The Greeks and the Gifts they bring : Post Olympic heritage and place making in East London



The story of the Trojan horse and its role in ending the seige of the city  is a  cautionary tale about a fake legacy gift. It has  bequeathed to us the most famous line of Vergil’s Aeneid  through which schoolboys of my class and generation were introduced to the fiendish intricacies of Latin verse: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – I fear the Greeks and the gifts they bring.

In this essay  I am going to suggest that it  sums up the way many long term residents in East London   have come to feel about  major regeneration projects, most notably the 2012 Olympics and now its legacy in the new cultural quarter being built in  the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The widespread perception is that these initiatives, which promise to improve the area for the material benefit and social well being  of its existing working class communities  are indeed a Trojan horse, which   the civic authorities  have actively encouraged, accelerating processes  of gentrification and de-industrialisation, and hollowing out what remains of local amenity and resource. I will try to  set this NIMBYesque  response in the broader context  of the eastwards turn in  London’s growth and the transformation of East London from a centre  of manufacturing and small workshop production  into a hub of  the global knowledge economy.

I will  look in particular at the  role which the university does or could play in filling  the vacuum created by the  decline of smokestack industry and its associated culture of manual labourism. The tension  between the old and new versions of ‘East Enders’ can be clearly seen in competing visions of the role which both ‘heritage’ and the university should play in reinventing the area’s identity. The essay concludes by discussing a heritage  project which is currently attempting  to tell the back story of the Olympic Park in a way which anchors it to a progressive and inclusive vision of East London’s future as well as its past.

The University in the city

There was a time when in order to qualify for entrance to Higher Education you had to have Latin  at 0 level. Generations of public and grammar school students had to trudge their way through Caesar’s Gallic Wars in order the get their foot in the door of the university. This rite of passage into the aristocracy of learning was quite intentionally designed to separate  aspiring bourgeois sheep  from plebean goats, to stabilise,discoursively,  the moral  distinction  between high culture and low ( aka vulgar or common) culture. That was the mission of Higher education, it was  for the few not the many.

The intellectual ferment  surrounding the  student and anti-war movements of  1968 put an end to all that. Inside  the university, aristocracy gave way to meritocracy, which as the originator of the term insisted, sprang out of  a dystopian vision of what happens when social mobility is engineered through the metrics of   academic ‘intelligence’ [i]. The massive expansion of the tertiary  education sector was accompanied by  a   shift to ‘cognitive capitalism’  as the key motor of globalisation. The new universities  selectively incorporated radical ideas into the curriculum: Womens Studies. Environmental Studies, Cultural Studies, Gay Studies,Urban Studies as part of  a student centred model  of  knowledge consumption.

At the same time, Universities were no longer run by  academics  but by corporate managerialists whose aim was to maximise  market share. The Neo-liberal agenda reconfigured  student demands  for a transformative curriculum into a   rhetorics of  individual  vocational  aspiration whose banners can now been seen flying on every campus :  Achieve- the sky is the limit  ! Be what you want to be! Live Your dream !  En route career  displaced vocation as the dominant narrative template of the academic life story, albeit at a time when  professional career pathways,  both inside and outside the university were beginning to crumble into precarity,for all but an already privileged minority.[ii]

In order to both implement and justify their expansionist plans universities had to become  active players in urban regeneration.  Real estate, the building of bigger and better facilities, was  increasingly pushed to the top of the Vice Chancellor’s agenda and indeed the construction of iconic campus buildings     became a benchmark of their personal  success as well as an indicator  of  the institutions standing in the world.  The cosy, mutually parasitic relation between town and gown which obtained in the older university towns and cities was replaced by something much more brutal, as the cutting edge of the global knowledge economy sliced through working class areas  that were designated as ‘ripe for change’.   Gone was the pastoral vision of  the university as a community  of scholars set amidst dreaming  spires or semi-rural  landscapes. New campuses are increasingly  being  built on brown not green field sites, as part of the   reclamation of  once- upon- a- time industrial land.

However  to make this happen  universities increasingly had to demonstrate that their plans would be of benefit to a wider, but still local working class   community.  For this purpose’community’ had to be imagined in a peculiar, and somewhat contradictory way. Firstly as  a  locus of lacks, lack of educational qualifications, occupational opportunity, critical knowledge, cultural sophistication and social resource. By no coincidence, these lacks are all something that it is the university’s mission to redress. Secondly, as the flip side to this defecit model, the host community is validated as having  the capacity to benefit from the university’s presence by virtue of possessing  an existential authenticity as a source of  informants for the purposes of  academic research into poverty, health, crime, unemployment and a whole host of other endemic social problems.


