JULY BLOG A Walk in Olympic Park

 

As Londoners we are used to buildings crowding out the sky, the constant friction of human traffic, the barrage of  audio-visual noise which cuts into our  thoughts and counterpoints our   conversations on the street.   And so we cocoon  ourselves  inside little immersive techno-bubbles which are just as invasive, but at least of our own choosing, and we seek out little niches of tranquillity amidst the urban buzz: churches,  squares, unfrequented places and of course parks, so many refuges from the oppressive circumstances of everyday city  life.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is not a refuge from the city, it is a prospect on it. The first  impression as you walk onto it from the main entrance  is of an infinitely  expansive space,  a series of vistas  that pull the eye to a  skyline dominated by the iconic landmarks of financial power clustered around Canary Wharf and the old City of London. With the exception of the Arcelor Mittal Tower, whose convulsive grab at the sky  is an eccentric reminder of pre-recession Olympic hubris, the legacy buildings hug the ground, as if wanting to merge into the landscape, to subsume  their architectural identities  in some unifying organic vision of  public space.

The park is divided  into clearly demarcated zones, with spaces designated for particular kinds of permitted activity: you play here, walk  there, run and cycle over there, spectate at these points. The main principle of articulation is provided by  the wide paths  that circumnavigate the park. To describe them as paths  suggests  something intimate and  even mysterious, but these are broad arteries which evoke crowds, processions, parades, marches, even demonstrations. They would be boulevards if there were shops along them and to walk along them unthronged, as they were on this weekday,  is a somewhat eerie  experience. I noticed that the  few visitors there were, joggers, cyclists, some elderly flaneurs and the ubiquitous Japanese tourists, clung to the edges  of these highways  as if expecting a sudden deluge of   people or cars.

The park itself is open access day and  night but is heavily patrolled. Everywhere you go there are CCTV cameras and security guards either on foot  or in buggies. Two of the security staff I interviewed  boasted that it was the most securitised park in the world  with total coverage 24/7. There are simply no blind spots where you are unobserved. One local from the nearby Carpenters Estate  described it as ‘like an open prison’ but his two friends were more appreciative, citing the reinstatement of allotments and the cheapness of the Aquatic Centre as examples of how the LLDC had listened and accommodated  their demands.

Whether or not a distinctive night time  economy of use will develop remains to be seen, but there seems to be little opportunity   for pursuing   illicit forms of pleasure, like smoking a joint, or engaging in a  sexual romp al fresco. LOCOG  may have used the taggers art to promote a ‘hip’‘image for 2012  and ‘inspire a generation’, but  there is not a graffito in sight. Urban explorers and place hackers will steer well clear, though they may be tempted by the tunnels  which run  under the site. Equally the park is unlikely to become a gay cruising ground, like parts of Hampstead Heath, because, irrespective  of the strict surveillance measures, there is just not enough cover. As for  more conventional  forms of recreation, although there are no signs saying ‘no fishing, no swimming, no flying of kites or model airplanes’, the byelaws prohibit these and many other activities. Strangely there is no open air table tennis  or chess, even though one is an Olympic sport and the other aspires to be.

Given the fact that the Olympic legacy venues remain potential terrorist targets, the focus on security is inevitable, yet more generic, but still draconian, norms of  public order seems to have operated in planning the park. The effect will be to  marginalise, if not entirely exclude,  groups deemed to be  ‘undesirable’ or sources of potential trouble.  Alcoholics,  who tend to congregate in parks during the Summer, have not so far been much  in evidence, according to my security informants. Nor will the rough sleepers, who have established a local presence  in nearby  Westfield Shopping Centre after dark, find a welcome here.  Begging, soliciting or public meetings are also  not allowed, so  don’t bother trying to organise an impromptu love-in or a political protest here.  No shouting, singing or playing of music instruments either. Tell that to the Hammers fans when they arrive in force in 2016!  And by the way, there is a large ‘roundabout’ where several paths converge    which  would make an ideal  Speakers  Corner for East London, especially now that the original one in Hyde Park is no more.

Despite the tight  ground control, there are already encouraging signs  of trespass. People are beginning to assert their own claims and patterns of usage, accepting the LLDC’s invitation  to ‘own the park’, albeit  in often eccentric ways.  I met an Australian naturalist  who  said he was  prospecting for a site  to release some harmless grass snakes to put a bit of wildness back into the carefully cultivated ‘wildernesses’.   A middle aged lady who was taking her pet  parakeet  for a walk told me that she planned to make it a regular thing as her ‘Mo’ ( the bird was,inevitably,  named after one of the heroes of the Games), felt at home in the park. A little birdie also told me that amongst the guerrilla gardening community there are plans  afoot to introduce  marijuana plants  to restore the ecology   to its pre-Olympic diversity. Meanwhile the seats lining the main paths, many of them inscribed with factoids from  local history,  are beginning to attract the vertically challenged. I encountered   a small group  of local pensioners who told me they met up regularly  at the same spot every day to  chew the fat. Dog walkers  are the most obvious group of regular users  and they are officially encouraged,  although there were not many about on this particular sunny Summer day and I saw no evidence of dog toilets, let alone  ‘poop scoops’  being provided as they are in many parks.

