The Hungry Games

by Misha Lepetic

Success comprises in itself the seeds of its own decline
and sport is not spared by this law.
~Pierre de Coubertin

Tae_kwon_do-AthensAs we helplessly hurtle towards the next inflammation of the Olympic Games, some notes on the effects of the Games on the built environment might be in order.

The Olympics may pretend to be the premier competition among nation-states, but their physical manifestation is always sited within the city. Given that cities are, by their very nature, already crowded places, something must give when, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, the immovable object of the city meets the irresistible force that is the Olympic Games. Furthermore, once the Olympic hurricane blows through town, what are the long-term consequences?

This can be divided into three fairly discreet phenomena: the forced relocation of populations that suddenly find themselves “in the way” of breathlessly ambitious master plans; the design, construction and fetishization of dozens of state-of-the-art facilities for a few days’ worth of competitions; and the long, drawn-out consequences of deciding (or, more accurately, not deciding) what to do with these facilities once the athletes, media and sponsors have moved on to pastures greener.

Concerning the London Olympics, the British have wisely decided to avoid attempting to match the grandeur of Beijing’s opening ceremony, instead settling on a “pastoral theme”: as such, the opening salvo promises to be a melancholy spectacle of faded empire and is rumored to feature 12 horses, 70 sheep and 10 chickens. But neither are the British close to matching Beijing’s scale of disrupted lives and relocations, which was ultimately estimated by Reuters to be in the neighborhood of 1.5 million people. (It should be mentioned that eviction is not exclusively the provenance of the Olympics: the Azerbaijani government’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision song competition was seen as a good opportunity to forcibly evict hundreds of people from the neighborhoods on or near the land for the new Crystal Hall.)

But moving beyond the pastoral overture, perhaps the defining aspect of London’s Olympic narrative is that of revitalization under the rubrics of “green” and “sustainability.” The British seem to be offering a riposte to the spendthrift exuberance of an ascendant, eastern empire and instead are embracing simpler times–or perhaps just austerity. Certainly there are intriguing aspects to the plan. For example, anticipating no further significant domestic evolution in the sport, the basketball arena has been designed as an explicitly temporary structure, and as such is meant to be disassembled fairly easily. While perhaps less kind to architects’ egos, this type of design could set an important precedent for future Olympic architecture. Following the end of the Games, the large pedestrian bridges over the River Lea will be narrowed to dimensions more commensurate with quotidian urban foot traffic. And there will be plenty of foot traffic, as the only option for arriving to the Games will be by public transport. Finally, vast portions of the 90-acre Olympic Park will be reverted to wetland, which will help mitigate London’s stormwater runoff problems.

Olympic_parkSo what’s not to love about this Olympic Park, “the largest new urban parkland in Europe for 150 years”? To hear Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG, with the “P” curiously absent), talk about it, “the vision to regenerate the Lower Lea Valley's former brownfield areas into a “water city” of revitalized canals, waterways and green spaces” seems worthy of our unconditional support, if not outright adulation.

Except the fact is that, as I’ve hinted above, there is already something there. Newham is the East London neighborhood currently slated for this improvement. But before taking a closer look at Newham, we ought to declare the true subject of the narrative. It is not sustainability, or green-ness, or revitalization that is the enabler of these games; it is, rather, gentrification. And yet, the term itself has slipped. It is instructive to note the reasons for this.

Tom Slater of the University of Edinburgh, who is the academy’s resident avenging angel of gentrification, wrote in “The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research” (Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2006) that “the perception is no longer about rent increases, landlord harassment and working-class displacement, but rather street-level spectacles, trendy bars and cafes, i-Pods, social diversity and funky clothing outlets.” That is, the subject of research and therefore awareness, is the arriviste population. On the other hand, what makes the process of gentrification possible is displacement; we simply cannot understand gentrification without understanding who–or what–has been displaced. Moreover, “it is difficult to find people who have been displaced, particularly if those people are poor…. By definition, displaced residents have disappeared from the very places where researchers and census-takers go to look for them.” In a very real sense, the identities and narratives of these individuals and communities are erased wholesale from the historical record.

I would further extend Slater’s critique to include the contention that the rhetoric of sustainability has been recruited for the the purpose of further obfuscating these uncomfortable truths. That is, when we say “sustainable urban renewal” we mean “gentrification,” but what we really (still) mean is “displacement.”


Back to Newham, then. Writing in a recent issue of Visual Studies entirely dedicated to exploring the consequences of the Olympic visitation, Jacqueline Kennelly and Paul Watt consider the socioeconomic background of Newham:

The east London borough of Newham has the youngest age structure in England and Wales; around 30% of Newham’s population are children and young people under the age of 20. Newham also has the second most diverse population in the UK, with 70% of residents being non-white. The 2008 School Census recorded 144 distinct languages spoken at home and Newham is thought to have the highest population of refugees and asylum seekers in London. The employment rate stands at just 56.2%, the lowest of any London borough, and significantly below the London average rate of 62.7%; the unemployment rate for minority ethnic residents in the borough (14.5%) is more than double that of the white population (6.7%). Not surprisingly, Newham has one of the highest rates of child poverty in London, and is one of the top 10 most deprived boroughs in London and nationally. (Kennelly & Watt, pp151-2)

Dorley-Brown_Roach_RoadClearly, despite its diversity and youth (or perhaps of it) Newham could use a good, old-fashioned urban intervention. It is easy for us to be morally opposed to a profit-driven developer’s usurpation of a neighborhood when that neighborhood is described to us in a rich fashion, as was the case in Brooklyn vs. Rattner. But when a neighborhood remains undescribed, it is susceptible to an easy erasure. A community that cannot resort to the fairly clinical statistics mentioned above, let alone its own poets and pickle-makers, stands a poor chance indeed.