Danger- hysterical materialism at work !

The burden of my argument thus far has been that the extraction of locally situated knowledge  and its transformation into global intellectual capital  is one of the disavowed  payoffs  for relocating some university facilities to the  poorer part of town, as well of course as the fact that land values were less  and it was cheaper to build there. I now want to explore   the  process of university place making   as a means of operationalising this extraction process,

In their search for legitimation  university led regeneration projects, have evolved a particular kind of discourse around their  role,  a discourse  which I am going to call hysterical materialism. I am not thinking here of  the fever of consumerism; capitalism has from the outset mass produced dreams of fame and fortune to which many aspire  but which few are able to realise. Nor is it just about  the aura  or hype created around  brands, especially the place brandings associated with civic boosterism and real estate promotion.  Rather I am using hysterical in the classical psychoanalytic sense as a play of substitutions set in motion by a displacement of desire.[iii]

Under this rubric, the project of   transforming  urban fabric through the intervention of  material things or processes (artefacts, instruments, infrastructures, buildings, and technologies of every kind)  undergoes a curious process of transubstantiation.Instead of treating these materialities as products embedded in the capital/labour relation, as affordances or hindrances to various projects of human enterprise,  they are  magically invested with an autonomous power of efficacy or designation, a mysterious performative capacity to condition, compel or change human behaviour.[iv] At the same time the power of  material efficacy  is de-materialised and located  in abstract entities beyond the reach of human action [v].

The  construction  of  this  ‘other  scene’ of regeneration does not then follow the rational calculus of urban planning but rather  operates its  own subliminal logic of desire, a logic submerged within the analytic rigors of cost/benefit analysis, the gloss of  promotional  hype  and  the  architectural  sublime[vi] . Mobilised in the process of place making, the machinery of what I am calling  ‘hysterical materialism’ operates a double displacement: it de-materialises the urban fabric,  its physical solidity melts into air  or rather into metaphor, and then in a second moment this fabrication   re-materialises  as a marker of its own presence/absence. This principle of  transubstantiation is literally  built into planning discourse.  For example,  “benchmarks”, “gauges”, “litmus tests”, “yard sticks”, “barometers”, “milestones”, and a whole host of other pseudo-material tropes  perform a subtle alchemy as they  conjure metrics  of progress and  impart a sense of momentum  to projects   whose complex social impacts do not, in fact, lend themselves to quantifiable accountancy  let alone the linear causality of input/output analysis.

Substantively, in contemporary urban place making,  hysterical materialism operates through a rich mix of environmental and technological determinism. For example there is the  attempt to ‘design out’ crime through creating ‘defensible’ physical spaces and the use  of CCTV cameras. The ‘ smart city’ agenda  with its corporate vision of government by algorithm, and cyberfixes for everything from traffic control and pollution, to poverty and  homelessness  is another case in point. In all these instances, changeable social relations between things are treated hysterically, phantasmagorically,  as if they were fixed object relations between human subjects and as such amenable to remote intervention and control.[vii]

The project of regenerating or “making over” an area of multiple deprivation — in other words, its gentrification — involves a similar set of displacements; material stakes in zero-sum games over social housing, public amenity, and community resources become mediated by symbolic stakes in aspirational discourses of ‘improving the neighbourhood’  in a way  that tends to blur the distinction between winners and losers. En route, the cultural geography of local  belonging is reshaped, often across class and ethnic divides which are then re-inscribed in postcode delineations of socio-economic status.

It is no coincidence then that  urban place  imagineering should use the language of dreams, even if  the utopian landscapes it produces in its promotional literature   seem to be populated by  ‘ideal types’ of people  who bear an uncanny resemblance to zombies. Universities in particular are  increasingly promoted as places where dreams of social mobility and  creative life style  can be realised, and not only by students, but by their host communities. In other words the building of a new campus comes to be  represented as the implantation of an opportunity structure that is other wise lacking , and as the materialisation of  a latent, but hitherto frustrated  desire for  sponsored educational mobility on the part of local people.  But those connections  are not simply  about offering a prospect on the future, they come to be retro-fitted in a process of reverse cultural engineering. In a word through heritage as place making.


