The gypsies who lost their homes to make way for the Olympics

The construction of the athletes' village broke up a community that had been on the site legally since 1972.

As athletes settle in to the Olympic Village in East London, a “home away from home” for officials and competitors, some may wonder who lived there before them. The complex now is studded with luxury flats for the 17,000 Olympic athletes and the 4,500 Paralympians who will follow them. With karaoke facilities, an on-site gym with more than 50 treadmills and a 5,000-seat dining room, the architecture has a watery theme “accentuating the closeness of the River Lea”.

The site’s previous inhabitants also prized the proximity of the Lea, as well as the meadows where they used to graze horses, the cycle track where the kids played and the hill where the older residents sat watching the horizon. More than 15 families of Gypsies had lived here legally – on land no one else wanted – since 1972, paying rent to the council and for all their utilities.

“Clays Lane weren’t much to look at,” says Esther Smith, 31, a mother of four whose extended family had lived on the site for over three decades. “But it was home. There was a strong sense of community. You had room to think.” Her cousin Lisa Smith, 36, nods. “It wasn’t like living in London. It felt very safe.”

For the Clays Lane families, the journey since London won the Olympic bid on July 6th 2005, has been one long nightmare. “The first thing we knew about it was a big notice stuck on the gate,” says Tracie Giles, a mother from Clays Lane who became a campaigner for the families evicted by the Olympics. “It was a compulsory purchase order from the London Development Agency.”

Alternative sites proposed by Newham Council horrified the residents. “They wanted to put us on Jenkins Lane, a terrible place underneath the A406 by a sewage gully and facing Burger King,” Tracie remembers. “Another one was directly under the flight path for City Airport.” For a while, the families were poised to move to Chobham Farm, next to Westfield Shopping Centre. But after months of consultation, the offer was withdrawn.

“Meanwhile, Clays Lane was getting worse,” Tracie says. “Demolition was going on all around. We were fenced in, choking with dust, surrounded by massive machinery. There was nowhere safe for the kids to play.

Backed by the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, Tracie and the other families fought the closure of Clays Lane with a legal challenge in the high court and a judicial review. “I really thought we’d win,” Tracie says. “But we didn’t. They said we were moving to Parkway Crescent.” In July 2007, five months after the building work had begun, families were given a month’s notice to move. “We packed up all our belongings,” Tracie says. “The council cut off the street lighting and stopped the postman coming. But still we didn’t move.” Their leaving date was postponed 11 times. “The new site wasn’t ready. We were prisoners on a building site.”

The families finally moved in mid-October 2007. “I remember waking up the last morning,” Tracie says. I just felt this huge sense of loss, looking at all the empty pitches.” The new site was next to the athlete’s entrance to the Olympic complex, surrounded by busy roads. Each family had a pitch with space to put a caravan and a ‘shed’ – a prefabricated block with a bathroom and kitchen.

“The water comes in the windows when it rains, the rain was coming in the front door,” Esther Smith says. “The boiler went, I had a water leak that went on for months. Plug sockets were held on by an elastic band. Baths aren’t sealed properly. There’s no privacy. The tube runs underneath – it’s so loud!”

Tracie’s sister Lisa shakes her head. “We’ve been four and a half years now living on Europe’s biggest building site. I’m 36, and I feel 100. I’m out of breath. Two minutes after you’ve cleaned it’s dusty again. Kids round here have developed asthma. The stress has been unbelievable. Just for two weeks of sport.

“I was happy about London getting the Olympics, but we haven’t been treated right as a community. They wouldn’t have done it to any other people. No-one’s even offered us a free ticket.”

Once the Olympics and Paralympics end, Parkway Crescent will be prime land for legacy development. “We’ve never been given a permanent licence, they’ve just kept renewing a temporary one for four and a half years,” Tracie says. “Will we get moved somewhere even worse?”

Newham Council declined to comment on the families’ future at the site or their experiences since being forced to move from Clays Lane. Elsewhere, speaking about the Athletes' Village, British Olympic medallist Colin Jackson called it “the heart and soul of everything… a place that you feel comfortable, where you feel there’s a sense of belonging.” Five years after London won the bid for the Olympic Games, the Clays Lane Gypsies can still only dream of such a place.

 

The athletes' village at the Olympic Park in East London. Photograph: Getty Images

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.