LONDON—The River Lea winds its way southeast from the industrial town of Luton to London's East End, where it drains into Thames a couple miles upstream of the ingenious tidal barrier that keeps the capital dry. A tame body of water by any account, the Lea disperses toward the end of its course into placid fingers that tickle the new Olympic Park.
Yet it was in these very waters that, late last year, a boater witnessed something alarming: Before his very eyes, Mike Wells, a local resident and an anti-Olympic activist, watched as a healthy goose was taken down into the admittedly modest depths of the Lea, never to resurface. As an experienced boatman, Wells quickly drew the only reasonable conclusion: that there was some sort of monster dwelling in the waterways around the Olympic Stadium.
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I recently traveled to the Olympic part of town to scope out the situation for myself. My visit begins, as it is beginning for millions of others now and over the next few weeks, at the new Stratford rail station, which, with its vast concourse and preponderance of glass and metal, feels more like a terminal at a major airport than an outpost of London's Victorian mass transit system.
"Suddenly, the bird just went vertically down into the water. I was absolutely gobsmacked. Whatever took it didn't come back up again. There was no sign of it whatsoever, but it was obviously pretty big."
From the station, I pass through Westfield—a conglomeration of major brand shops and chain restaurants that was touted, upon its recent opening, as the largest shopping center in Europe—and descend upon central Stratford, where I discover a very different kind of commerce. The crooked streets of this ancient town center are bustling. Vendors push mobile phones and accessories from stalls, and the odor of fried food is pervasive. Pubs that could be euphemistically described as unpretentious cater to a clientele who treads a continuous loop between the bars and the nearby bookmakers. A picturesque Georgian church sits in the middle of a hectic roadway, unperturbed by the flow of traffic that careers by on either side, the churchyard itself serving as an ersatz beer garden. The Stratford Center, the largely subterranean shopping center that was the prime local venue prior to the advent of Westfield, is more like a bazaar than a mall, reflecting, in a mishmash of enterprises ranging from real estate agents and dealers of airbrushed art to pawnbrokers and head shops, the overwhelmingly diverse character of London. The population of young people who stalk about the streets in vaguely post-apocalyptic gear shouting, eating, smoking, posturing, and blasting tinny music from their phones as they leer at everyone else suggests to me the cast of It's a Small World, grown up and now doing business as a loose and faintly criminal gang.
This corner of the East End is everything that London is, and that Westfield isn't: multicultural, chaotic, anti-orthogonal, and agitated, characterized by equal measures of good manners, good humor, and latent menace. Yet all around Stratford, something strange is afoot. As I wander away from the high street and back toward the Olympic Park, I'm struck by the superabundance of oddly plastic construction sprouting up everywhere. This ripening crop of skyscraping residential towers, with their munificent lobbies and sleek exteriors, already presents a surreal contrast to the previously dominant species of architecture in Stratford, which has been typified by the brutalist concrete council estate blocks which took over London's skyline in the decades following the Second World War. And this is the legacy which the Olympic organizers have promised for Stratford: the transformation of this haven of immigrants, laborers, up-and-comers, and lowlifes into another node for London's army of office workers, careerists who will be attracted to the area's new accessibility.
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There are two types of immutable boundaries in London: water and train tracks. Both separate Stratford from nearby Hackney Wick, where I will presently find myself. In the Victorian era, all the action was on the rails: it was here in Hackney Wick that the first murder on the nascent British railway system was committed, in an 1864 episode that would inflame the imagination of a voyeuristic public.
Now the river is where it's at. It was in this intermediary stretch of the River Lea that Mike Wells sat on the back deck of his canal boat one day last year, drinking coffee with friends and watching a passing goose. "Suddenly," he would later tell the Hackney Citizen, "the bird just went vertically down into the water. I was absolutely gobsmacked. Whatever took it didn't come back up again. There was no sign of it whatsoever, but it was obviously pretty big." (This sent a local artist named Stik into the following flight of fancy: "Beneath the surface of the Lea, in the shadow of the London 2012 stadium, swims something big and hungry. It may struggle to keep its head above water this winter but at least it'll be having goose for Christmas!")
