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Growing for gold, London flowering for Olympics

- - Friday, June 8, 2012

LONDON — From hanging baskets of blooming flowers to the full-scale regeneration of one of Britain's poorest areas, hidden corners of London are being spruced up for the 2012 Summer Olympics, with organizers racing to beautify the rundown East End less than two months before the start of the games.

They have encouraged Britons with green thumbs to "grow for gold" and plant Olympic-themed floral tributes, as the country gets behind its first Olympics since 1948.

Meanwhile, another longer-term transformation is taking place in one of the poorest areas of the country. The British government and the Olympic organizers hope investment in long-neglected parts of East London, where the Olympic Park is located, will have a lasting impact.

In his first major speech as prime minister in May 2010, David Cameron set out his aspiration to "make sure the Olympics legacy lifts East London from being one of the poorest parts of the country to one that shares fully in the capital's growth and prosperity."

The multicultural East London districts of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, surrounding the Olympic Park, have high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The government wants to bring that part of London up to the city's average on a range of social and economic indicators, including employment and affordable housing.

"There is hope that games-led regeneration can help achieve this, particularly around employment and [joblessness]," said Steve Cummins, professor of urban health at Queen Mary, the University of London.

"The key question is whether the rhetoric translates into reality: [The] goals are very laudable. But given global recession and British austerity, what actually gets put in place on the ground after the games have finished remains to be seen."

Factories and warehouses used to dominate the hundreds of acres of contaminated land only a few miles from where the new sports venues and a waterside park will host the Olympics. The city has also cleaned up the polluted River Lea, which runs through the site, built 3,000 new homes and shored up local public transportation.

After the games

When the Olympic athletes leave, the area will be designated for five new neighborhoods complete with homes, schools, health centers, parks and places of worship, according to the London Legacy Development Corporation, the nonprofit agency charged with overseeing the Olympic Park after the games.

The area is also on the doorstep to Europe's biggest shopping mall: Westfield Stratford City, with more than 300 big-name stores, a 17-screen cinema and a 14-lane bowling alley.

During the games, the mall is intended to serve as the gateway to the Olympic Park, with visitors arriving by train having to pass by the shops to get to the sporting events.

It will be like "having to go through the gift shop" before getting to the main attraction, said local storeowner Alan Harris.

However, behind the regeneration hyperbole of the organizers and politicians, the reality is very different, he said.

Mr. Harris runs a gift-card shop in another shopping mall just yards across the road from the Westfield stores. His mall could do with a makeover, but many of the shops are small businesses owned and frequented by local residents.

The opening of Westfield, combined with the recession, has pushed many store owners' sales down by as much as 40 percent, said Mr. Harris, who has managed the business for nearly 25 years. At the same time the local council, which owns the mall, has increased rents by 30 percent.

Shopkeepers fear business will drop further during the Olympics, as train passengers are whisked through the new mall and the predicted traffic chaos could keep customers away.

"The Olympics will be good for the area with the regeneration, but they will be terrible for business," he said. "If there is no pickup in trade over the Olympics, I will probably have to close down."

Don't blame Westfield

Some say the Olympics cannot be blamed because Westfield would have been built anyway and the trend away from smaller shops to megamalls is a global one.

"In economic terms, … it is no more appropriate to blame [the Olympics] for economic woes than it is to give it credit for economic positives," said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management.

"What it will do is change the character of the area. Property prices will rise. Richer people will move in, and poorer people will move out."

Closure of these small businesses will also contribute to the changing character of the area, which some locals say still has a real sense of community.

While locals tend their window boxes and prepare to cheer on athletes in the shiny new stadium this summer, hoping for a better day for the neighborhood, others doubt the Olympics will help much.

"So many businesses are winding up," said Asger Ali, 62, who has owned a local pharmacy for decades, adding that he was initially happy about London's successful Olympic Games bid.

"I don't think I'll be able to survive much longer."