Veni, Vidi Vici ? London’s Eastwards turn, the 2012 legacy and the re-making of heritage

I came, I saw, I conquered. This possibly apocryphal saying of Caesar’s  referring to one of his quicker victories on the battlefield has not ceased to be quoted to big up military, sexual and political conquests,. It has also been used to characterise  the transformation of East London  as a process  of  cultural infiltration or subversion  by the forces of wealth  and power hitherto concentrated in the West End /best end of town. A recent version of this message appeared as a graffiti on the walls of Hackney Wick, then in the throes of rapid gentrification ( see illustration). So has the West End come and conquered the East  End, turning it into a version of itself ?

The advent of  the 2012 Olympics whose  main new site was in a so- called derelict area in the hinterland of Stratford was inevitably a key moment in the.  The  Legacy plan, central to London’s 2012 bid and one of  the principal reasons for its success, puts it like this:

‘The true legacy of 2012 is that within 20  years the communities who host the 2012 Games will have the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across  London (Strategic Regeneration Framework 2012).’

In other words the East End was to come to resemble the West End in terms of its inhabitants educational attainments, income and occupational status  and  health profiles. At the time it seemed like a bold political gesture aimed at the re-distribution of  life chances but in retrospect it seems as if the only way this ’ convergence’  was ever likely  to be achieved was to accelerate gentrification, to ensure  not only inward investment but the influx of  whole new population whose presence would dramatically  increase the local  stock of  social,cultural and intellectual capital. The challenge facing property developers and municipal policy makers   was how an area   one of them referred to as ‘a pretty terrible part of town’,  strongly associated in the public mind  with industrial decline and urban dereliction, not to mention  the criminal underworld, how this area could  be rendered fit for cultural habitation by the new creative and corporate class who had to be attracted to live and work there?  This would clearly not be achieved just  by building gated communities, islands  of affluence  amidst  a sea of  poverty. It required a process of strenuous imagineering  to re-brand these areas as the new frontiers of dynamic change and to cast  the middle class arrivants  in the role of heroic  urban pioneers.

Several  distinct strategies of cultural engineering emerged for this purpose.The first worked by a process of simple erasure, bulldozing away almost all vestiges of  the old economy, apart from a few suitably decorative bits of  industrial archaeology (illustration). This policy could be linked to an environmental agenda and focussed on the elimination  of  polluted brown field sites. Central to the re-branding of East London, and especially Stratford as the hub of  Olympic-led  regeneration,  was  a narrative of smooth transition from the bad old days when  smokestack  factories made the area notorious for fogs and ill health, to the good new days represented by  a clean green post- industrial economy centred on cutting edge  IT, design and  media companies.

Yet this apparently progressive move  provided a rationale for quite another kind of cleansing.  What was being airbrushed out of the picture was not just the  stink  and ugliness of East London’s dirty industries  but the  lives and history of  the communities  who had worked in them  and who  now  found themselves tarred with the same brush.  They were literally written out of  the modernisation  story,  or else seen as a local obstacle to progress, an ‘immovable object’ pitched against the irresistible force of globalisation. In either case, the residual manual   working class became  a bad smell that got up the noses of the property developers, financiers, real estate agencies  and municipal  modernisers all of whom were trying to invent a new reputational identity for the area. At best they were allowed walk on part in a sanitised or sentimentalised version of  the area’s  industrial heritage.

The second strategy consisted in re-valorising  many of the  features of East London’s social ecology that the modernisers wanted to erase, transforming  them into  an alluring spectacle of  exotic difference that would appeal to would-be gentrifiers. Social slumming has long characterised East /West relations in London, as generations of  rich young men ( and some women) about town went in search of   sexual and other adventures with the rough trade around Whitechapel and the docks. East End boys also made a play for West End girls ( and sometimes men)  in  their forays  down town into the world of the Posh. There was  a hidden  line of cocaine linking the drawing rooms of Mayfair with the caffs and pubs of the Mile End Road, rent boys and barrow boys with  merchant bankers.But these were largely transient encounters. Now what was happening was that hundreds of thousands of young professionals, creatives  and entrepreneurs, were for the first time coming to live, study and work in  East  London.  What they were looking for was an East End  that was just edgy enough to give them a sense that they were occupying areas on the cusp of change, but not so much on the front line of  social conflict that their person or property would be seriously at risk.   The presence of young  artists, writers and other budding members of the creative class who formed the avant garde of gentrification gave these areas a suitably bohemian image, while buffering  the more affulent incomers from contact with the local low life and its   criminal subculture.

