I have known Sevreanne Alexander for nearly four years now, during which time, we worked together as art consultants in Harrods, London. I met up with Sev to talk about London2012 and what it means to her and her grandmother, with whom she lives.
She is 25 years old and grew up intermittently in Stratford. She graduated from The University of Leicester in 2009 and then started working as a Fine Art Consultant in Harrods, London (with me!). For the last year and a half she has been a Fine Art Consultant on board Cunard ocean liners. She resides in Stratford town with her grandmother Pearl Fraser.
It’s the day of the Olympic Opening Ceremony and it’s was the first time I have seen Sev in nearly a year as she had been out at sea. So first, we have a coffee in the Westfield Stratford City (the mall). Afterwards, she takes me on a guided tour through Stratford Town.
From here you can see the absolutely enormous Olympic Stadium and the Arcelormittal Orbit. They dwarf everything else in site. On leaving Stratford Station and the Westfield Centre, we cross the road and head towards the much small, older Stratford Centre which now houses an indoor market and regular high street shops. She points out new additions like the large LCD screen and a new Costa but you can’t get past that the place is tired and needs fixing; like the broken lifts and toilets. It reminded me a little of Shepherd’s Bush.
She is right. As we walk through the old Stratford Centre, there is a very clear division between old and new. The centre is dilapidated and overcrowded.
She told me “it’s my view that the Olympics is fabulous for Stratford which once was a rundown East London town. Now it’s becoming glamorous and ‘the’ place to live. However, with that comes the sidelining of local people who have lived in Stratford and have known it all their lives. I am talking about the older, more vulnerable people who have owned markets stalls and independent shops for a couple of generations. Those are no longer needed because [Westfield] Stratford City is a first-rate version of the West End. Don’t get me wrong, it looks fabulous but what is being done to fused old Stratford with the new?
“Since the development of Westfield, along with the new library, new housing association and apartments, lots of young families and new young immigrant workers have moved here and it is so much busier. It has lost the old town mentality that used to be here. People now use the old Stratford Shopping Centre as a walk through to get to the train station or Westfields and people literally sprint through here. It’s like being in the middle of central London.”
She points out some of the market stalls that have been there as long as she can remember and names some of the stall holders. We come out of the other side of the centre and happened upon the High Street; the usual things are here, shops, church, chemist, pubs, market stalls and a park. It is just a regular small town. I tell her a little about the Newham Barnsley Partnership and I ask about any legacy there might be left for her town.
“I think it’s great for the younger community and it’s very inspirational. I know there have been lots of programs happening in local schools and there have been a lot more local arts projects popping up. It’s also good for business people who will move into the shiny new apartments which have shot up all over the place. I guess Stratford will become the new Canary Wharf but better, as it will soon have transport links to Europe. I’m not sure though if East London can handle Stratford going international. I wonder what the impact might be. Will they rip down the old houses to make something glossy, fit for the pages of Homes & Gardens? Will those communities be asked to relocate due to redevelopment? Again, don’t get me wrong, Stratford will be fantastic once complete but it’s seems like they’re pushing out the old to make way for the new.’
As we walk past the local Morrisons, we come to a quiet row of terraced houses; much like those in Barnsley. It doesn’t feel very London; much more homely. As we enter, Sev’s grandma Pearl greats me, with a broom in one hand.
Pearl moved to London in 1957. On her arrival, Pearl arrived in a red summer suit and was surprised to see snow for the first time in her life. She had just turned twenty years old, when she followed her husband who had moved here two years earlier. They initially lived in an attic room in a big town house in Mile End. The room they lived in was dirty and damp and any dreams they might have had looked like they might go up in smoke.
When she later fell pregnant with her first child, the land lord found out and kicked them out onto the street, making them both homeless. As they walked the streets they knocked on the doors of bed and breakfasts and hotels and every time someone answered, the doors were slammed in their faces. When she asked Vin why they were being treated like that, he replied ‘they think we are monkeys; we’re not welcome.’
They found luck in Threadneedle Square when a car pulled up and a gentleman offered them a room for the night. The room was dirty but they were more happy with the goodwill offered. The gentleman later said that if they cleaned the room, they could live there rent free for a month. He ended up buying them a table, a chair, a bed and linens and even offering Vin a job.
After a few years, when Pearl’s first daughter Angela was born, Vin put up the small property they owned in Jamaica up for sale and with the money they earned they bought the house in Stratford that Pearl still lives in now.
We sit down with some cold drinks at the kitchen table and while the sounds of the washing machine and Jessica Fletcher ring out in the back ground we chat about the changes brought to Pearl’s life. I start by asking her if she is interested in the Olympics and sport.
“I’m not really interested in it. It will be nice to have it in Stratford. It would make a nice change… a bit of excitement and something to remember; especially for the children but I’m not really interested in it. I’m not one for sport, I should say. Although I do watch it sometimes though… the big games. I sometimes like the running and the Pole vault.” I admit to her that I’m not really a sports fan and that I too only really watch the biggest international games.
I ask her opinion of how Stratford has changed over the years. She starts by telling me about Vincent [Vin] her late husband and about what Stratford was like in the late 1950’s.
