Ghost Town: A visit to East Village and the new Olympic Park.

I’ve taken a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park wish some friends. It’s grim.

We approached the thing from the North, from Hackney Marshes. I get the impression that this isn’t something you’re supposed to do. First off, you have to get across this fearsome looking road junction: – but this is just the beginning. To enter via the rear end of the olympic park is to be transplanted into a strange and alien landscape:

I admire the hardiness of the lone jogger coming towards me on the footpath, but it doesn’t scream a welcome for pedestrians. Still, maybe they can’t be held responsible if we decide to stroll in through the service entrance … maybe. After all, there’s the biggest new park to be made in London for 100 years or something around here. We pick our way through the concrete and tarmac. It’s a grey day, and we find a load of freshly laid turf amongst some earth movers, we must be here:

It’s freshly landscaped, and completely empty. If everyone had to approach it by the same route that I did, I’m not surprised, and it’s set behind what seems to be a solid wall of housing. Jon says that it looks posh, I say that it looks like a rebuilt version of Kowloon Walled City, an uneven collection of buildings that seem to form a wall from a distance, passages only opening to the eye when you come closer to it. It dominates the park:

It’s a strange feeling, the whole thing is clearly unfinished. There’s coloured hoarding and statements about the history of the area:  the infamous fridge mountain and striking match girls. The flats are empty, disconnected from Stratford proper by rivers and Westfield, and disconnected to the north by massive roads and Hackney Marshes, this is a park without a community, the obviously new turf seems symbolic. It hasn’t bedded in yet. It’s a strange thing, a place built all at once, not quite finished, balconies still covered top to bottom in netting almost as if the shrink wrap hasn’t been taken off yet. There is a fully exciting looking adventure playground, and it’s already starting to get used. It’s got some really weird and unusual stuff, including a set of hand-pumps that send water through a load of artificial channels and eventually into a drain. I imagine there’s some fun, philosophical explanation for all this, but the kids don’t seem to mind. I also notice that a good portion of the lampposts have little CCTV cameras on them, and that there are burly, bored looking security guards wandering around.

Then we come across something that seems very strange for a park:

And I thought we were done with seas of tarmac! Note the electric fence to the left of the frame. I didn’t seem to be surrounding anything interesting, I guess it’s a not yet cleared up Olympic legacy. We’re still in event-space, this is a path that was clearly built to deal with a lot of people. In between? You can see that it looks pretty empty.

It’s hard to know what this place will really turn into, filled with empty flats and show flats, it’s an exercise in imagination. The thing is, I just can’t imagine living here, or what sort of community would form. A landscape dominated by a gigantic shopping centre, gigantic apartment blocks, gigantic walkways that dilute any human contact that I might have on it.

It feels functional, a stack of boxes sitting on a load of transport. The marketing suite, a sort of bizarre museum of the future, tries to fill in some of the gaps for us, selling a lifestyle that no-one is yet living, selling the possible to a researched client base. All of the objects in the various dioramas were well stuck down, nature, transport, homeliness, all can be yours for £375 a week for a two bedroom flat.

We left after accidentally starting a row between an agent from the part-rent-part-buy company and the all-rent company. The aggressor paused mid-berate to wish us well as we fled. Through Westfield, over the railway, past the monotone African Preacher, through the Stratford Centre. Passing by people living the lives they had now. What a relief.