London is bracing itself. The 2012 Summer Olympics officially begin on July 27 and the capital of a country known for bumbling self-consciousness is about to have the eyes of the world upon it.
Eager to get a sense of the preparations, I headed toward the area of the city where the games will take place, setting off toward Stratford on the underground via the Bromley-by-Bow station. When I emerged from the Tube, I was south of Olympic Park, facing a series of row houses, a highway and a decrepit apartment building. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)
My first thought: "Really?"
First impressions are just that, so I embarked on an Olympic tour. These tours have been running for years -- ever since the Olympics were granted to London -- but the route of each tour has varied as different areas get closed due to security concerns. The closest our tour could get to the aquatics center was a large gate, which I pressed myself against, eager to get a better view.
Olympic Park lies in Stratford, which is home to more artists per square foot than any other part of London and boasts a stunningly youthful population: 40 percent of the population is aged 25 and younger. Though cranes and construction dot the streets and new apartment buildings pop up everywhere, the area -- much like the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village of yore -- prides itself on keeping the hubbub of central London at bay.
There are 101 languages spoken, but the area has struggled to meet health and education needs, according to my accredited tour guide, the appropriately named Maitland Simpson.
London authorities are banking on the Olympics to revitalize the area. After the Games, Olympic Park will become known as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Visit London, the city's tourism agency, forecasts that the 2012 Olympics will funnel an additional 1.3 to 2.2 billion pounds into London's tourism economy. How much of that money will end up in the pockets of local merchants is unclear.
Corporations big and small are arriving every day. The massive grocery chain Tesco is tearing down its local store and building schools, apartments and even a hotel for the area. Inter Ikea Group, parent company of the Swedish furniture giant, is shelling out hundreds of millions of pounds on "Strand East," a 26-acre mixed-use project that will create sustainable family homes near the park. A brand new, state-of-the-art mall by Westfield will serve as the "official shopping center" for the Games. The retail giant claims that the mall, which has some 240 stores, numerous restaurants and a food court, comes in at a whopping 1.9 million square feet and is the largest urban shopping center in Europe.
Investment aside, everything about the games seems recyclable. From the medical center to the park itself, everything will have an afterlife. The area is betting on both the Games and their legacy.
Stratford is famous for being home to 3 Mills, one of England's earliest industrial centers. Grain mills flourished here thanks to an abundance of water. 3 Mills is now London's largest film and TV studio, but it is also England's oldest-surviving industrial center. As we walked the grounds, performers entered and exited through the blue door of the studio. It was here that parts of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Batman Begins" were filmed.
The studio is also where director Danny Boyle is preparing the Olympics' Opening Ceremony, the preamble of which starts at 8:12 p.m. (20:12 in England time). The theme is "Isles of Wonder" and the performance is slated to feature the largest bell in the U.K, two facts that hardly qualify as spoilers.
Because 3 Mills has had canals for centuries, importing parts for the games was quite easy. Organizers built walkways along the many waterways of the Bow Back canal system, uncovering a ticking World War II bomb as they excavated.
Surrounding 3 Mills Studio is the Abbey Mills pumping station, an 1800s structure that was used to carry waste from North London and is now a tourist attraction in its own right. There are steel pingpong tables and a seating area by the canal, as well as a landscaped area where I could see children playing in the dreary weather. Though the area has hardly been domesticated -- a sewage plant sits near the park -- it now feels ideal for family outings.
Locals are wondering what this area will look like after the Games. If organizers have their way, the former industrial area will likely lose its rugged edge. Where rows of stone homes line the canal, there may soon be apartment buildings for the upwardly mobile.
City organizers predict that 11,000 new homes will be built in the area thanks to the games. While Stratford lies some 20 minutes from the more popular tourist attractions like Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, excellent transportation options make an argument for the choice of location. If organizers can clean up the neighborhood while maintaining some of its rough and tumble charm, they might succeed in making it an attraction.
Past the canals of 3 Mills Studios, some of the structures built for the games come into view. The "Waste Paper Basket," as locals have dubbed the wood and metal sculpture built in collaboration by the architecture firm ARC-ML and engineers at eHRW, will light up at night. The "Waste Basket," it seemed to me, was meant to stand as a beacon for the area, a pre-Olympics treat for a post-Olympic neighborhood.
After the athletes leave and the tenting is broken down and handed out to emergency relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the Olympic stadium will shrink in size until it can only host some 40,000 spectators. Local teams are expected to vie for the right to play inside. In England, a soccer team can fundamentally change the fortunes of a neighborhood.
The architectural signature of the games is Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal "Orbit," which officially opened Friday. Kapoor created the Orbit, which organizers want to be the Eiffel Tower of London, using 2,000 tons of steel. The metal was obtained by the city when London Mayor Boris Johnson struck up a conversation with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in a coatroom.
Organizers expect that some 800,000 attendees will see Kapoor's structure every day of the Games. Four fifths of that traffic will come through the Stratford stop on the London Underground's Central Line. Others will ride toward the sculpture on canal-borne water chariots -- an Olympic name if ever there was one -- from Limehouse Basin. Most will presumably snap pictures of London's newest monument.
In the grey morning light, the Orbit reminded me of the former World's Fair globe in Queens. Both seem out of place geographically, yet both remind us of a time of hope, of planning and of a future.
Book a trip to London for the 2012 Olympic Games here.