To reach Olympic Park in East London, I had to battle those fierce and unforgiving competitors, Time and Chaos.
The race to the venue, and the starting line of the tour, required pan-athletic skills: gymnastics (leaping off the train and landing on the platform), judo (wrestling down a cab), tennis (a verbal volley with a disoriented driver) and track and field (a mad 100-yard dash from the Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner to the visitors center). Steps from the finish, the shuttle drove right past me, crushing any hope of victory.
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.