In the case of Newham, it is the discourse of sustainability that conveniently renders invisible its rich milieu. It is in the interest of planners, sponsors and lazy journalists to substitute the word “brownfield” for the above description. It is then cognitively facile for us to think of a “brownfield” as a category containing decrepitude, abandonment, pollution and perhaps a few bums pushing around shopping carts half-filled with scrap metal. It is also much more difficult to be asked to choose between an ecologically rich and restored wetland, etc, and the prospect of entire communities uprooted from their native geography, than to be asked to choose between that same community and a greedy developer. And it is especially difficult to choose when the community is not even considered by the media.

The purpose of Kennelly and Watts’s article is to provide exactly what Slater declares is missing from the dialogue: the voices of the about-to-be-dispossessed. In this case, the authors provided youth around the neighborhood with cameras and urged them to create photographic documentation of their homes and lives, and the changes that they see manifesting around them.

One of the most prominent developments in the Stratford area is Westfield Stratford City, a high-end shopping mega-mall, which will form the de facto entrance to the 2012 Olympics for 70% of visitors to the London Games…There was also considerable bewilderment on the part of the participants who did not understand why their neighbourhood, which they knew to be one of the poorest in London, needed such a large, expensive shopping centre. (Kennelly & Watt, p153)

It ought to be mentioned that Newham already has a mall. Even though Stratford Centre is smaller, its food court, 99p stores and chain stores are priced within the means of its residents, and the area’s youth socialize within the mall’s public spaces. However, Stratford Centre abuts the new mall’s property, and is closing down as a result of the new tenant’s arrival. In the meantime, those residents are left to ponder where they will be able to shop in their neighborhood, since many high street shops have been ramping up their offerings and prices in anticipation of the Games and their aftermath.

One possible answer to this, of course, is employment. In fact, employment opportunity is a regular canard held out by developers and officials in justifying costly projects, and the Olympic Games’s mega-renewal program is unsurprisingly not exempt from this. Estimates for permanent employment as a result of the new Stratford shopping complex range from 10,000 to 18,000 jobs. And yet, Kennelly and Watts note that the new shopping center suffered from the over-subscription to the tune of “12,000 people interested in 800 John Lewis positions, 10,000 people applying for 550 Marks and Spencer’s jobs, and 1400 applications for 150 Waitrose vacancies.” As a result, few local people have managed to secure work, making their imminent departure even more likely.

Dorley-Brown_StadiumThe additional pressure of rises in the prices of the housing market further anticipate the clientele that will be able to take advantage of London’s newest “urban parkland” and make it even less likely that the original inhabitants of Newham will stand much of a chance of enjoying that same parkland themselves. Instead, many of the youth interviewed by Kennelly and Watts were left unemployed and waiting “in a state of limbo for an offer of scarce social housing.” One can virtually see the cycle of learned helplessness begin its long, slow trajectory anew.

Projects such as Kennelly and Watts’s are important qualitative records of how communities are sacrificed on the altar of regeneration. They are even more powerful when the words are the community’s own, spoken in its own voice. It may allow future investigators to establish the causes of some still-unmanifested social unrest. Decisions taken today sow the seeds for the failure of public housing tomorrow, but understanding the terms of displacement that drove people to these buildings in the first place is also essential. While it seems inevitable that many of Newham’s residents will soon be dispersed, the erasure of their stories is not guaranteed. The narrative of London–green, sustainable and revitalized–may once again carry the day, but other traces will remain.

So what is to be done? In the case of the Olympics, perhaps not much–the juggernaut rolls on, ever-expansive in its grasp. London will just have to hold its nose. Perhaps the best that we can do is the further dissemination of design practices like temporary buildings, in the interest of bequeathing a smaller footprint once the Games have ended their brief dalliance. In the meantime, it is instructive to look at other cities’ attempts at similar revitalization: Michael Kimmelman’s fascinating portrait of the resurrection of the Bronx River illustrates a tapestry of actions created by enterprising individuals and community groups; adroit city agencies are playing catch-up and recruiting interesting and germane work from landscape architects and designers. Together, these groups and the individuals they serve deepen the weave of the urban fabric and create resilience and opportunity that is economic, social and environmental. In fact, the South Bronx River seems to be evolving into exactly the “‘water city’ of revitalized canals, waterways and green spaces” that Sebastian Coe anticipates for Newham. But this is change that cannot be generated by the deus ex machina that is the Olympics of the 21st century, whose every iteration removes the Games one step further from Pierre de Coubertin’s ideal.

Thus, New Yorkers can now breathe easy that in 2005 the International Olympic Committee overlooked their city for London (for that matter, so can Chicago). There is plenty to be done, and the work is slow and painstaking. But the task of city-making is too important to be left to the mercurial whims of a traveling circus, bound to leave town before the paint on the walls has even dried.

(final two pictures by Chris Dorley-Brown (2012): The Cut, Visual Studies, 27:2, 120-125)