Wells himself is a bit of a Hackney Wick archetype. Having embraced an alternative, waterbound lifestyle in this eclectic and permissive borough, he feels that he's now been edged out of his habitat by this most international of events that has landed on his doorstep. In an interview with the Guardian, Wells suggested that the Olympics were in the process of forcing him and other boaters who lived on the Lea to find other places to park their homes during the games. He went so far as to describe the relocation of homes that are, admittedly, mobile as a form of "social cleansing."
Hackney Wick is about as close to the Olympic Park as you can get right now without paying quite a bit and sacrificing things that some people consider human rights. I eventually find myself there by way of a series of security checkpoints—as I get frisked by personnel disconcertingly dressed as construction workers, I feel like I'm going to a nightclub inside an airport terminal. This odd little neighborhood offers a third version of London's East End: consisting of a smattering of operational light industrial plants and abandoned then rediscovered warehouses, the atmosphere is, despite the ghosts of a classist past, distinctly bohemian.
The American press has sometimes attempted to construe Hackney Wick as some sort of impoverished backwater, but this is a complete misunderstanding of what's really happening here. At least since the 1990s, the large workspaces left over from the area's Victorian roots have been attracting flocks of artists—the American analog would be, roughly, New York's SoHo in the 1970s—and the dilapidation evident here is somewhat cultivated, perhaps even slightly affected. This is a stronghold of slackers and oddballs, but they're part of a self-aware community, a demographic marked by its education and its expressiveness. Yes, the walls are covered in graffiti, but the quality of the artistry is high, and the content tends to be satirical and political. If the area is noisy, it's with the racket of bands practicing, with the clamor of sculpture being constructed. In general, an ambience of an unlicensed party on the verge of eruption presides.
The situation in Hackney Wick illustrates the nuances that face the Olympic project in the East End. This is not the familiar narrative of native displacement by corporate force; rather, the Olympics are just the latest and most overt in a long line of newcomers who have tried to reshape this part of the city. From the Irish and Jews who faced off with Oswald Mosley's fascist blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 to the South Asians who have confronted the right-wing extremists of the English Defense League in Whitechapel over the past several years, each new wave of occupants has woven itself into the fabric of the locality. The latent tensions are multilateral and convoluted; here, the identification of a mutual adversary is never suitable justification for an alliance, and appeasing one faction would only mean earning the enmity of all the others. These are the waters into which the Olympics have swum, big and hungry.
Perhaps recognizing this inextricable conflict goes some way toward explaining the strangeness that, upon closer inspection, is evident in the rejuvenation allegedly emanating from the Olympic Park. Outside Westfield, a digital fountain offers a roughly pixilated representation of a cascade, with loudspeakers actually broadcasting a recording of flowing water. What's that about? And why has the new shopping center gone out of its way to associate itself with Britain's favorite provocateur Tracey Emin, notorious for her raunchy conceptual art?
Indeed, the Olympics in general seem to be courting an unlikely gang of previously subversive artists, people like Chris Ofili, infamous for the elephant-dung Virgin Mary that riled Rudy Giuliani so, and Bob and Roberta Smith, who is actually a single individual who used to be known for painting controversial slogans. Emin, Smith, and Ofili were all part of a high profile group recently commissioned to create posters celebrating the Olympic spirit—or, depending on your outlook, excusing the festering corporatism of it all.
