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East London was early Olympics winner

East London has been given a dramatic face lift in preparation for hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics.
BY RICK STEVES Published: August 5, 2012

One look at London's skyline, and it's clear that the city is shifting east. Once a run-down wasteland, East London now glistens with gardens, greenery and state-of-the-art construction. Skyscrapers punctuate the skyline while a tangle of new Tube lines makes it a quick and easy trip from the center of town.

Much of the revitalization is thanks to the 2012 Olympic Games, which are taking place through Aug. 12. But even after the Summer Games are safely tucked away in the record books, their legacy will live on in East London.

While definitely not Jolly Olde England, this area — stretching from the Olympic Park south to the bustling Docklands district — offers a break from quaint, touristy London and a refreshing look at the British version of a 21st-century city.

The gleaming new Olympic Park is about seven miles northeast of downtown London in an area called Stratford. Filling the Lea Valley, Stratford was once the site of derelict factories, mountains of discarded tires and Europe's biggest refrigerator dump.

But in preparation for the Olympics, this area has been gutted and rebuilt. Half a million trees were planted, and 1.4 million tons of dirt were cleansed of arsenic, lead and other toxic chemicals — a reminder of this site's dirty industrial past.

Olympic Park is huge — bigger than Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens.

It's also quite beautiful, laced with canals and tributaries of the Lea River. At the heart of the complex is a gaggle of ultramodern construction, including the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which hosts the opening and closing ceremonies; the Aquatics Center, with its swooping wavelike roofline that's meant to suggest a dolphin; and the 350-foot tall Orbit viewing tower, made of more than 1,800 feet of spiraling tubular red steel.

Even after the games are over, Stratford will continue to evolve as both a tourist destination and a symbol of modern-day London. While some buildings, such as the basketball and water-polo arenas, will be dismantled, others will gain a second life.

The Olympic Stadium will be refitted to become a more intimate venue with 60,000 seats while the Velodrome will be turned into a center for community use.

After the athletes move out of the Olympic Village dorms, contractors will swoop in to install kitchens and turn these units into public housing.

The commercial zone, Stratford City, will serve as the biggest shopping center in Europe, while the Olympic Park area will be converted into a public space called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The Orbit will remain as a visitor attraction, providing fine views over London from its observation decks.

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