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On the strange nothingness of Stratford
by Yiannis Baboulias
“It was like living in a skyscraper in the middle of nowhere”. My friend had moved to the newly named East Village in Stratford immediately after the 2012 Olympics. Having just finished his masters, he was starting at a graduate position in the City.
Theoretically, this place was made exactly for people like him: young, ambitious professionals. The new glitzy Stratford promised to be the best of London; a new city of shiny high-rises and lively shopping experience. But something was missing. “There was just nothing around there”, he says. “I think there’s perhaps more now?”
He moved on a couple of years later, as did every person I spoke to: for them, Stratford was a temporary stop before moving on west to Hackney or further afield in Essex. It’s easy to see what might go amiss for people. The sight will be familiar to those who cross East London often, probably on a doomed trip to Westfield where they will most likely not find whatever they were looking for.
The change comes suddenly as you pass Bow Church. The church itself is as much of a contradiction as you can possibly get: seven centuries’ worth of history standing at the edge of the city’s latest transformation. Gladstone’s statue stands at the entrance of the churchyard, itself a historical landmark connecting the liberal PM to East London over an affair involving a tax on matches. And just beyond the church - the new Stratford.
Overpasses and bridges shoot up from the ground. The familiar brown brick is replaced by metal and glass. Small shops disappear, replaced by contemporary high rises designed with the character and grace of a dentist’s chair. This is what happens when developers forget where they are building and who they’re building it for. Stratford is not simply gentrified or renewed: it’s fundamentally out of place. How did this happen?
It’s all about that summer of 2012. If you were in London at the time, you probably remember it; a wave of panic about the city becoming unbearably busy convinced a lot of residents to flee while they still could. I stayed on but didn’t engage much with the neighbourhoods where the Games were taking place.
I spent most of my time hanging out in the wonderfully empty London, ignoring the Olympics. I also did my best to ignore the transformation that had been occurring a stone’s throw away from my Tower Hamlets home, even after the Games ended. But eventually, it hits you. The Lego-like buildings, the empty atmosphere, the presence of a cold and clinical orderliness that just doesn’t sit well with the place.
On the ground floor they host pseudo-pubs with names like “Binjuice”. Above them, heartless flats for the aforementioned recent graduates. And smack in the middle, the big beast: Westfield, a rich man’s idea of what the rest of us might like. I don’t spend much time here but, having lived in East London since the 2000’s, I can’t help but notice what was done here. This isn’t a neighbourhood.
This is nothing. A non-place. The Olympics didn’t create a new Stratford for Londoners; they created a commuter town in zone 2, built around a shopping centre. This is the actual town hall; the not-quite-beating heart of it all. It even has its own suburbs.
The very placement of Stratford makes the search for a new identity difficult. To the north, you have industrial estates; the Eurostar Engineering Centre for instance, train tracks and motorways. Then the Olympic park and facilities cut the area off from the land-hungry Hackney expansion, the Fish Island bars and the army of hipsters marching ever more eastwards in search of cheap housing and parties.
Then there are the developments themselves, squeezed together without a suspicion of high street, the remaining elements of old Stratford further down the road, reminding us that this was once an actual place. It’s a strangely 80’s idea of urban development, with the shopping mall as its centre. Who is this for?
According to the latest data, East London has seen a significant rise in income following the Olympics. This, however, has been at the expense of old residents, especially so in Stratford where entire estates were simply demolished and their residents moved on. The people who were offered some of the so-called affordable housing saw their rent soar, as the government defines “affordable” as 80% of the market rate, which is sky high to begin with.
I reached out to residents in the area; their feedback was mixed. Most agree that it is nice to see all the new stuff that’s now available to residents. The aquatic centre, the bike paths, these are all some distance from the rundown post-industrial estates of the recent past. But there is no community, at least not in the way there used to be. It’s difficult given that the area is now taking a familiar pattern: pockets of affluent residents, surrounded by the less fortunate who are not seeing many of the benefits of regeneration.
The GLC set out to regenerate Stratford way before the Olympics happened, way before the bid had even been won. The urgency of the Olympics however, gave developers a free hand to ignore some of their obligations. The same happened with housing associations and the council itself. No one covered themselves in glory exactly.
In the end, the result is one that every Londoner is now familiar with: displacement coupled with bland aesthetic savagery. The Olympics might have granted the area a lovely green space in the place of a brownfield, and housing for the up and coming professionals this city loves so much - but it isn’t a place recognisably our own.
Yiannis Baboulias is a freelance writer.
Pictures: raver_mikey / Ewan Munroe