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Going, going, gone: how Olympic legacy is killing London’s creative culture

Ever since the 1992 games in Barcelona, the idea of “legacy” has played a crucial role in the process of bidding for, and hosting, the Olympics. It’s easy to agree that investment and development for the Olympics should deliver benefits for residents of the host city in the long run. And it makes sense that Olympic infrastructure is built in areas that need improvement.

But in practice, it’s not always locals who benefit from the Olympic legacy. All to often, strict deadlines for delivery of Olympic infrastructure give authorities and developers a license to push urban regeneration plans through to approval with minimal consultation. In Beijing, for instance, 1.5m people were displaced to make space for Olympic venues. Meanwhile, in Rio, thousands of favela dwellers experienced violent evictions ahead of this year’s games.

Similarly – but somehow less famously – the Olympic Park developments for London 2012 involved the largest programme of legally enforced evictions in England. And it continues to this day.

Welcome to Hackney Wick

Hackney Wick and Fish Island is a quaint, former industrial area in east London, right at the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Old warehouses – many of which have been converted into spaces for living, working, eating and making – sit beside canals, and old-fashioned barges line the banks. Here, more than 600 artist studios and other small creative organisations have produced an ecosystem which nurtures innovation and creativity.

A creative idyll. Ilaria Pappalepore/University of Westminster, Author provided

Now this area is part of a major regeneration project and most of these artists feel under threat. Currently, one group of creatives based in Fish Island is fighting against the decision to demolish parts of the building where they live and work.

The building – Vittoria Wharf – is one of many which were subject to compulsory purchase before the games by the London Development Agency. Now, the London Legacy Development Corporation – the public company responsible for delivering Olympic-led regeneration in east London – looks set to carry out the demolition, in order to build a new footbridge to the Olympic Park.

A petition to save Vittoria Wharf from demolition has so far reached more than 5,600 signatures. But this action is unlikely to save the building – at best, it will give residents a few more months to make their case public. A local musician said to me: “I feel they almost treat us as Conquistadors treated native Americans, with no respect for our philosophies.”

Putting up a fight. Ilaria Pappalepore/University of Westminster, Author provided

These residents are aware of the well-documented cycle of gentrification, which sees deprived neighbourhoods initially inhabited by young artists, who are later displaced by established creative companies and middle-class residents.

New creative enclaves are commonly formed in cities this way over time. But in London, young artists worry that soon there will be nowhere left for them to go in the city. One of the residents of Hackney Wick told me that artists’ only option is to relocate to other parts of England – such as Margate on the east coast – or to go abroad, with Berlin the most popular option. With the average London house price pushing £472,000, and rent becoming prohibitively expensive in more and more boroughs, there is a real danger that low-income artists could be priced out.

Looking back at London 2012

Local artists’ difficulties with the legacy of the Olympics follows their disappointment with the games themselves. Research I conducted between 2010 and 2014 showed that the games had minimal positive impacts on local artists and other small creative organisations.

Many were disappointed by how difficult it proved for local artists and companies to take part in the cultural programme of London 2012. A key problem flagged up by my interviewees was the curators’ preference for internationally renowned artists over local ones. Unfortunately, this stems from the nature of mega-events, which are highly dependent on sponsorships and international media attention.

But as one cultural policy consultant interviewed for the research said:

[The cultural programme curators] saw themselves as trying to do something substantially different and of better quality and more international and a lot more contemporary than a lot of the practice they thought they were looking at in east London. Not to take seriously any of the talent that is on their doorstep, except around the edges and kind of cosmetically, seems to me to be fundamentally misdirected.

In Hackney Wick, organisers went so far as to remove graffiti by local artists, only to replace it with specially-commissioned pieces by international artists. In many ways, London missed an invaluable opportunity to promote local creativity.

Evocative art in Hackney Wick, by Edwin. Mabacan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For security reasons visitors were carefully marshalled between train stations and Olympic venues, which prevented them from wandering around the area. What’s more, the International Olympic Committee’s extremely restrictive copyright rules made it impossible for local artists to use Olympic-related symbols in their practice – although some did so anyway as a form of resistance.

A new cultural quarter?

Yet the Olympic regeneration programme did have a small number of positive outcomes for local residents. One of the very few aspects which seems to have been well received by the artists we spoke to is the plan for a culture and education district, to be built on the Stratford waterfront in the Olympic park by 2020.

This project – dubbed “Olympicopolis” by former London mayor Boris Johnson – was initially inspired by “Albertopolis”; the cultural cluster built in South Kensington following the Great Exhibition in 1851. The new cultural district will accommodate world class cultural and education institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Sadler’s Wells theatre, University College London (UCL) and London College of Fashion. Both UCL and the V&A have already liaised with local Hackney Wick artists, with a view to develop creative collaborations.

The project is expected to create 3,000 jobs, and contribute to the wider cultural legacy strategy for the Olympic Park, which is “centred around developing east London as a creative destination with an international reputation”.

But given what happened at London 2012, there’s a real risk that this new development could, once again, create a “tourist bubble” – a sanitised cultural island, completely separated from the local neighbourhood. Indeed, the plans for the new district – which were unveiled very recently – have already been described as “a cacophony of luxury stumps”.

Previous research has shown that successful creative areas are characterised by a diverse built environment, a bohemian look and the coexistence of people who produce and consume culture. Yet all of this already exists in Hackney Wick and Fish Island, thanks to a community which has been there since long before the Olympics. The question is – will it still be there in five years?

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