in the most desperate need of renovation. Unemployment in the borough was the highest of any place in London; so was the long-term sickness bill.  It all seemed bleak.

Fast forward six years and Stratford is a different place.  I’ve watched the change from the windows of a flat I bought here after falling in love with our strange little town, and I’ve watched the impact the Olympics regeneration has had on the young people I’ve taught.  It’s so easy to say that “it’s just a shopping centre”. Maybe it is.  But in Widnes they built “just a shopping centre” 3 years ago – in fact, it’s only a BHS and a Marks & Spencers – but it’s the first thing everyone tells me about when I go home (“Have you seen the new shops?  It’s not like Widnes!”) and it has become a point of pride and a reason – finally! – to live in the town.  Shopping centres are a social space – a place we can eat together, drink together, shop together.  Hang-out zones litter the tendrils of Westfield, alive with the chatter of Asian mothers rocking prams, teenage boys discussing video games, young couples looking wide-eyed in the windows of furniture shops and all ages, races, religions mingle together ‘being’ in the same place.  It’s easy to be cynical (“Aren’t we encouraging debt? What about consumerism?”), but I see something different in this mingling: I see a place where we can realise that it doesn’t matter how different we look, most of us like doing the same things, we like frozen yoghurts, and bowling, and gawking at new phones – and no matter how different we are we can do these things together, peacefully.  I love being able to talk to my students about Westfield; we make jokes about the trendiest places and discuss events (“Miissss…you didn’t go to see Biiieeeeber?!”).  It may “only be a shopping centre” but it is also a cultural object that we locals can share in a way I couldn’t imagine six years ago when the majority of my students never ventured past Green Street and our only point of cultural commonality was Eastenders.

The transport links have also made a huge difference.  If you do a job in business and you want to be within 6 minutes of Kings Cross, 11 minutes of Canary Wharf, 15 minutes of London Bridge and 10 minutes of Liverpool Street, here is the place to do it.  Stratford offers access to almost anywhere in London within 40 minutes and that means people want to live here. And when those people live here, they spend their money here – in our local shops, our local restaurants, our (amazing) local pubs.  It brings a buzz too; one of the most interesting changes for me has been seeing the growth in people walking to Stratford Station in a morning in a suit.  Six years ago I barely saw any professional person in Stratford in a morning.  Now our station is alive with people shouting on their phones and chugging down their Nero coffees, and though they sort of irritate me, I dig it.  I dig it because I want everyone to feel at home in Stratford. I want the kids I teach to see and experience as many adults as possible. I want them to know that they too, if they want, can live in Newham and wear a suit to work and drink coffee on the way in.  Or they can be an athlete – just like the people who will run around our stadiums in August. Or that they can be an artist, like the bohemian photographers and designers who are starting to buy the 2-bed terraces.

And however much I may wish it to be true that this could happen without the Olympics, the fact is, it wouldn’t have done. Some stuff might have happened anyway, maybe even Westfield, but given the economic situation projects would have been cancelled and pulled, and the metal plates would have been left on those windows along with the feeling that although we were less than 6 miles from the centre of London our chemically-infected soils may as well be at the end of the Earth.  We would be missing the buzz, the PR, the feeling of opportunity – and there’s no way that 4,000 new homes, 10,000 new jobs, new schools, new health centres and new sporting facilities would be opening up for us.

Whether there is a ‘real’ legacy or not I cannot guarantee, though I think with the infrastructure that has been built it will be hard not to have better outcomes for our community.  What is most definitely here now though is a feeling of hope and opportunity, and that matters so much.  Hope is the antidote to that feeling that no-one out there cares.  It makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you are good enough to go on and do things, it gives the confidence to say where you are from with pride (I hate the fact that some of my pupils practically apologise when they say their hometown), and most of all it gives the local community more ways to interact and be together.  This is what brings integration, this is what brings true opportunity, and it is for this reason that I love the Olympics. Let the Games begin.

13 thoughts on “Why I Love The Olympics

  1. I live in Stratford (having grown up in Stepney), my partner is one of those people walking to Stratford station in a suit every morning and my three children are at local schools (primary and secondary). Just after the announcement was made that London had the Olympics my older kids were in a swimming gala at East Ham baths – the sort of gala that kids were allowed to compete in even if they could only manage a width. The atmosphere was electric – Heather Small being played loud and all the kids standing a bit taller than they would have done before the announcement. Suddenly they were from a place that had some sort of standing. It was brilliant and I think that something of that spirit has remained through all of the carping about funding, disruption etc. I’m really thankful that we won the bid.

  2. The Olympics has accelerated regeneration which was already well under way. The new transport links (HS1, Crossrail, etc) started their planning back in the 90’s and with these plans came the other redevelopment initiatives throughout the Thames Gateway area. Westfield Stratford was already being developed though the Olympics meant that they finished 7 years ahead of schedule. No doubt the Olympics has brought extra money and helped push things along, but following the improved transport links, redevelopment was already happening. As you say, “want to be within 6 minutes of Kings Cross, 11 minutes of Canary Wharf, 15 minutes of London Bridge and 10 minutes of Liverpool Street, here is the place to do it.”

