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Olympic Ghost Town: The Disappearing Crowds of London

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It's fun here in London right now. Still basking in the afterglow of Danny Boyle's austerity-bashing opening ceremony our first gold medals were duly delivered by Helen Glover and Heather Stanning in the rowing, and man of the moment, Bradley Wiggins. In Stratford the excitement that has been crackling in the air these last few weeks shows no sign of abating. Although we have seen this coming for seven years, for those of us who have lived here or hereabouts for a long time the simple novelty of all this sudden change and attention, and all these new faces, can be oddly dislocating.

But there's a yin for every yang and elsewhere in the capital, according to the news reports these last 24 hours, the streets are empty, West End traders are losing out and the attempt to scare people from traveling into London has been so successful it must surely have won its designers the gold medal for services against commerce. Much publicised missile sites atop residential blocks of flats can't have helped matters in the lead up to the Games but now the government claims of turning a profit are being revealed for the back-of-a-napkin planning we suspected they always were.

BBC London Radio talk show host Robert Elms commented on this ghost town effect on his August 1st show, revealing that he had driven past signs instructing traffic to avoid London during the games. Maybe it is just a semantic issue but trying to second guess the intention of such messages whilst driving probably isn't the best of ideas, and so here we are, with empty streets, shops and museums. The same thing happened in Athens eight years ago apparently, but this minor detail seems to have been ignored.

The show was broadcasting from the edge of the Olympic Park and I had been invited to appear on the strength of my book about the area, Over the Border. I was asked about how things had changed and what I thought of the Olympics. Whilst acknowledging that, now it was about the sport and spectacle it was undeniably exciting and a matter of some pride for Newham, I pointed out that when it is over all our pre-games concerns will reappear. Perhaps because any further analysis of these issues is best suited to post-games scrutiny, when the famous 'legacy' will come under the media microscope, our conversation moved onto a more general appreciation of the area and the people who live and have lived here. This a part of London that, despite all the hype, remains relatively unknown even to other Londoners, including, it turns out, Elms himself.

After the show I decided to drop by and see Keith, who runs the flower stall on the market in the Stratford Centre, to ask him how things had been since I last spoke to him earlier this year, and in particular how the Olympics had been effecting trade. Not good was the general consensus. Stratford may have the only crowds in the capital right now but they are being kept away from Stratford E15 and kept within the confines of Stratford City E20. The new postcode speaks volumes about the attitude of this new entity towards its host. Keith told me that local people, particularly older ones, have been scared away by the incessant talk of transport meltdowns and the very real drawback of the multi-storey car park above the shopping centre being closed to the public in order to accommodate the cars of Olympic dignitaries. The realisation that stewards appeared to be directing Olympic visitors away from the Stratford Centre and towards Westfield prompted one stall holder to approach a steward, posing as a tourist, asking where he might go shopping. After the predictable reply of, "Westfield" he asked about the shopping centre opposite, helpfully pointing to it, only to be met with a derisory reply that it just contained a mish-mash of nothing much. Nothing much apart from the livelihoods of the market stall holders and the managers and staff of the smaller shops. Apart from the insult of the reply there is the obvious conclusion to be drawn that the job of this steward had not gone to a local person, for a local would never have made such a remark. The announcement that Westfield will be closed to non-ticket holders this coming weekend wont help matters as the public are being asked to avoid Stratford altogether, and we can presumably just ignore the implications of local people being denied access to part of their own town for 48 hours.

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Once the Games has rolled out of town we are just left with the memories and the comedown. The reality of the impact of the Olympics will still be there so lets hope that the market gets back to normal and that the predicted influx of visitors show a bit more adventurous spirit and venture across the road from Oz to take a look at Kansas. Or to spell it out - that bit opposite Westfield, which after all, is where the real Stratford actually is.