The Local History Behind London's Olympic Unease

Two East London neighborhoods will be irrevocably changed by the Games. Is this a bad thing?

Last week, an unexploded bomb was discovered at a training site for London’s Olympics. The one-kilogram incendiary device, a remnant from Nazi bombing during World War II, was found on marshlands where a basketball training center is being built for this summer’s Games. Removed safely, the device is a timely reminder of the rough handling the area hosting this summer’s Olympics has often lived through. Far from being a blank slate, East London’s Lea Valley has a long, busy history – one that makes the process of building major public works sensitive and contested.

Once the boundary between warring Saxon and Viking kingdoms, the Olympic Park’s site on the River Lea’s southern reaches was for long London’s industrial heartland. As early as Shakespeare’s time, it was so polluted that a new river carrying drinking water to London had to be dug to avoid dirty trades at its mouth. During England’s 19th century manufacturing boom, the world’s first plastic was developed here, and the word petrol first coined.

Its factories, nearby docks and concentration of vital industrial workers made it the target for a particularly brutal pummeling by Nazi bombers during the Blitz, and the area slid slowly into further dereliction after WWII, with many residents departing for the outer suburbs. Since the 1990s, the district’s decaying warehouses have become popular as artists’ studios, initiating an inevitable if patchy wave of gentrification – though as these photos show, the neighborhood still had many derelict areas prior to Olympic development.

The Olympic Park extends north beyond this rundown neighborhood, however, also encroaching on former wetlands at Hackney Marshes that have been earmarked for common grazing since the Middle Ages. Saved by the city for public use in the 1890s, Hackney Marshes have been cherished by the poor surrounding neighborhoods ever since. Many famous British soccer players’ careers began on the marshes’ 82 amateur soccer pitches, while the long grass flanking the riverbank was long celebrated as a summertime meeting place for lovers seeking privacy. The marshes remain a well used, rather haunting place today (as this wonderful documentary shows), their river a calm green corridor for waterfowl and spawning ground for fish

Photo credits: Hackney Marshes (Eddie Keogh/Reuters)

Lea Valley (Flickr/Ewan-M)

The Olympic Park won’t obliterate all this, but it has chipped away at and disrupted the marshes. Some areas have been built on permanently, while other open spaces will be cemented over temporarily to form car parks and training grounds, losing mature trees, wildlife and public access in the process. Even the widely welcomed Olympic Village was built over another pioneering housing project whose residents petitioned unsuccessfully to remain.

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Balanced against the Games’ potential benefits, protesting these changes might seem trivial. A London Olympic project was never going to find an entirely unclaimed space to develop, and after the Games, local sporting facilities will be reinstated and the Lea’s banks converted into a major new park to compensate for open space losses elsewhere. If, as Olympic organizers hope, the Games bring long-term job opportunities for locals, more affordable housing, better transport links and more sporting facilities, locals will no doubt be delighted.

The problem is that many locals doubt the official line. Some fear common land will be irretrievably lost or damaged, that wildlife removed elsewhere will not return and that new social housing projects like the Olympic Village will prioritize public sector employees classified as key workers over locals. This might sound like bad faith, but when your backyard has been treated as London’s dumping ground for centuries, long experience makes it harder to give officialdom the benefit of the doubt.

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