What was really needed was a form of  urban imaginary  rooted in an  authentic  ‘bottom up’ view of East London’s  denizens,  to contrast with the sanitised, top down vision of  the planners and property developers. Well before Grime was taken up by Guardian readers, this is what the work of Iain Sinclair, and a few kindred  spirits, provide. Ffrom the 1980’s onwards  these writers and artists  detailing with loving care the wreckage produced by the surreal and often violent collision of  East London’s  past and future. Sinclair’s  preferred stamping ground is London’s  edge city, especially the ‘Wild East’, or what one commentator referred to as ‘Cockney Cyberia’,  where  urban  counter cultures of various kinds could take root and flourish,resisting  the gravitational pull of the globalised city.

Sinclair is vehement in his opposition to the iron cage of rationality in which modernist planners have attempted to contain the lines of desire that Londoners have drawn across their city streets.  His  writing  has no time for the moralising or  sentimentality of the romantic ruinologist or urban slummer. The stories he has to tell of his encounters with East London’s dodgy characters  neither pandes to  poverty porn  nor  to ethnographic  realism;  rather he  situate these lives   within an  occulted history and geography of the capital city  described  with  a sharply materialist sense of the incongruities of its  cultural landscape.  In both his novels and documentary walks, Sinclair  captures  these ’other scenes’ of urban regeneration, that have escaped or resisted  its homogenising process.  And this is just  what the gentrifiers want to hear, as if to be reassured that their presence hsd not in fact destroyed the local colour  that attracted them in the first place, but made them part of it. It can magically become their heritage.

With the notable exception of dockers and other  riverfront workers, East London’s  industrial working classes do not much feature in Sinclair’s social topography, but they have been the object of a third kind of cultural reverse engineering. Best exemplified in the work of Eastside Heritage, this consists in an archival project  designed to   preserve a vivid  historical record of the labourhoods that have been  destroyed  in the process of de-industrialisation,  as evidenced through the oral  testimony of the people who themelves have lived through this painful transition.  There is an implicit – and sometimes explicit – populism  in this project, especially when it emphasises the  continuities of the past with the present; this is not so much in terms of  class , but in the campaigns of  women, gay people, immigrants and minority ethnic communities  for social justice, all of which are assimilated to  a  long tradition to popular democratic struggle which includes  the local labour movement. This approach is about promoting positive images  of The People and thus  tends to gloss over  the internal  divisions which characterise community relations in East London   as well as  ironing out the wrinkles in labour history. The  darker side of East London’s  story,for example  the dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell,  or the homophobic elements in  orthodox Muslic culture,  is conspicuous by its absence.

There is thus  no single authorised  approach to depicting the Old and New East End and narrating the transition between them. We have one strategy which emphasises the  future  as a dramatic break with the past, another which stresses historical continuities of struggle and a third celebrating   hidden ruptures within the  present that distances the area  from both its industrial  heritage  and a  post industrial  regeneration. The advent of the Olympics   greatly strengthened  the rhetorical power of the environmental /erasure model.  Great capital was made out of the painstaking cleansing of the polluted subsoil in what was to become the Olympic Park. The  existing businesses on the site, many of them long  established, but now dispersed, were relegated to the realm of industrial archaeology. From this perspective heritage, if not history, began  in 2012.

In the current phase of Post Olympic development  around Stratford, the official  position has  become more complicated and contradictory. The promotional discourses associated with the construction of luxury residential blocks and the new International Business Quarter   remain  strongly  futuristic in orientation. However in the case of mixed  housing developments, which will accommodate existing  East Enders, some on low incomes, alongside affluent incomers, the spin  emphasises the seamless morphing of old and new, local tradition and  global innovation. Here is how a prospectus for the re-development of Oltympic  Park put it:

