East London in Flux

This post was contributed by Kevin Mullen, a student on Birkbeck’s BA History of Art.

East London in Flux - Stratford CentreIn the four years of coming to Birkbeck for classes, I had never been back to Stratford, I only experienced it on screen. Despite my Olympic scepticism and opposition to the London games, I was hypocritically an avid viewer. Prompted and encouraged to put prejudice against the games aside I went along to East London in Flux on Saturday 16 November, an initiative of Birkbeck’s History of Art department along with Fundamental Architectural Inclusion, to bring interested individuals, mainly long term residents to get together and reflect on and interrogate further what the redevelopment and Olympic experience meant for Stratford, and East London more generally.

Birkbeck in the ‘community’

Bloomsbury can feel a little bit out of synch with the regular time and space of the city around it. Popping up from one of the surrounding underground stations and strolling into what feels very much like a university enclave, situated next to, but separate from the shopping, consumption and entertainment of Soho and the West End, and bounded to the North by a major thoroughfare and the terminal stations of North London, it does not seem the like site of community, or at least not much of a resident community.  This statement is far from being true, the institutional presence and the prestigious post code can sometimes mask what ‘community’ is here, but the construction of a new building and a tie up with UEL to give Birkbeck a greater presence in Stratford does make it seem like the university has now got a base that is in a real or ‘authentic’ community.

Perhaps that is a broad brush statement, a look and feel assessment of two different urban environments that some of my lecturers may frown upon, demand more clarity and perhaps a little evidence along the way, but I think we carry these impressions and ideas with us, they shape the way we think about and experience the city, and we may not ever really take the time to interrogate them. They are reinforced as shared and socially understood divisions of space. The name Bloomsbury carries a great deal of meaning, and for most, travels further, picking up yet more associations in space and time than somewhere like Stratford. Well that may have been true, until Stratford had to get ready to host the Olympics, becoming the home of spectacle, on display around the world.

Boots-on-the-ground-3Boots on the ground

The event itself, led by Leslie Topp from Birkbeck and Nick Edwards from Fundamental Architectural Inclusion, was lightly styled as a focus group, and marketing speech aside it genuinely felt like a way of using the bricks and mortar investment to reach out to a group of people who may not otherwise enter the university, and find out what sort of future events they would want to attend. Providing a forum to speak about and share experience, learn more about what is happening in/to the area, and gather information to construct an ongoing adult education programme.

The day was a positive break with regular classroom experience, but seemed to fit well with the Birkbeck model of adult education, in many ways it was opening up a new strand of dialogue for Fundamental Architectural Inclusion who had in the run up to the games mostly engaged young people from the area in discussion about the changes happening around them. Being able to get to grips with the issues on the ground, and listen to experiences both positive and negative from the people living in the area was a refreshing change to more orthodox learning, mediated by the printed word or screen images.

The second part of the day was a walking tour of Stratford led by Nick from Fundamental, setting out from University Square through the 1970s Stratford Centre into what could now be described as the old town centre, then looping back around, through residential development old and new, to Westfield and the gateway to the Olympic park. This provided another opportunity to share recollections of the building phase, the arrival of the games and of what was there before. Also to witness up close the dramatic changes in architecture, although noting along the way that high rise dwellings of a previous era, seemed oddly forgotten as the new developments seem to multiply.

Transit

Stratford is now an East London transport hub, apparently with up to 200 trains an hour on the various lines that run through it. Getting the transport right was a key concern in the run up to the games and obviously now facilitates access to the shopping destination that is Westfield. It is also sold as the engine to drive future developments and to make the area attractive to investment. In some way though the transport that has put Stratford firmly on the map for more and more Londoners, was also seen by a number of participants as the same force that could destabilise the local community. You may well ask what I, and indeed they, mean by the use of the term community, and it is fair to say that I don’t exactly know, hopefully future events will also lead to some fruitful discussion of that idea. But there was a repeated concern that a “transitory” population was not conducive to their perceived sense of community. The area will no doubt continue to change, I think for the worse, I am unable to celebrate a Westfield-led vision of community, but it does seem like there can and should be more dialogue on how a shop or office worker commuting into Stratford is not just seen a body in transit, they are also part of the human makeup of the area.

LegacyLegacy

I retain my scepticism of course, regeneration in London is only likely to benefit the majority of people accidentally if at all, and will mostly see profits for developers with little thought given to addressing income inequality. The Olympic park itself, clearly holds great potential for everyone in the area, although it currently seems largely unused. It has something of the character of a dreary suburban industrial estate but without the concomitant industry. Whatever vitality the empty Olympic venues possessed is dormant, and the main stadium is imprisoned behind a chain-link fence.

Having left our party in the shadow of the velodrome, that is sealed off to the young people on BMXs in the park, who were left to extract enjoyment and challenge from performing balancing tricks on the bicycle stands, I trudged back through what is still ostensibly an empty space. When the housing fills up and the planned office developments arrive it will morph into a new environment yet again, how that relates to what was there before, and what holds together the various communities of interest, both transitory and rooted in the area, seems bound to provide an ongoing appeal for future events in this timely series.

Kevin Mullen completed a Certificate of Higher Education in History of Art at Birkbeck and has subsequently moved on to the BA programme in the same department. He co-curates an informal screen studies group, The Screen Network, and is an editor with Minor Literature[s]. He tweets too frequently as @kevheadbone

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