Come July, traveling to the Summer Olympics sites will be much less strenuous. According to the organizer’s greenprint (the Games will have an eco-bent), shuttles and trains will transport spectators to and from the events. But nine months before the Opening Ceremony on July 27, the route was a beastly jungle of cranes, construction trucks, misleading signage, concrete barriers and piles of rubble. To further confuse matters, Pudding Mill Lane, one of the closest stops to the venue, was temporarily out of commission, and my taxi driver navigated East London as if it were alien territory — which, in a way, it was.
“East London was absolutely ripe for regeneration. The area was hugely, hugely deprived. It had all of the smelly industries,” said Jo Broadey, a guide with Blue Badge Tourist Guides, one of many organizations that lead tours of Olympic Park. “The Olympics will transform the area.”
London, a serial host (1908, 1948), beat out Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris for the honor of holding the global sporting event. The city will center most of the contests (swimming, basketball, cycling, hockey, etc.) and key facilities (press center and athletes’ village) in East London, a severely polluted and downtrodden area that makes Beijing smell like a rose garden.
And yet — cue Bob Costas — the Dickensian story of East London mirrors the dramatic narratives of many Olympiads: Underdog overcomes adversity to triumph.
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You’ve probably heard of East London. You might even have visited the area during past travels in the British capital. If you’ve been to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the curry houses on Brick Lane, Canary Wharf or the O2, the concert arena, then you have wandered onto the right side of the city map.
The region, like many an area defined by a compass point, is vast and varied. To clear up any misconceptions, East London is not a boundless industrial wasteland, nor is it entirely cordoned off for the Games. (Conveniently, just the industrial wasteland section is.)
Olympic Park fits in a 500-acre tract in the Lower Lea Valley. If you require a fixed point, look up Stratford. Or any of the four boroughs that kiss the edges and provide alternate entry points. You can, for example, hike or bike the paved Greenway from Hackney Wick, across the canal, to Olympic Park and the View Tube, an observation platform and cafe made of recycled shipping containers. (Told you the place was eco.)
To understand the ongoing evolution of East London, I met up with the founder of Urban Gentry, a tour company that organizes outlier excursions such as East End: Hip Neighborhood Tour. We chose a rendezvous spot, the Shoreditch High Street London Overground stop, and shared vague descriptions of ourselves: Kevin Caruth was a tall Englishman in a trench coat; I was the American.
“This is super glossy from what it was. It was quite down and dirty,” said Kevin, as we passed a graffiti-splashed brick wall en route to the main commercial district. “The East End is now one of those areas where you feel relatively safe. Nothing is too jarring.” (Quick explanation: The terms East End and East London are pretty interchangeable, though some people refer to Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Whitechapel as the East End and the area around Olympic Park as East London.)
Kevin led me into Spitalfields market, a glass-roofed complex with restaurants and shops along the periphery and artisans and their wares occupying the middle. The market is the oldest in London, opening in the 1680s, when farmers markets weren’t a trend but a necessity. In 1991, new owners took over and pushed the revered produce operation out — and into an open lot behind Olympic Park.
“It’s still a hub for creative, alternative thinking,” Kevin said amid a maze of artsy vendors, “but it’s less chaotic now.”
As we exited through the iron gate, I felt as though I were leaving a familiar place, maybe Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, minus the Yankee slant. Both attractions contain historic hearts trapped inside modern bodies. I could hear the faint beat of the past, its thrum growing louder the deeper we explored.
Off the main strip, we ducked onto Cheshire Street, a tranquil lane of Victorian Grade 2 (which means very significant) homes that have survived periods of brutality (Jack the Ripper) and seediness (junkies). Independent shopkeepers inhabit the lower quarters, their boutiques tucked away like secrets.
“Younger people are coming here,” said Marianne Lumholdt, who runs the modern home design store Mar Mar Co. “We smile and think: ‘This is our little neighborhood. What are you doing here?’ ”
There are countless draws to an area once snubbed by the masses but now part of their social calendars. Boundary, for one, a renovated Victorian warehouse that opened in 2008 as an inspired retreat with a rooftop garden and bar, a British pantry and guest rooms themed on different designers (Eames) and styles (Bauhaus). And the Londonewcastle Project Space, a three-year-old art venue that recently exhibited candid photos of Noel Gallagher, the irascible singer -songwriter of Oasis. And for contemporary art groupies who find beauty in tortured cow heads, there’s White Cube Hoxton Square, the legendary hatchery of the Young British Artists.
“When you came here, it made you feel like you were part of an unknown London,” Kevin said.
Alas, this is no longer a lost neighborhood; it has been found. The migration moves on. Go east, young hipsters, go east.
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“East London has always been on the fringe, but now it’s pretty well explored,” said Andrew Merritt, who resembles a gentleman farmer from the 21st century. “You could say the Olympics is like the full stop rather than the capital letter.”
Merritt, with a team of partners and volunteers, runs Farm:Shop, an experimental gardening cafe in Dalston. Before 2010, the eastern district was not an easy hop away; a visit there required some strategic routing. However, as part of the London Olympics’ transportation enhancement plan, the organization added a London Overground link from Dalston to Central London, bridging a gap that many locals now eulogize. (I excuse myself from the debate; I took a double-decker bus.)