The majority of people I saw were in uniforms of one sort or another: maintenance and security staff (they used to be called  them gardeners and  park keepers  once upon a time),construction workers from the nearby building sites and, most in evidence, parties of school children in their bright yellow and red safety jackets, technicolour    centipedes  laboriously winding their way through the park   in search of lunch, or just possibly, buried treasure.

There were no young people about. Perhaps  they were all  either in employment, education or training as they are supposed to be. Yet there are quite a few ‘Neets’in Newham and the park would make an obvious rendezvous  to chill and hang out, especially when the weather is fine. My conversation with the security staff  partly explained their absence. They claimed that a number of local drug gangs had sent ‘outriders’ to sus out the area shortly after the park opened, but had been quickly spotted. They had been invited in to the security control room to see for themselves the  CCTV monitors in action and  be assured that  they would be prosecuted  if they  broke any of the numerous by laws. They have  not been back. However  I suspect that once the park fills up on Summer weekends and for big events  like rock concerts, they  will  use the cover of numbers to infiltrate and set about  business-as-usual.

The Velo Park is obviously an important teen attraction and so is the Copper Box, but if you are’nt into bikes, and cannot afford the price of a ticket to hear your favourite band,  then these become no go areas. The large paths are made for skateboarding, and so is some of the park furniture, but this  is on the list of banned activities  except in  Frontside Skate Park on the fringes  of the site which  has understandably proved very popular.

It is a great pity that the Beat Box, an interactive music and dance space, was not retained from 2012 and although the Youth Legacy team has made some useful input into the design of legacy  facilities, they have not really addressed the  central youth issue. Young people need a  space to call their own, where they can hang out free from adult interference and control; but  they also need  defensible spaces in which  they feel safe enough to explore  new lines of desire  without bullying or harrassment; they are continually improvising micro-territories for this purpose in various kinds of edgeland, in between spaces, which like adolescence itself, offer a moratorium of  structured irresponsibility  between the confined world of childhood and the  home to work tramlines of an adult career.  Stairwell and garages in housing estates, cemeteries, waste ground, derelict buildings, abandoned  cars, back alleys, these comprise the ‘out of bounds’ geographies of growing up in the working class city.   Strictly speaking the Olympic park has no edgelands, it is open plan and lacks intimate spaces. Heather and Ivan Morison’s artwork  Cross and Cave is an installation which contrives such a space, and it may work as a den for kids, but it is not the real deal as far as teens are concerned.

Fortunately  young people are resourceful.  I  remember  working with a group of Bangladeshi teenagers living on the Isle of Dogs who were subject to very strict parental surveillance,  the girls especially  not being allowed  out unless accompanied  by a family member.  Their solution was to meet in the public library  under the pretext of doing their homework, thus both  allaying parental fears and  providing themselves with a safe place to  gossip, flirt and arrange liaisons.  We can expect teens living in E 16 and E 20 to be equally inventive.

Children are much  better catered for in the park. Tumbling Bay is a brilliant piece of play sculpture, yet despite  its name it  is no rough and tumble adventure playground where children build dens, or  make games and toys with whatever materials  are to hand. That kind of genuinely adventuresome play space, inspired by the way East End blitz kids  improvised playgrounds out of bombsites during the 2nd world war, has long since vanished, thanks to health and safety regulations. The information pack produced for children  is also good value, but again there is nothing that addresses the interests of teenage visitors. We are hoping to remedy that with our schools project which will produce a map and guide  to the Park  by  and for young people.

The art works and poetry installations  which are dotted around the park are often interesting,but with the exception of Monica Bonvicini’s RUN, a genuinely iconic piece of prescriptive semiology, they do not stand out. Some are little more than aesthetic camouflage for utility  structures :Open Folds,Carpenters Curve,Underwhirl/One whirl  and  LFO Spectrum which decorates the security fence close to the Velodrome fall into this category; others are just overblown visual statements of the obvious  (Steles and Streamline).  There are some good poems .John Burnside’s Bicycling Ladies is  a wonderful lyrical tribute to Sylvia Pankhurst and suffragettes and   Lemn Sissay’ s’Spark’ about the Bryant and May’s match girls strike is an in-your- face rap  that has you chanting along with it. There are also  some not- so- good poems. Carol Anne Duffy’s maudlin ‘Eton Manor’ and Jo Shapcott’s  winsome  ‘Wild Swimmer’  just try  too hard to find ‘winning words’ (the title of the commission) to  promote the 2012 aspirational agenda .  Worse still, the students of Chobham Academy are faced with the prospect every morning of reading an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ with its  gung- ho exhortation ‘to strive, to find and not to yield’  inscribed in pink marble outside their front door. It is no doubt   intended  to inspire  a new generation to  achieve their full  potential  but is more likely to turn them off poetry for life[1]. The most  interesting work, in both media, explores the back story of the Olympic park,  its labour and environmental history whose material traces are now largely invisible.  The field guide offers  an informative inventory of these works, but there is a need for a narrative which joins up some of these dots. That is what we are hoping to achieve with our audio heritage  trail ‘Tunnel Visions’.