“I’ve been here since 1957. Stratford used to be a very industrial town with a close community. Angel Lane, where the Westfields is now, used to be where they made bridges. Vin used work where the Olympics site is at the Bromley-By-Bow Paper Factory. That was in the 60’s. Everybody used to know everybody, just like Barnsley when it was a mining town; and we all lived in terraced houses like this.” I asked her where she used to work. “I used to work at a factory where we made sweets. I was there for eleven years before I started working in a factory in Bow where we printed newspapers until the fumes from the ink started to affect me. Now I have bad asthma. That used to be very good money though. In the last ten years, Stratford has changed a lot.”
Sev cuts in, “Even me, who was born and raised in Newham, feels I no longer know what Stratford is, or if I want to fit into the new Stratford City. I wonder if it will be eventually redeveloped in its entirety and the old Stratford wiped away for good.”
Pearl says, “Before it changed, everyone used to know each other. Now I only know a couple of the people who live around here. There used to be more market stalls but things close down and are replaced by takeaways. I don’t go into town now because of the crowds. It’s just a mad rush. Not like the 50’s and 60’s.”
I ask, “So how has the redevelopment of Stratford and the Games affected you both?”
“I’m going on holiday during the Olympics. I can’t drive right now. Everything takes too long. It took me two hours to leave Stratford yesterday. It would have normally taken me fifteen minutes. I suspect many Londoners will be taking their holidays in the next two weeks too,” explaines Sev.
Pearl talks to me a little about her weekly routines and about how they have had to change. “Every week I go to my club, the shopping centre, the market and the post office. Sometimes I like to just go out and have a work; exercise my legs and get some fresh air. I would prefer to go to the market for meat and fresh veg because it was better quality and cheap, but now I have to go to Morrison’s because it is nearer. The town is too busy.”
Sev explains that “the streets are too busy these days now the town has been redeveloped. The people push their way through the streets and it’s quite a struggle to get along there with a shopping cart. I imagine she’ll stay in during the Olympics.”
“It’s too busy down there now” Pearl says. “It’s gotten worse since the Westfield centre was built. I can’t stand there pushing and shoving. And they don’t say sorry, the bloody pigs. I have a bad leg. Everyone is in such a rush. It would be nice if people just strolled along with no worries instead of the mad rush it is now.”
I ask if the Olympic Games have stopped her normal routine. “I got on the bus to go to East Ham for a three o’clock hair dressers appointment. I left here at 1 o’clock and to get a 238 bus. I missed it and all of the following ones were late. When I finally got on the bus there was no room for me to sit. Everyone was pushing and shoving and I have a bad leg. No one gets up to give you a seat. Eventually, when someone finally did offer me one, the bus stopped and it was announced that it was going no further and that everyone had to get off. We all had to wait for another bus. When I got there I was too late.” This is a regular London occurrence. Buses can stop mid-route and then ask for passengers to leave and they do it often (it would go on to happen to me three times during my week trip). It might be to keep the services running on time, however I’m not certain but it sure as hell is annoying when it happens to you.
“I go to a club in West Ham every Thursday. It’s a football club but we go and play Bingo there. Yesterday I couldn’t go because I was told that if I take a cab, it would not cost me £6-£8 instead of my usual £2 because of heavy traffic. If I had paid my £6 there and £6 back, then my bingo book for £7, plus my entry fee, it’s nearly £25, so I couldn’t go. I can’t afford that. I’d normally spend about £12 maximum. So I just stay in instead.”
Sev explains that even driving Pearl some places has proved to be difficult. “As well as the petrol cost which has just risen again, I also have to help Nan out of the car because of her leg. There is never a place to park where I can help her out, so it has become impossible. I can understand why the elder will feel like they have to be confined to their houses.”
But Pearl still smiles and enjoys talking about the Stratford she used to know, despite it slowly disappearing. I say my goodbyes to her and Sev walks me back to the station.
Sevhas one more thing before I leave.
“Nan is 76 and she isn’t that familiar with the new Stratford. What if she didn’t have a younger generation relative like myself to support her? I mean I’m fine with all of the changes really and I will get used to the new Stratford and enjoy it but she probably won’t. I suppose what I am trying to say is all the tourists who have got tickets to the Olympics will be taking over the new Stratford City this summer and local people will most likely watch from the sidelines. Once the games have finished I’m not really sure how it will benefit the town; or maybe the town will just cease to be in the way that I know it. The house has been in the family three generations now, and we would love it to stay that way. I’d hate to think that one day we will be asked to leave.”
It does seem sad that in just a couple of years, an entire town can be changed forever. Although elements of old Stratford still exist, most of that lays within the people there. A new Stratford is continuously being built and redeveloped and it is the big businesses and younger generations who will benefit from that the most; but what they lose out on is no longer having the kind of community that once did exist here. And as money is temporarily being pumped in Stratford to fund arts organisations and youth sports projects to create some kind of lasting Olympic legacy, once the games have finished and the money stops, what will happens because it is these organisations that work to rebuild some of that lost small town community spirit and to bring together the new diverse Stratford.
I want to thank Sevreanne and her Grandma Pearl for their generous time.