‘The residential neighbourhoods will take the best of ‘old’ London – such as terraced housing inspired by Georgian and Victorian architecture, set in crescents and squares, within easy walking distance of a variety of parks and open spaces. It will take the best of ‘new’ London – whether in terms of sport, sustainability or technology – to create a new destination for business, leisure and life. Above all, East 20 will be inspired by London’s long history of ‘villages’, quality public spaces, facilities and urban living, learning from the best of the past – to build successful communities for families of the future. (LLDC Website, 2012a)

The  new cultural  quarter on the Olympic Park  ( which includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, a new campus for  University College London, and Sadlers Wells,all  establishing  offshoots of their main Central London  operations)  requires  for its legitimation  some acknowledgement and even validation of  the fact that East London has its own distinctive identity and   history. At the same time, reading between the lines of the internal  literature produced for these projects  it is hard not to recognise a set of all too familiar assumptions about local defecit:  The gift of High Culture and Higher  Education is being brought  to  communities  deprived of these opportunities. It is the very formula of settler colonialism : Educational and cultural  Organisations without enough  land  for  a land without enough  Education and   Culture.

Attempts are, however, being  made to  mitigate  this message by establishing  some principle of  cultural homology, if not synergy, with local communities. In the case of the Victoria and Albert Museum  the putative  link is being made  in terms of histories of making, so that  the new design and IT companies  coming onto the Park are seen to be continuing   a local tradition of  manufacturing innovation and enterprise.  In the case of UCL East the connection is based around multiculturalism. One of their internal documents quotes the    historian Thomas Bender approvingly  when he proposes that:

‘The pluralized culture of the university resembles the complex life of contemporary immigrant neighborhoods, where residents live in local urban neighbourhoods and diasporic networks… The challenge for us as contemporary metropolitans (and cosmopolitans) is to locate ourselves – both in time and in relation to the places of local knowledge – in such a global perspective’.

Cynics might say that this attempt to square the circle  is a case of wishful thinking or bad faith; more dangerously this project of social  empathy   may also gloss a strategy of cultural appropriation, in which the participation of  local communities, especially minority groups, is milked for the local authenticity their involvement  can confer on the incoming university.[viii]. University sponsored heritage projects can unwittingly become a platform for just this kind of thing.

In both cases local history  is being  reinterpreted  to accommodate or, in some cases, actually  accomplish the rebranding of the area by  suggesting  a frictionless  transition from industrial to post industrial capitalism, a process  in which -, to quote Newham’s 2012 Olympic  strapline  ‘everyone is a winner.   Is this simply   the construction of  fake heritage as strategy of fake place making ? Or is it  genuinely performative,  opening  up realistic  opportunities for local communities?  How does it resonate with the new East Enders, and, even more importantly with those who have been living in the area over an extended period time and whose memoryscapes  have been fashioned in a pre-Olympic era?


Speaking out of place : patterns of  community stakeholding  in East London

To adress  these issues  I am going to draw briefly on  my longitudinal research into East Londoners  response to  the advent of the Olympics on their doorstep  and its long aftermath. As discussed elsewhere [ix], two patterns of civic stakeholding   emerged,  closely linked to  Robert Putnam’s distinction between what he calls ‘bridgers’ and ‘bonders’.These positions relate to different stories about the East End of London, its past  and its immediate prospects, but they  are also about different kinds of stakes that individuals, groups, or organisations may have in its future development, in other words they concern perceptions of the long term  impact or legacy of a regeneration project.Bridgers tend to see regeneration legacy in terms of payoff or dividend. This is how one such described what she saw as  :

‘Well, the way I look at it, we’ve had to go through all this kerfuffle, and now it’s over I think the community is owed something in return. What we get back should reflect what we’ve put in, shouldn’t it? The legacy is a just reward for all the effort of so many local people to make the games the success they were’ (public service worker).

In contrast, bonders see the Olympics as a windfall, albeit  one which is part of a gift legacy.One of them put it like this:

‘It’s like we’ve been left something by a distant relative, who’s very well off. We weren’t expecting it, maybe we don’t even deserve it, but it’s dropped into our lap and we’re entitled to it. We’ve been left this fabulous gift on condition we look after it, and hand it on to our  children for their children to enjoy, (nursery teacher).