At present there is only one information centre in the park, a makeshift portakin at the main entrance. Clearly there needs to be information points at every entrance.  The security staff play an important social, and not merely policing, role – they are the  main point of contact for visitors; they are often stopped and asked for all kinds of information, including the  background  story to the park. Perhaps their role should be re-described as park wardens, to indicate  this  wider and more positive function.  But their training would need to reflect that fact.  I asked one of them to use the  visitor’s map to direct me to  Hopkin’s Fields. He did’nt have a clue despite it being clearly marked. He could not correlate the map with the territory he walked and experienced everyday in the course of his work. He gestured vaguely in the direction of the Copper Box, then he had a sudden inspiration. ‘I know ‘ he said ‘ its where I found a wounded pigeon a few weeks ago’.  As soon as  a  memoryscape could be evoked, one populated by  narrative incident, the geography of the Park became clear and he could translate back into map terms[2].

East Village brought into focus  some of  the questions which were beginning to surface   in my mind as I walked the park.  Its solid phalanx of apartment buildings  with their  near uniform facades represents a challenge to  the dominant aesthetic of the  park design  which rejects    one-size- fits- all philosophy  in favour of what its chief architect has called ‘fragmented organicity’. The uniformity of the blocks  certainly gives physical expression to the ‘tenure blind’  approach adopted for this mix of private and  social rented  housing. But will  ‘pepper potting’ and  a class- blind  allocation policy be any more successful than ‘race blind’  approaches in eradicating distinctions of socio-economic and even moral  status? Or will these reappear in new guises? That   is one of the key questions which our ethnographic research with incoming residents  is designed to address.

The balconies which stud  the facades will be one key social signifier. Will they be used as an extra room with a view onto the street theatre below, as the word itself suggests? Or perhaps a sun lounge where you can sip your beer, or Martini, while taking in the  urban scene as  shown on TV ? Or will  they be treated more like lumber rooms, where you put stuff you can’t find space for anywhere else, and rarely use? Will the boys  colonise the space with their toys  or will it be all too familiar  women’s territory, as they engage in some horizontal gossip with the neighbours across the way while hanging  out the washing?  So far  the balconies are empty. I saw two young black men   each leaning over their balconies smoking a cigarette- perhaps it was banned indoors- but as they were on different floors, they remained unaware of each other’s existence.

Although there were furniture vans parked outside some of the blocks, there was little other sign of  activity. There was one moment when I was standing at a corner  facing a recessed  brick wall, when I had a distinct sensation of  déjà vu. This was somewhere straight out of  a Chirico metaphysical  painting.

The only people around on the  street were young mums with their toddlers on their way to the nursery, or Westfields.  I  stopped two  of them and asked for their first impressions. Yeah, it was OK. They were neighbours, both came from East Ham, and had kids roughly the same age, so  they had a lot in common. Sharon thought that one of her other neighbours was a bit stand offish: ‘they look down their noses at you as if they wonder what you’re doing in a posh place like this, but some of them are all right. One bloke – I think he works in the city and he’s got a Lamborghini- he was very friendly, and helped me up the stairs with the pram’. As we were talking another young mum stopped to see what was going  on and then another joined what had by now become a kind of impromptu focus group. I got the impression, listening to them  talk that they were holding their breath, waiting for something  to happen, either good or bad.

I  also asked a group of construction workers  sitting outside having a tea break  what they thought of the development. Would they like to live in East Village? To my surprise they  almost all said ‘no’. A Sikh carpenter, who had just finished snagging work on the flats, said that under no circumstances would he move in  with his family. The bedrooms were too  small, and there was nowhere the kids could play under  their mother’s eye. The proverbial Polish plumber volunteered  that most of the residents were young professionals  who did not have children. In his view the buildings looked like prison blocks – the inhabitants just went from one white cell (their office)  to another (their apartment). What kind of a life for a man was that? There were nods all round from his colleagues. An echo then of the traditional blue collar worker’s dim view of  the mouse- pushing white collar salariat    and their  life style choices.

Of course it is early days. The shops, pubs and restaurants planned for East Village have yet to open. They will undoubtedly bring    more of an urban buzz to the area.  And the blocks themselves are only half populated.  When University College London build their campus here, and the Victoria and Albert Museum opens its doors, when the  Chobham Manor neighbourhood  is built, we can expect  daily throngs of students, visitors, and residents. In the meantime perhaps we should just enjoy the ‘Chirico moment’ while it lasts.

 

[1] I have discussed the artworks and poetry installations in detail  in  On the Wrong side of the Track:East London and the Post Olympics Lawrence and Wishart  2013. Also ‘Carrying the Torch? :Poetry @ the Olympics’ in Agenda    Summer 2012.

[2] The site maintenance and security staff are trained observers, the former of the behaviour of plants and animals, the  latter of human mammals,  both in their more unruly  aspects.  In principle they could be key informants in  any field work study of the Olympic Park, but again they would need additional  training  which moved beyond precautionary principles and sensitised them to  the  more positive dimensions of both sets of interactions.