Stratford's Gentrification Olympics A Mixed Blessing for London's East End

Stratford in east London, near the Olympic park, has undergone a massive investment drive to pretty it up in time for the Games, and now boasts Europe's largest shopping center. But the regeneration of one of Britain's poorest areas threatens to leave long-time residents out in the cold.

DPA

Emerging from one of the many subway, bus and train connections that stop at Stratford's train station, a visitor has two options. Either follow the pink signs to the Olympic Park through the Westfield shopping center, past an Apple Store, a Lego shop and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's new restaurant. That's the new Stratford.

Or walk across the street into a dilapidated shopping mall from the 1970s. The Stratford Center is the gateway to High Street, the main thoroughfare of this immigrant neighborhood. There's no Starbucks here. This is the old Stratford.

The two Stratfords don't have a lot to do with each other. Though they live side by side, they eye each other suspiciously. Aytac Ataser hasn't seen much of the tourists who flock to the Olympic Park. "Recently a few Japanese tourists were here," says the 50-year-old manager of a café on the High Street. But since Westfield opened eight months ago, fewer people have come to the old Stratford. Ataser's sales have slumped by 50 percent. Other stores have already closed down.

The Neighborhood's New Center of Gravity

The opening of Europe's biggest shopping center here has messed up the local economy. "The morning trade has collapsed," complains fruit seller Reggie Metcalfe. He puts his stall up every day at 7 a.m., three hours before Westfield opens. But his sales have dropped 30 percent.

When asked what the Olympic Games have brought to the district, most residents mention Westfield. Even though planning permission for the center was issued before London made its bid to host the Olympics, most people here associate the shopping center with the games. "For young people it's the new place to hang out," says Neil Fraser, a teacher. "Finally there's something to do in Stratford."

The shabbiest corners of London were always in the east. In his book, "Over the Border: The Other East End," Fraser tells the story of the rapid industrialization of the area from the 19th century to the construction of the Olympic Stadium. Previously the area was the industrial heart of the city. It was where ships unloaded their wares and where smoke billowed from factory chimneys. The decline of the dockyards and local industry caused chronic unemployment and social problems. About 20,000 of the 240,000 residents of the borough of Newham, where Stratford is located, are classified as being long-term unemployed.

The Olympic Games were supposed to revive the neglected area. But most people see no upturn. Even though the city landscape has been prettied up with new sidewalks and trees, the socio-economic indicators remain bleak. The income gap between Newham and the rest of London widened between 2006 and 2011, according to a London School of Economics study.

Even since the Olympic bid, unemployment here has risen here more sharply than in the rest of the city. The shopping center did create 10,000 new jobs, but 200 firms had to move to make way for it, so thousands of jobs disappeared.

As Poor As Ever

The Olympic park is the second major renovation project in East London after the construction of the new financial district Canary Wharf in the 1990s. But it's questionable who will benefit from the millions invested here. Even Canary Wharf hasn't created a trickle-down effect, says Fraser. There has been no economic upturn for the lower social classes. The surrounding neighborhoods are as poor as ever.

That is why Fraser is skeptical about the promises made by the Olympics planners. But even he doesn't deny that the games have give Stratford a new status. When he moved here 20 years ago from the north of England, none of his friends knew the area. Today the name is on everyone's lips, he says. The area has become so popular that even he, on his teacher's salary, can no longer afford a house here.

Stratford's fame is attracting middle class people for whom the neighboring trendy borough of Hackney has becoming too expensive, says Nick Verdi from real estate broker Keatons. The house prices in Stratford are, however, still relatively cheap, he says.

Thousands of new apartments were built for the Olympic village and next year there will be 2,800 flats for sale. But with entry level prices of 250,000 pounds ($388,000) for a three-room apartment on High Street, they are unaffordable for the vast majority of people in Newham.

Verdi therefore estimates that neighborhood gentrification will take its course. Stratford is lagging about 15 years behind Hackney, he says. The new park and shopping center are, in his view, precursors to a better educated and financially stronger population.

Long established residents, such as fruit seller Metcalfe, feel displaced by the newcomers. He doesn't know how much longer he can hold out: many of his colleagues in the old Stratford Center have already given up.

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