Business, Economics and Jobs

Will the Olympics rejuvenate east London?


After the hype: East London residents wonder whether the Olympic village and other buildings will hurt them by driving prices up.


Suzanne Plunkett

LONDON, UK — Stratford Broadway isn’t a place to dawdle.

The east London thoroughfare boasts a handful of low-end chain stores and market stalls hawking discount household goods and cheap food. A gaggle of street preachers hectors passers by with ominous-sounding blessings.

This is what postcards don’t show, the center of a sprawling metropolitan area in the east of the capital that houses millions of people living close to the poverty line. Joblessness and crime rates are high. Living standards are low.

Just yards away stands the entrance to London’s spectacular Olympic park, where billions of dollars of public money have been poured into creating beautiful structures to house athletes and spectators for the brief few weeks the games are in town.

London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics seven years ago partly by promoting the games as a vast regeneration project that would breathe new life into a rundown part of the city. The event would be geared toward the L-word: legacy.

The question among residents on the gritty streets of Stratford and its surrounding boroughs today is whether the $14 billion spent on the games will really help bring about changes the neglected communities here so desperately want. Or whether it will all go to waste after the athletes, crowds and media leave.

More from GlobalPost: Faces of Olympic victory

Greece also made grand promises to land the Olympics in 2004. But the crumbling Helliniko sports complex outside Athens stands empty today.

That doesn’t bother Stratford resident Michael Adeyemi. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “They’ve talked so much about the legacy that they can’t back down on it. It’s going to take a lot more than the Olympics to improve the whole east London area, but every little helps.”

The legacy appears impressive on paper. London is set to spend an additional $470 million to transform the Olympic complex from a dedicated sports venue into the “Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park” after the games are over.

Some of the venues, including the Aquatics Center and the Copper Box handball arena, will be kept for public use and international sports events. The stadium may become home to a prominent soccer team, and the media center is set to be a business hub. Planners hope the project will create more than 10,000 permanent and temporary jobs.

However, housing will be the largest part of the legacy. Of the almost 3,000 apartments in the athletes’ village, more than 1,300 will be used for affordable homes. The rest will be sold to Qatari investors. A further 8,000 homes are to be built in five new neighborhoods over the next 20 years, along with three new schools, nine nurseries and three health centers.

All that in what was recently a vast wasteland of urban dereliction and contaminated landfill surrounded by some of London’s most run-down neighborhoods.

All looked rosy as the games got underway. International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge declared he was confident “these games will leave a lasting positive legacy for London.” The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 — a watchdog established partly to oversee the legacy — declared the project a “success” despite some shortcomings.

More from GlobalPost: Why Kenyans always win the marathon

But some observers are urging caution over a blueprint that stretches many years into a future economists predict will be characterized by a downbeat financial outlook. London’s Olympic legacy, they say, could easily come unstuck.

Some say the Olympic park’s distance from London’s financial and tourist districts casts doubt over its power as a future magnet for business and visitors, especially through the city’s creaking, overburdened public transportation network.

Others believe simple economics could undermine the ambitious housing plans by magnifying the kind of vast disparities in wealth seen in many other London districts. They point to the construction in Stratford of the massive Westfield shopping center, an upscale mall whose shops are beyond the budgets of many nearby residents.

“The jury is still out,” said Penny Bernstock of the University of East London. Although she praises the government's committments, she says rising costs could undermine goal of providing more affordable housing. "Instead you would just change the population and displace poorer people. The area will look very nice but will not benefit people on lower incomes.”

The London Legacy Development Corporation, charged with overseeing the Olympic inheritance, acknowledges the new housing projects may flounder if they are not successfully integrated into the area’s communities.

“We certainly feel it has to be a piece of the city that the local community surrounding the park feel they own and can engage with,” Duncan Innes, the corporation’s director of real estate, said during a recent debate on the subject.

More from GlobalPost: Is Adidas exploiting workers?

Opinions on Stratford’s streets are divided between hope for long-term improvements and disappointment over a lack of immediate tangible benefits.

“They’ve been building this thing for years, spending all this money,” said William Keane, a 32-year-old unemployed laborer. “But so far we’ve got nothing apart from a new railway station and the Westfield [mall].”

“That’s no use to me right now,” he explained. “I’ve got no job and no real money coming in. I’m struggling, while over that fence they’re all enjoying themselves. Even a free ticket to see something would have been nice.”

Hairdresser Denise Constantine is more optimistic. “I’ve lived in east London my whole life and I’ve never known a time like this,” she said. “There’s a real buzz about it now. We’ve had it tough for so long and now the sun is shining on us. We’ve been given this opportunity and it’s up to us to make the most of it.