Dalston is the anti-twee. Its main drag, Kingsland Street, reminds you of the unglamorous side of life: the mop you need to buy for the kitchen, the sock drawer that needs replenishing, the laundry that is not going to wash itself. But pockets of whimsy enliven the landscape.
Housed in a former refugee shelter for Turkish women, Farm:Shop takes locavorism to the extreme. Its staff farms in the basement, the back yard, the former bedrooms and on the rooftop.
“We wanted to see how much food we could grow in a shop in the middle of London,” said Merritt, who opened the business with friends in July 2010.
In the main room, (edible) tilapia wiggle around in a tank that feeds into an aquaponic system sprouting Swiss chard, rocket (arugula), herbs and other salad staples. In the back, winter peas, peppers, kale and squash grow in a greenhouse constructed of scrap wood from Olympic Park. Mushrooms take over the cellar, and chickens cluck on the rooftop. Their coop overlooks a giant billboard for “The Lion King,” a sales pitch lost on a bunch of fowl.
“I wonder if the East End has run itself dry,” mulled the man who collects eggs from the top of a building. “The whole area is open to change.”
Change — for better or worse, richer or poorer — was coming. I could see it on the horizon.
Standing on the elevated platform of the Hackney Wick rail station, I looked beyond a grotty lot splashed with graffiti toward a massive bowl-shaped stadium docked like an extraterrestrial spaceship. One hopes it came in peace.
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Defeat was short-lived.
After I shared my tale of woe with a woman carrying an official clipboard, she jotted me down for the 10:30 a.m. shuttle departure. I sauntered off to the corner cafe to restore my electrolytes before the next activity.
Many groups offer tours of the park, but only one, the Olympic Delivery Authority, grants visitors access inside the secured gates. The group has connections.
“Well done for getting here,” said guide Joanna Head after we took our seats on the bus. “I know it was quite a task.” I checked under my seat for a gold medal, but it was bare.
Joanna started off with an abbreviated history of London and the Olympics, evincing an extra note of enthusiasm for 2012, which also brings the Paralympics (Aug. 29 to Sept. 9) to the city where they were conceived 54 years ago.
We drove in loops that provided front, back and side perspectives of the main venues, including the Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre, which swoops like Donald Trump’s hairpiece, and the 80,000-seat wedding ring, the Olympic Stadium. Presiding from on high was the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 377-foot-tall observation tower painted stop-sign red. Short of closing your lids, you can’t miss it.
“The Orbit is very much here for the eyes of the world to see and to draw them to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,” said Joanna, referring to the site by its post-Olympics name. “We want people to know it as well as they do the London Bridge and the London Eye.”
While workers scurry to finish in time, many are also looking ahead, to the park’s afterlife. The community will reclaim assorted structures for such civic uses as public housing, schools and sporting venues for local children. According to reports, the soccer (pardon me, football) team, West Ham, may relocate to Stratford, calling the stadium its home turf.
“The legacy is so vital,” Joanna said. “It is one of the reasons we won the bid, because we have everything in place for the park for 2013 and beyond.”
The organizers are also touting the more natural attractions, once buried beneath 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil and the toxic waters of the River Lea. The crew cleaned the soil six times, relocating 2,000 newts to safer grounds; sculpted hillocks and valleys; and planted more than 4,000 semi-mature trees. They also erected bird and bat boxes for some wing action.
“They don’t want this to be barren land,” Broadey said during a two-hour walking tour of the northern periphery that followed my bus excursion.
Indeed, London has achieved one major goal: nabbing the Summer Olympics. Can it accomplish another: to create Europe’s largest urban park in an area that once had a higher mortality and unemployment rate than the rest of the city?
Well, if a kid from Towson, Md., can win 16 swimming medals, perhaps dreams really can come true.
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After my tours, I was on my own. I couldn’t wait to explore . . . what?
The cranes led to nowhere, and the building developments were still, well, developing. I strolled into the Holiday Inn Express, an official sponsor, used the bathroom, then left. I noticed a steady flow of people carrying shopping bags; I followed them in reverse.
The Westfield Stratford City mall, which opened in September, could save East London, or at least pump up its economy. The retail behemoth is the largest shopping center in Europe, and you know how people flock to superlatives. A million folks visited in eight days; mall peeps-counters predict 20 million guests per year.
The complex is a sensory overload of 300 stores (80 percent are fashion-oriented), 70 restaurants, a casino, a cinema, hotels, lots of neon and the token illuminated tower. But it also has a sterling panorama of Olympic Park that becalms like a Zen garden.
The Bull Freehouse and Food Pub sits directly across the street from the eastern side of the park, but you’ll have to contend with boisterous tipplers for an unobstructed peek. For a quieter perch, go to the second floor of the department store John Lewis, which has set aside a room, with benches, for noncompetitive contemplation.
The space is just beyond the Summer Games souvenir shop (nice product placement) and a sign heralding the company’s status as “the official Department Store Provider to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” I rested on a wooden bench facing floor-to-ceiling windows and wondered whether I could reserve this seat for next summer. From here, I was certain, Michael Phelps could see my thumbs up.
I stayed until darkness fell, a still moment before the crew picked up their shovels again.
On my way to the train station, I took a quick detour into the shoe department, where I bought myself a pair of boots. I did it for the 2012 Olympics host city, for the people of East London — and for my equally deserving champion feet.