Bridgers were more likely to recognise that the  Post Olympic Park had the potential to continue to attract visitors and money to the area, and was therefore an ongoing investment from which they could expect future material  benefits.In contrast  bonders saw  the Post Olympic legacy  less as a payback or dividend, more in terms of a  public bequest or civic endowment.From this perspective East London’s history is not so much a shareable asset, a public heritage   accessible to all but  a valuable heirloom, something which has to be held in trust by one generation  for the next and  safeguarded  as a platform  for the assertion of  local prides of place.

These positions could be summarised as  follows:

Table 1 East London legacy values


Bridgers                    Bonders

Gift legacy       Heritage                   Heirloom


Payoff legacy   Dividend             Endowment


One member of the group was a tenant in the Carpenter estate that directly overlooks the Olympic Park. Many of the tenants had been moved  off  the estate so that the top floors of two of the blocks could be rented out to the BBC as studios for the duration of the Games, and there were persistent rumours ( which turned out to be true)  that  University College London wanted to acquire the whole site to build a new campus as part of the post-Olympic  Development. This is what he had to say:

‘We are not against regeneration, we are against the way they are carrying out the regeneration. We have been told so many different things. We want to keep a community together here, but there hasn’t been any communication with the council or the tenant management organisation. It’s  very frustrating. Its like there is two Newhams, the   old one, the one where the real community lives, and the other one,  the new one that has been dreamt up by the planners and the Olympics people, which is what they imagine the place should be like to attract people with money’ (local resident and community  activist).

In making this journey from the old to the new East End, some local residents were able to merge the values of  legacy as dividend and as endowment, under an overarching commitment to civic accountability. Sophie had grown up on the Carpenters Estates in in 1990s, and had fond memories of the area and of its tight knit community.   Her positive  sense of identity as a Black British girl growing up in  a multicultural working class area was enhanced by the Olympics. This is what she had to say:

‘Newham definitely was put on the map because of the Olympics. Before when people asked where we came from we would say Hackney or maybe East London, but now the youth say we‘re from Stratford or Newham. I had this love affair with the Olympics, I had come so far in my journey and      I wanted to be involved in the legacy, to make sure there is a positive  outcome for local people. So I got a job with a local community development agency to promote local use of Olympic Park.’

This is an example of a bonder turned bridger and one for whom  East London’s  multicultural heritage is fully consistent with the  Post Olympic Legacy. Unfortunately Sophie’s is very much a minority report. There were other, less constructive ways of making the connection between the old and new East Ends, particularly  on the part of those who felt they had been left behind or marginalized by the transition. For them 2012 legacy was a sick joke and talk of  heritage  as a way of retrieving lost prides of place, an even sicker one. Here are two  typical comments  along these lines:

‘The way I look at it, the people who built the Olympics didn’t know much and cared even less about the area’s history. As one of them put it  Stratford was ‘ a pretty terrible place’ that needed to be fixed. As far as they were concerned the area was a polluted wasteland and  the only heritage  that was of any value was the legacy of 2012.  But  people who have been living in East London for generations see it differently.  The area is part of our family history, and we want out kids  to know and be proud of what their parents and grandparents struggled to achieve’.  (care worker)


The legacy is a joke. And the worst thing is the joke is on us, especially all the young people who have bought into it. There are all these quotes from local people on the Park benches, and stuff about the local history, but its tokenism, it costs them nothing, or very little, but it looks good   to the visitors who know nothing about East London – they look at it  and think ‘Oh that’s nice, the local people are being listened  to’.  But when push comes to shove, when it’s a question of the big decisions, the ones that cost money, then we don’t get a look in. It’s the commercial interests, the corporates, who call the shots’ ( market trader)



What conclusions  can be drawn from this evidence  about how far  heritage making, as part of place making, can address the tensions  which inevitably arise in the process of urban regeneration  especially where this coincides with acclerated de-industrialisation and gentrification? What role can the university play in either exacerbating or mitigating those tensions?

It is clear that in the East London context how particular individuals, groups and organisations respond to Post Olympic developments  is heavily influenced  by their pre-existing attittudes   towards large scale regeneration projects  in general and towards  the 2012 Games in  particular. Attitudes to local heritage as a form of place making  continue to be  similarly  overdetermined.

These considerations were paramount in the development of a new urban heritage trail for visitors to Olympic Park,designed to tell the backstory of the site, from its ancient archaeology to its recent transformation to host the 2012 Games, and including its rich environmental, industrial and social history. [x] Today, with the exception of some surviving buildings such as the Bryant and May match factory and Three Mills,  most of the industries and traces of the communities that served them are now almost entirely invisible and underground. Many  were uncovered in archaeological excavations made on the site  but that history was also destroyed- in the construction phase of the park. So our aim in telling the sites back story is to render these trace audible  as well as visible.

