Years ago, when I owned a car and when a London bid for the 2012 Olympics had yet to be discussed out loud, driving from my bit of Hackney into Newham entailed a trip along Carpenters Road through what I thought of as an urban twilight zone. I recall speeding past jagged fences, gates and yards advertising every spare motor vehicle part I could possibly require should I happen to break down. I only once visited the zone, to attend a Muslim wedding that neighbours had invited me to. It took place in a warehouse or factory of some kind, the bride and groom enthroned on a dais and, below, male and female guests separated by a length of tape, which went casually ignored.
All of that twilight zone has, of course, now gone and with it nearly 300 small and medium-sized business, ranging from belt-makers to kebab-shapers to chemical manufacturers. They were removed by a huge compulsory purchase order served in late 2005 in order to clear the site and ready it for hosting the most gargantuan sporting show on Earth and, as the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone portrayed it, to trigger infrastructure spending that would breath new life into a vast and tired tract of East London. Five years on from the “regeneration Games”, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park continues to evolve. Did we lose something precious along the way?
The merits of this particular regeneration balance sheet can be debated all day long. A new book entitled Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change In East London provides fresh content for that conversation. Architecture lecturer Juliet Davis and photographers Marion Davies and Debra Rapp have pulled together in pictures and words an account of that lost industrial landscape, populating it with human stories and productive companies and, in so doing, challenging its depiction by Olympic boosterism as, in Davis’s words, “a defunct and decaying wasteland”.
The book is published by Historic England, whose purpose is to “champion and protect historic places”. It’s too late to save that “wasteland”, but the book makes a handsome job of defending its memory and presenting a case that it has been misrepresented all along. Davies, whose photographs are all in black and white, and Rapp, whose shots are in colour, introduce us to glass-benders, galvanisers, roofers and welders and the tools and techniques of their trades. There was a dairy there too, a maker of Bombay mix and a meat trader. Coats, net curtains and upholstered furniture were made there. Restaurant menus were printed and cardboard cartons constructed. Second hand garments were sorted for shipping to Africa. There were cafes and bars. The full range of Londoners made livings there.
Where did they all go? Some owners went into battle over the CPO, most famously Lance Forman, whose smoked salmon factory stood where West Ham United now play. He was relocated to the opposite bank of the Lee Navigation Canal, where his original family business still operates along with a restaurant and art gallery. Others too have carried on nearby, while still others have migrated down the Thames estuary or beyond, into Essex or Kent. Some have prospered, some have folded. Each case is different, their fortunes formed from various factors, of which being forced to move may or may not have been one.
“We do not endeavour to comment on the economic implications of different approaches to regeneration or seek to critique the planning or design of the Olympic Park,” Davis writes. Rather, she and her collaborators aim to usher to the fore “strands of history and issues relating to some of the site’s former uses and users that are at risk of being lost from the record”. That, and bringing to our attention, “other ways of seeing and representing places”.
There’s lots to look at and reflect on in Dispersal, much of it feeding into the larger question, so relevant to today’s fast-growing London, of what any public body can justifiably sacrifice in pursuit of what it judges the greater good. Big land use changes – demolitions, clearances, redevelopments – even if not forced through by the local state, will always produce winners and losers. Accompanying them will be arguments, sometimes fierce, about who best fits each description and which values ought to guide those who decide. It’s a big, difficult picture. Dispersal brings it into sharper focus.