The Other Side of the Medal

Posted on 9 avril 2005 par

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Olympic euphoria has become widespread, but the event and above all certain practices can leave a bitter taste. An article by Géraldine Vessière in L’Echo.

Day 70 - Olympic Torch RelayThe day after the opening ceremony of the games in London, the pessimism which accompanied their preparation seems to have vanished. Criticism has had its day, it’s now time for national pride. The “feel good” effect the government has been searching for is spreading as Team GB’s games and wins – not always conventional – continue.

Behind the golden medals is a grimmer reality: increase in council tax for Londoners, tax-breaks for sponsors, misfortune Le « malus pension » qui vise à décourager les indépendants de prendre leur retraite anticipée, va par ailleurs disparaitre. Pour l’instant, un indépendant qui prend sa retraite avant 65 ans perd entre 25 et 3% de sa pension en fonction du moment où il quitte la vie professionnel, entre 60 et 61 pour le taux le plus haut et entre 64 et 65 ans pour le taux le plus bas. Ce malus disparaitra totalement dès le 1er janvier 2014.of the people who occupied the site that was transformed into the Olympic park…

When asked about this last point, the authorities are reserved. The official line: nobody was here, just a few drug addicts and one or two companies, including Forman’s Salmon Smokehouse, a real success story. The games has meant a rehabilitation of an area of highly-contaminated soil covered with mountains of fridges and used tyres.

This version is hardly corroborated by the 250 firms (unofficial figure), the residents of the two social housing blocks and the occupants of an artists’ squat who all had to move because of the Olympics. “People lived here” exclaims Julien Cheyne, former resident and spokesperson of the Counter Olympics Network.

250 compulsory purchase orders

Village Clays Lane UEL_071023_001 According to Lance Foreman, boss of the eponymous company, “250 companies employed 1200 people. It was a booming industrial area. It wasn’t pretty, fine, but it worked well. The authorities presented the region as a dump because the rehabilitation of an area is a valid reason for compulsory purchase, whereas the organisation of sport events isn’t. This allowed them to undervalue our properties.” For Lance, “it was the neighbouring area, which is now a shopping centre, that was a cancer. The authorities took the media and celebrities there to show them that the place was abandoned, but they were pointing in the wrong direction. All the more because Westfield had already planned to build its mall there.”

By Lance’s count, 75 of the expropriated businesses haven’t survived. 100 are still fighting for decent compensation and 75 have signed an agreement with the government. Lance belongs to the last category. “Instead of finding a specialist in compulsory purchase orders, I hired a media lawyer. I became such a pain that the authorities offered me a deal”

This entrepreneur at the head of a family firm that has been around for over one hundred years decided to make the most from his misfortune. “You may as well see how you can benefit from the situation rather than complaining. The olympic games offer an incredible marketing opportunity. You have to seize the moment.”

Mixed fortunes

Almost as soon as he received his compulsory purchase order, Lance gambled on buying a disused plot of land on the other side of the River Lee, right opposite the Olympic park. In ten months, he put up his new buildings and developed an ambitious project into which he put everything. Today, he hasn’t yet broken even.

Complex Sort Machine_090825_001Besides the smokehouse, he created a restaurant, event spaces, an art gallery and, to crown it all, a temporary riviera with palm trees, beach volley ball and posters of pin-ups, giant screens, champagne and cocktails, sun-chairs and sofas, and boats between the riviera and the park. Not quite in keeping with the area, Hackney Wick. An industrial neighbourhood, it has progressively attracted poor artists in search of an affordable roof over their heads who have converted former warehouses into homes with their saws and hammers. Lance, however, dreams of transforming his riviera into a permanent club.

Other people have also tried to make money out of their fate. This is especially the case of Belgian Diego Ghymers and his two partners Davide and Giuseppe. On 27 July, they opened Hackney Cut, a cafe and concert space with a view of the olympic park. “The olympic games are a competition to make as much money as possible. We felt we might as well use this opportunity to launch our business. Hackney Wick is undergoing a huge change. It’s the moment to start a business,” Diego explains.

Ten days later, he had become disenchanted. The restrictions of access to the area, “for security reasons”, new charges for the parking spaces, and the redirecting of visitors to Westfield East shopping centre in Stratford, were all keeping the area empty.

Local community excluded

This situation angers Anna, co-organiser of Hackney Wicked festival, which was cancelled this year. “If the festival had taken place, it would at least have brought some business and revenue for Hackney Wick’s traders but we were made to understand that if we organised the festival, it would be immediately closed. We are a team of volunteers. We didn’t have the means to fight this or to organise a level of security that would have satisfied the authorities’ concerns. We hoped to have London 2012 festival’s support. They financed so many cultural events. We weren’t included in their programming. The pill is a bit hard to swallow if you look at the important artistic community and its proximity to the park.”

This impression is shared by a resident, Emilie, a film-score composer. “We feel unassociated with the event. Only big brands, certain people and companies have benefited, but we, who are neighbours, we’ve been excluded.”

Géraldine Vessière

Translation: Tom Smith

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