Could it be the Olympic organizers are pandering to the hipster demographic of Hackney Wick? After all, for all their affected shagginess and proclamations of deprivation, this is an influential group of people in multiple senses. For one thing, they tend to be young and well educated and are often employed in potentially lucrative creative industries, which means that there's money to be spent in Hackney Wick, money that is definitely not going toward home improvements. Furthermore, this is an expressive component of society, and the appropriation or at least containment of this expressiveness might be good for the broader Olympic cause. The tame installations in and around Westfield and the optimistic official artworks certainly stand in stark contrast to the anti-corporate graffiti that recently appeared at the Millennium Mills, a site just a couple miles south of the Olympic Park that has been reinvigorated by a group of well-known street artists as part of a broader, typically East End experiment in culture and hedonism. Nonetheless, the Olympics seem to have succeeded in at least dividing and therefore diluting the opinions of Hackney's outspoken counterculture.
This strategy of partial appeasement and diffusion has been the trademark of the Olympics. In Stratford and elsewhere, youth culture is already in thrall to the Olympic-corporate complex, having accepted the supremacy of corporate branding, with its myth of individualism overriding any sense of community. Westfield presents itself as an outlet for the acquisitive aspirations that accompany fantasies of empowerment and heroism, while the apartment blocks rising up all around the neighborhood suggest a quieter way of life, offering a safe place to horde your stuff. The Games themselves, in their flamboyant internationalism, would seem to jibe with the ethos of this great, complex, absorptive city. The difference, though, is that where life in London is vivid and poignant, full of risk and caprice, the Olympic vision seems to offer something muted, programmed, and deadening. This is probably the only feasible strategy for a campaign of reinvention in an area that is already exploding with inventiveness, already supersaturated with lifestyles: to resist taking any sides at all, to straddle the barriers between different groups and smudge the lines between inclusiveness and conformity, proffering mass consumerism as an acceptable substitute for social participation.
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Toward the end of my small tour of the Olympic part of town, I visit the Smokehouse Gallery, situated on the second story of a building that, unlike most of Hackney Wick, is brand new. The gallery itself is the upshot of Olympic displacement, the owners of the H. Forman & Son salmon factory having parlayed a relocation settlement into the creation of a new high-spec complex including this large exhibition space. Inside, surrounded by the flickering lights of a well-presented but poorly attended installation of short and apparently plotless videos, I meet William Chamberlain, the founder and director of the gallery. Charming and approachable, Chamberlain is happy to spend a few minutes sitting with me discussing what he sees happening in this part of London—and his vision is a rosy one. He thinks that the economic gravity of the Olympics can be directed into benefits for local communities and cites his own gallery as well as funding for other local arts projects as examples of this. Through programs that will, for instance, encourage young people to participate in sports, Chamberlain believes it's possible to use the Olympic legacy to promote a more inclusive version of the East End.
Outside, along the banks of the Lea, an impressive sequence of graffiti offers a different version of the story. Amid the hyper-chromatic mélange of angry monkeys, gummy teeth, and alter-alphabetic exclamations typical of London's vibrant street art scene, expressions of pointed outrage have begun to appear, like the stenciled slogan, "Everyone Here Hates the Olympics." The river itself is placid, and, in its stillness, dirty: Litter is accumulating, and the hedonistic proclivities of the East End are in evidence, in particular in the form of spent condoms and empty dime bags that seem to be drifting everywhere. I've failed to find any sign of a goose-eating beast lurking in the water today, and indeed it's hard to imagine how anything could survive in all that fetid muck. But across the river, behind the high fences and security cameras that surround the Olympic Park, the stadium rises up above Hackney Wick. With its brace of cantilevered tubes jig-jagging around its perimeter, it resembles nothing more than an enormous, toothy maw rearing up out of the marshes, lurching toward this tangled little neighborhood, intent on swallowing it all.
Putting all that behind me, I meander upstream. Past old factories and then a series of housing estates, the footpath gradually takes on a more bucolic aspect. Near where the river works its way along the edge of the vast football pitches of the Hackney Marshes, I come across a mooring hosting a solitary houseboat. All along the bank facing side of this traditionally British vessel, someone has spraypainted a thought-provoking phrase in towering cursive letters: "Fuck the Olympics."
Stephen McGregor is our 2012 Olympics correspondent. He lives in Camberwell, South London, where he's been working on something big for a long time.