  3. So millions of public money goes on regenerating one town in London? And all for an event which last a few weeks made up of ‘sports’ normally no-one can give two hoota about! What about the state of the NHS and increasing taxes? That’s ok though we will throw millions at this project instead of tackling the real countrywide issues.

    1. The NHS, as much as I support it, is basically a reactive solution to wider health conditions and of course accidents, just one part of living.

      The sort of transformation that has been accelerated by the Olympics (I personally think the Olympics has been key to delivering a particular level of quality eg the overall masterplan and public park) has the same importance as the NHS but just comes from a different angle; investing in a long term solution to a problematic urban area.

      Even if it is merely physical changes like infrastructure and building, it is just as valid as long as there is a sincere goal to make peoples lives better, a collective approach pooling expertise, energised by such a prestigious prize as in Stratford is surely better than a few single developers offering a borough planning applications to random building plots?

      There will be a new park here for children to grow up in, there will be more people moving to the area out of desire rather than being forced; a far less stressful situation. Sure there will be problems with gentrification and house prices etc but this is all about management, there is no reason why it cant be a success.

  4. It is a good thing that people feel that their lives have been or will be improved as a result of the Olympics. However, that does not on is own justify the vast expense. You also have to ask yourself whether the results could have been achieved at lower cost or with benefits to a wider group of people.

    Without doubt, the Olympics are a very expensive way of regenerating an area and history suggests any benefits are short lived. The reasons are obvious – you spend billions building sporting venues for which there is no demand and then have to find a use for them. You set up a vast event that needs huge security at huge cost etc.

    I hope that East London continues to prosper after the games. If it does, Westfield is likely to be much more important than the Olympics -providing many long term jobs. But Westfield is in Stratford because of the improved transport that came with the Channel Rail link. Nobody builds a massive shopping centre for a three week event.

    My real problem with the Olympics is the way in which it subverts our democracy. We are all paying for it but we were never given a choice. None of the main political parties gave us a choice of not hosting the Olympics. And those who celebrated the award of the Olympics in 2005 were casually told a few days later that it would cost us three times as much as in the Bid. If there had been an honest debate about the games and we had decided that the regeneration of East London was worth that would be one thing. But when the elite simply decide and then expect us all to fall in line that is something else all together.

  5. Some years ago I had a passing conversation on a London to Manchester train with a Head of a school in Salford, – this was around the time when Salford Quays were being turned from a waste land to what is now known as Media City. Because of the ‘gentrification’ of Salford Quays communities were cleared (sometimes forcibly) and schools such as his were closed (as the role had fallen to unsustainable levels due to the decline of families now living in this catchment area). These working class families were moved to surrounding boroughs whilst the areas was repopulated.
    Salford Quays was seen as successful regeneration of a poor area. But many of those who used to live there felt no benefit from this regeneration.

    My point is; whist there is no doubt that the regeneration of Stratford was both needed and overdue there is a human cost. Will those youngsters you teach be able to live in Stratford once the ‘suits’ have pushed up house prices. Renting in this area is even higher. So the poor move out and the educated middle classes move in.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong just perhaps inevitable, but as most guardian readers, writers of articles, journalists etc – we are the ones benefiting from urban gentrification. Who represents the voices of the others who have to move away? Where’s their voice?

    1. One of the most impressive things about the Stratford changes is how, so far, the issue of exclusion has been avoided. If you look at house price change in London you will see Newham hasn’t budged that much and is one of the few affordable and central(ish) places left to live.

      The majority of the developments are mixed, with a large proportion of affordable homes, part-share schemes, and – because so many homes have opened up – the supply is keeping prices more stable and affordable for local people who wish to buy than when there are shortages of stock. Adding 10,000 homes gives many more ways to live in our community than we previously had.

      One big issue is the impact of the coming benefits reform and the cap on funds for private rent. That IS going to drive people who have lived in our Borough for a long time to have to move. That’s equally true across all of London, and is a party political issue quite separate to the Olympics.

      Always in housing some people will struggle, and that’s why I believe in a comprehensive system of social housing with a variety of options, just like I see being built around us. But the question I always come back to is this: Was it better to guarantee our kids could buy a house but it was in an area of squalor and danger, or is it better to provide a variety of opportunities to live somewhere with improved jobs and services?

  6. Fab post. As a former (1990’s) Stratford resident I can see the huge, huge, huge improvement to the area due to the regeneration. I think it will bring massive benefits to local people. Im in Essex now and visit Stratford on a regular basis. It is now a great place to be.

  7. My family is from Widnes, I’ve been a teacher on Leyton/Stratford border and I agree with just about everything you’ve written here – it’s quite uncanny! I’ve cycled along those towpaths on a daily basis, have watched the park being developed, the canals cleared, the vast landscaping projects take place and when people at work (now in central London) have been cynical about the impact of the games, I’ve made as many of those points you’re making as I could… And Widnes shopping centre – yep – what happened?!?!

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