Ten heritage hot spots have been chosen for the project, and can be visited in any order, as many or few  a time as you want.The theme of groundbreaking  as both a material and metaphoric  element provides the main connecting thread in the narrative, which also features a fictional dialogue between a young skateboarded and an old resident who remembers the site before the Olympics.

One of the aim of Groundbreakers is to challenge the dominant regeneration narrative in East London.  As previously discussed this is organised around four assertions or assumptions:

  • There is a more or less frictionless transition between East London’s industrial past and its present developed on a post industrial economy.
  • East London is and always has been a ‘melting pot’ of cultural and ethnic differences and its diversity is as frictionless
  • The Olympic Park was a tabula rasa awaiting the imprint of an Olympic Legacy
  • The change now taking place in East London is no different from previous change.

In contrast  we will be exploring the discontinuities, the contradictions and conflicts that make the history of this site so richly interesting , and so relevant for understanding  the wider forces of transformation which have shaped not only this area but London as a whole.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Groundbreakers  project is that it has been developed by people  who have a long track record of  work  with communities  in East London going back in some cases over four decades. It has a very high degree of input from local groups, including children and senior citizens, and involves partnerships with  a consortium of long established community arts organisations and schools.  At the same time the project  does have support  from both the University of East London, in the shape of the Rix Centre, and from the Urban Lab at University College London whose new campus in the Olympic Park is due to open in 2022. The point is their role is facilitative not directive   and that surely must be the model for how universities  should operate in relation to heritage based place making in the future.

In terms of the conceptual framework developed here the community support role of universities must be delivered in the form of an endowment  not an investment in expectation of some divident or payoff to the institution itself. Equally the strategy of community capacity building must be genuinely redistributive of intellectual and cultural capital, not an impression management of ‘community participation’.  Finally instead of cherry picking community partners from groups and organisations who  are well established bridgers ( and who, consequently already have considerable social capital)  the priority must be to reach out to those who may be initially hostile and defensive, and pursuade them of the benefits of of   transforming  their prized cultural heirlooms into shareable public heritage. Such an approach calls for the exercise of tact, and a recognition that hard pressed   communities who find themselves on the front lines of urban change  have much to teach academics  about the processes of transformation which their universities are busily implementing.




[i] See Michael Young  The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033 An essay on education and equality Thames and Hudson 1958. Michael Young went on to found the Open University.

[ii] For further discussion on this point  see Phil Cohen  ‘A Place to think: the idea of the university in the age of the knowledge economy’ New Formations 53 2006

[iii] For a critical reading of the Freudian concept of hysteria see Sander Gilman et al Hysteria Beyond Freud University of California Press 1993. For a Lacanian re-construction see Elisabeth Bronfen The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents Princeton University Press 1997. On the concept of political hysteria derived from the work of Istvan Bibo see Emmanuel Terray ‘Headscarf Hysteria’ New Left Review 26 March 2004

[iv]  This projection derives its emotional power  from its relation to a primordial architecture of desire: the maternal body as our birthplace and first homeland we have left behind, become cut off  from but continue to   hold unconsciously in mind, so that it serves as a template for our modes of worldly inhabitation and quasi- umbilical attachment to place (Balint, 1964; McDougall, 1989).2     The building of palaces, vanity projects and follies of every kind, especially, today, of monuments to corporate wealth and power, pulls upon the unconscious drive to invent and possess an ideal replacement for this original home. In London, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, and the Arcelor Mittal Tower  in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, are all so many  surrogate homing devices inflated into  megalomaniac exercises  in corporate promotion. (Damisch, 2001; Konings, 2015). The point about these structures is not just their lack of local human scale, but that, as  actors on the  global city stage, and in their very materiality,they perform capitalism in a way that renders the labour that produced them, maintains them and operates within them totally invisible and apparently redundant. For a further discussion see Phil Cohen ‘A Place beyond belief? Hysterical materialism and the making of East 20’ in London 2012 and the Post Olympics City (ed Cohen and Watts  Palgrave 2017)

