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August 24, 2009

The London Olympics: A Ride to Nowhere

The London 2012 map: Still a work in progress, but looking good. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

by Clive Irving

It's exactly three years to go for the London 2012 Olympics. How are the preparations going? From the air, the site looks impressively advanced. The shell of the deep bowl stadium is in place. The Olympic village is taking shape. And at the heart of the site the railroad station is impressive, indicating the ambitious infrastructure commitment. From ground level it is hard to get an overview. An official Webcam site makes it seem as appetizing as open-cast coal mining.

The geography of the Olympic Park has, from the moment that London won the games, been controversial. As early as the 1820s, London earned the label of The Great Wen (from the wonderful social critic and fiery polemicist William Cobbett) for its sprawling, formless growth and early industrial squalor. The city's social balance has always been loaded in favor of its western reaches. The smartest part of town remains the West End, around Mayfair and Knightsbridge; the poorest has forever been East London, stretching out from beyond the financial center called The City eastward, first into the former docklands, now largely gentrified, and then into a grim desert where bleak suburbs mingle with random industrial sites ranging from small workshops to horrendous oil and gas terminals.

It was into this eastern morass that the British government decided to drop the Olympic Park.

When you have to justify decisions of this scale and cost, all for an event that lasts for two weeks, and you are a politician, you always talk of "regeneration."  So it has been in London, where the plan is for the majority of the Olympic site to become, after the event, a gigantic public park.

London's mass transit system, a combination of complex bus routes, Tube lines, and suburban railroad lines, is over-strained. Nonetheless, much of it works well, particularly where visitors need it, in central London. But East London was always poorly served and the Olympics will, for sure, go a long way to changing that, particularly with a development called Crossrail, correcting an historic flaw in effective east-west railroad links, and giving Heathrow, for example, speedy links to the east.

But, if you are a visitor, to go where, exactly?

For the two weeks of the Olympics, given the security that will have to encircle the Olympic Park, mass transit will be the only way to reach the games. That should work. But any idea that after the Olympics, giant park or not, any travelers would want to enjoy the regenerated charms of East London will face an obstinate deterrent: East London.

Taking a two-hour car ride looping around the site, I saw little to suggest a sudden cultural flowering. There are pockets of vibrant, exotic local culture but the physical setting, open to the unrestrained winds from the English Channel as they whip across marshlands and wastelands and the grimness of some of England's worst urban housing is impossible to overcome.

Sadly, the only way to regenerate a lot of East London would be to raze it.

Further reading:
* Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor, on the hellhole of Heathrow's Terminal Five
* Read The Daily Beast for aviation expertise from Clive
* Dispatches: On the road


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