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Column: Damn the money, Olympics renew east London

Associated Press Modified: May 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm •  Published: May 28, 2012

LONDON (AP) — In August of 1944, when the tough east London neighborhoods of his childhood lay smoking in bombed-out ruins, a Nazi German V1 rocket packed with one ton of high explosives "fell just where you're sitting," David Gold says.

Comfortably seated in the bar of the 117-year-old east London soccer club, West Ham, which he now co-owns, Gold is not trying to be melodramatic.

He is simply making a point: This part of London has long had more than its share of foul luck, and it was high time that changed. The 2012 Summer Games are helping do that.

The Olympics are focusing the world's eyes on what used to be a derelict, polluted patch of industrial land near Gold's childhood home but which now is a shining advertisement for east London: the immaculate, landscaped Olympic Park with purpose-built sports venues that smell like a new car. So damn the expense.

"What is happening is immense for east London," Gold says. The Olympics are "bringing the pride back to this part of the world."

Those London Mayor Boris Johnson once described as "Olympo-skeptics" have beaten a steady rhythm of complaint about the $14 billion Britain is spending in an economic recession on games many people couldn't get or afford tickets for. And Britain being a vociferous democracy, critics aren't locked up and shut up as they were in Beijing in 2008.

The Big Brotheresque Olympic security — up to 13,500 soldiers, plus police, security guards, fighter jets, helicopters, warships, surface-to-air missiles and even a "sonic weapon" crowd-control device that emits a dissuasive, ear-piercing beam of sound — also doesn't come cheap and, to some, is a scary reminder that Britain is a target for terrorists.

Street graffiti artists complain their work has been painted over in London's Olympic beautification. Police around the Olympic Park have been given powers to disperse "anti-social" teenage loiterers. Oficers have clamped down on prostitutes and cleaned out their calling cards from London's famous red telephone boxes. And plans to whisk Olympic VIPs and athletes through London traffic on reserved lanes sit uncomfortably in a class-conscious city where opponents dismiss the games as a corporate-sponsored shindig for the rich.

"The Olympics are being used to beat people over the head with," says Joe Alex, who owns a small house next to the Olympic Park and claims that games-related property development, "like social cleansing," is squeezing and pricing modest families out of the area.

"There's a real seedy underbelly. Corporate Olympics have taken over the whole thing," he says. "I don't know anyone who knows anyone who has a ticket."

But finding east Londoners who are thrilled is easy, too. When you look at east London's history, it is not hard to understand why.

The British capital has, in some ways, long been a city divided. Wealth, political power, bridges over the Thames, posh shops and night life were concentrated in its west. The east was where the city sent its filth — in engineer Joseph Bazalgette's sewage network — and crammed in its poor.

It was home to the massive shipping docks that Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe bombed ferociously because they handled one-third of Britain's imports. When Buckingham Palace in the west was bombed in 1940, Queen Elizabeth II's mother, the late Queen mother, was famously said to have been almost glad that she could now "look the East End in the eye" and share its suffering.

East London was where stinking industries clustered and where Jack the Ripper slashed and horrified, where Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky visited and where India independence leader Mohandas Gandhi stayed in 1931, preferring to live among the working people and smoke stacks than in a West End hotel.

For those in the west, "the old saying was that you never went east of the Aldgate Pump," a public fountain marking a rough boundary between the city proper and its East End, says Brian Grover, an east Londoner who works at the Museum of London Docklands.

His childhood memories are of swims in the Thames so polluted "we all had boils, ear aches," and of recovering cans of fruit discarded by cargo ships in the flotsam and jetsam of the river.

"You'd always find loads of stuff, amid the dead dogs," Grover says.

East London was also where those from other parts of the city often had no wish or need to go. Gold, the West Ham chairman, joked in this interview that the A13 highway that cuts horizontally through the east into the city's financial heart was enlarged and improved over the years "so people could get through the East End of London faster because nobody actually wanted to stop here."

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