The Olympic legacy is killing London's creative culture

London's Olympic Park, during the 2012 games. Image: Getty.

Ever since the 1992 games in Barcelona, the idea of “legacy” has played a crucial role in the process of bidding for, and hosting, the Olympics. It’s easy to agree that investment and development for the Olympics should deliver benefits for residents of the host city in the long run. And it makes sense that Olympic infrastructure is built in areas that need improvement.

But in practice, it’s not always locals who benefit from the Olympic legacy. All too often, strict deadlines for delivery of Olympic infrastructure give authorities and developers a license to push urban regeneration plans through to approval with minimal consultation. In Beijing, for instance, 1.5m people were displaced to make space for Olympic venues. Meanwhile, in Rio, thousands of favela dwellers experienced violent evictions ahead of this year’s games.

Similarly – but somehow less famously – the Olympic Park developments for London 2012 involved the largest programme of legally enforced evictions in England. And it continues to this day.

Welcome to Hackney Wick

Hackney Wick and Fish Island is a quaint, former industrial area in east London, right at the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Old warehouses – many of which have been converted into spaces for living, working, eating and making – sit beside canals, and old-fashioned barges line the banks. Here, more than 600 artist studios and other small creative organisations have produced an ecosystem which nurtures innovation and creativity.

A creative idyll. Image: Ilaria Pappalepore/University of Westminster/author provided.

Now this area is part of a major regeneration project and most of these artists feel under threat. Currently, one group of creatives based in Fish Island is fighting an eviction letter delivered just six weeks before part of the building where the individuals work and live is due to be demolished.

The building – Vittoria Wharf – is one of many which were subject to compulsory purchase before the games by the London Legacy Development Corporation – the public company responsible for delivering Olympic-led regeneration in east London.

A petition to save Vittoria Wharf from demolition has so far reached more than 2,700 signatures. But this action is unlikely to save the building – at best, it will give residents a few more months to make their case public. A local musician said to me: “I feel they almost treat us as Conquistadors treated native Americans, with no respect for our philosophies.”

Putting up a fight Image: Ilaria Pappalepore/University of Westminster/author provided.

These residents are aware of the well-documented cycle of gentrification, which sees deprived neighbourhoods initially inhabited by young artists, who are later displaced by established creative companies and middle-class residents.

New creative enclaves are commonly formed in cities this way over time. But in London, young artists worry that soon there will be nowhere left for them to go in the city. One of the residents of Hackney Wick told me that artists' only option is to relocate to other parts of England – such as Margate on the east coast – or to go abroad, with Berlin the most popular option. With the average London house price pushing £472,000, and rent becoming prohibitively expensive in more and more boroughs, there is a real danger that low-income artists could be priced out.

Looking back at London 2012

Local artists’ difficulties with the legacy of the Olympics follows their disappointment with the games themselves. Research I conducted between 2010 and 2014 showed that the games had minimal positive impacts on local artists and other small creative organisations.

Many were disappointed by how difficult it proved for local artists and companies to take part in the cultural programme of London 2012. A key problem flagged up by my interviewees was the curators’ preference for internationally renowned artists over local ones. Unfortunately, this stems from the nature of mega-events, which are highly dependent on sponsorships and international media attention.

But as one cultural policy consultant interviewed for the research said:

[The cultural programme curators] saw themselves as trying to do something substantially different and of better quality and more international and a lot more contemporary than a lot of the practice they thought they were looking at in east London. Not to take seriously any of the talent that is on their doorstep, except around the edges and kind of cosmetically, seems to me to be fundamentally misdirected.

In Hackney Wick, organisers went so far as to remove graffiti by local artists, only to replace it with specially-commissioned pieces by international artists. In many ways, London missed an invaluable opportunity to promote local creativity.

Evocative art in Hackney Wick, by Edwin. Image: Mabacan/Flickr/creative commons.

For security reasons visitors were carefully marshalled between train stations and Olympic venues, which prevented them from wandering around the area. What’s more, the International Olympic Committee’s extremely restrictive copyright rules made it impossible for local artists to use Olympic-related symbols in their practice – although some did so anyway as a form of resistance.

A new cultural quarter?

Yet the Olympic regeneration programme did have a small number of positive outcomes for local residents. One of the very few aspects which seems to have been well received by the artists we spoke to is the plan for a culture and education district, to be built on the Stratford waterfront in the Olympic park by 2020.

This project – dubbed “Olympicopolis” by former London mayor Boris Johnson – was initially inspired by “Albertopolis”; the cultural cluster built in South Kensington following the Great Exhibition in 1851. The new cultural district will accommodate world class cultural and education institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Sadler’s Wells theatre, University College London (UCL) and London College of Fashion. Both UCL and the V&A have already liaised with local Hackney Wick artists, with a view to develop creative collaborations.

The project is expected to create 3,000 jobs, and contribute to the wider cultural legacy strategy for the Olympic Park, which is “centred around developing east London as a creative destination with an international reputation”.

But given what happened at London 2012, there’s a real risk that this new development could, once again, create a “tourist bubble” – a sanitised cultural island, completely separated from the local neighbourhood. Indeed, the plans for the new district – which were unveiled very recently – have already been described as “a cacophony of luxury stumps”.

Previous research has shown that successful creative areas are characterised by a diverse built environment, a bohemian look and the coexistence of people who produce and consume culture. Yet all of this already exists in Hackney Wick and Fish Island, thanks to a community which has been there since long before the Olympics. The question is – will it still be there in five years?The Conversation

Ilaria Pappalepore is senior lecturer in events and tourism at the University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.