[v] The favoured   syntax  of hysterical materialism is an extreme case of what linguists call nominalisation in which actions are turned into objects and verbal processes are turned into abstract nouns . At its simplest this involves the deletion of concrete human agency and attribution and their replacement by abstract entities  which serve  as the chief protagonists of the story line. So instead of a transactive model of causality involving a) an actor b) a process of modal action described by a verb, located in a specific time and place, and c) predicated on a consequential effect,   we have an account dominated by purely impersonal and often literally non verb-alisable processes of agency and accountability. So instead of saying: Some people (a) have organised a campaign to do something (b) about conditions (c) in their area (d), we talk about    ‘consensual people led regeneration’. Instead of telling a story about how the management of Ford Europe decided to sack 4000 workers at its car assembly  plant at Dagenham, and offered  to retrain them to set up their own small businesses, we talk about  how Fords pioneered a new ‘workforce remodelling plan’. The preponderance of agentless passive verb forms is a notable feature of this discourse:  nobody ever seemingly does anything to anyone, stuff just happens.  The syntax creates a world of de-contextualised, thing- like abstractions, often reduced to acronyms, which have the capacity of acting or being acted upon, but lack any attributable responsibility for the outcome.

[vi] See Steve  Pile The body and the city: psychoanalysis, space and subjectivity Routledge 1996

[vii] An interesting example of  hysterical materialism in action is the designation of the Olympic Park and its immediate environs as a new postal code area, East 20. The original rationale for this symbolic action was that it would prevent the area becoming implicated in existing  turf wars between rival  street and estate based  gangs in East London, given that  post codes are often used as territorial markers.  And, secondly that East 20 was the fictional post code of the popular soap opera East Enders. The area was thus to be located as an entirely new material space, free from any ‘bad history’ and at the same time ( or rather in an altogether different mode of temporality), embedded in an entirely fictional world in which ‘traditional’ cockney values and culture remained more or less in place. In fact what  has made East Village and the Olympic Park environs  a relatively crime  and gang fee zone is not its symbolic designation, but the enhanced policing on the ground that has been paid for  by the developers  , supplemented by the presence of a private security force, patrolling the area 24/7.

[viii] In this context it is interesting to compare the situation  of University College (UCL), London’s  self styled ‘global university’, with that of the University of East London(UEL), which has been the area’s local provider of higher education  since its inception as a polytechnic  in 1934.  This university has always had a strong student base in East London,  especially in Stratford and Barking and Dagenham; its intake has reflected the demographic transformation of these area with BAME students  now far  outnumbering all other groups and  white working class  students  significantly under represented. The  university has always struggled to recruit foreign  or PhD students and  to retain high flying academics; however from the  1970’s onwards  it did  attract a critical mass of radical staff  who were committed  to a  democratic vision of higher education, and who. developed   a new  curriculum  based on a pedagogy of  critical vocationalism  in fields such as journalism, the creative industries , environmental  and  heritage studies.  Despite this,  the main thrust of the university’s growth has been  entrepreneurial, and its campus in Royal Docks  is devoted to knowledge transfer with start up facilities  to support embryonic SMEs.  The  advent of the Olympics  on its doorstep gave UEL a much needed injection of  public funding and resource, with a new  Sports Centre and a campus in Stratford; however this did little to enhance its academic standing.  Its expertise in the field of urban regeneration was limited with the result that it  failed to make a significant impact on   policy thinking around the delivery of the Games and its legacy. As a result this institution’s  situation is the exact reverse of UCL’s. It has lots of street cred, but this cannot be cashed in for academic credentials  and its research culture   remains weak. UEL simply cannot compete  with UCL in the global market place of higher education.

[ix] See Phil Cohen  On the wrong Side of the track? East London and the Post Olympics  Lawrence and Wishart 2013. Chapter 6

[x] Originally the area was marshland surrounding the River Lea, which provided navigation and tidal power. The mills here were well established in 1066 and in succeeding centuries the area attracted a whole host of industries. It was the site of the Great Eastern Railworks which employed thousands to build locomotives and carriages and an engineering school; numerous factories including gasworks, chemical processing, calico printing, drug making, soap production,oil and candle making and early plastic manufacturing. Other parts of the site have a rich social history including playing fields (the 1948 Olympic running track was moved from Wembley to the Lea Valley shortly after the1948 games) and 100 year old allotments.