It's a widely peddled article of faith that the forthcoming Olympics will remake the East End of London for the better. But to fully buy into that storyline we're also asked to accept that, until London organizers came along to transform them, the 500 acres that now make up the Olympic Park were a wasteland of urban blight.
In fact, the turf on which athletes will gambol in a few weeks hummed with industry. Some 250 businesses called it home. And on the very site of today's Olympic Stadium sat a salmon smokery that had been in the same family for four generations, supplying its product to such clients as Fortnum & Mason, Williams-Sonoma and hotels and restaurants around the world.
Soon after London won the Olympics in July 2005, men in suits asked Lance Forman, managing director of that salmon smokery, H. Forman & Son, to part with the factory in accordance with compulsory purchase, a British legal principle akin to what Americans call eminent domain. Having built a new facility for more than 80 employees only two years earlier, Forman found his enthusiasm for this proposal rather curbed.
"The greatest manufacturing area in all of London was to be essentially wiped out for three weeks of sport," Forman told me recently. "Our strategy was to make an absolute nuisance of ourselves to get fair compensation."
For four years the two parties shadowboxed with each other. Then, on the eve of Forman's court date to cross-examine LOCOG chief Sebastian Coe about the case, officials with London's Olympic Delivery Authority phoned, ready to cut a deal. After the dispute was settled Forman fired off a letter to Coe. "You can run," began the note to the two-time Olympic 1500-meters gold medalist, "but you can't hide."
A confidentiality agreement restrains both sides from divulging what it took to buy out the great-grandson of Harry Forman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who fled the pogroms to come to England at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, with the proceeds from the deal, Forman built a dazzling new smokery, which today sits barely 100 yards across the River Lea from the venue that evicted his previous one.
Actually, Forman has done more than that.
"Rather than press the pause button on our core business while the Games come here," he says, "we decided to turn to the Olympics for more business."
Late last month, Forman ushered me around his new, pink, piscatorial palace in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which occupies part of what's known appropriately enough as Fish Island. It's much more than a salmon factory.
A restaurant will stay open until 4 a.m. each morning during the Games, with Ronnie Scott's, the downtown London jazz club, relocating there for 17 days. Upstairs is an art gallery, which, beginning in mid-July, will host a photo exhibit focusing on Muhammad Ali. Forman considers the gallery a natural, given that 200 square meters of Fish Island feature some 650 artists' studios, among the densest such concentrations in the world. In the making of smoked salmon, and the creation of art in repurposed industrial spaces, he says, "there's an interesting cultural affinity. Both are artisanal, done by hand."
Forman then led me out on to the roof, from which he gestured at an adjacent concrete slab that he bought up in 2010 when it went on the market. Strewn with rubble and graffiti, the land began its transformation last week into "the Fish Island Riviera." At the height of the Olympics, travel between London's West End, with its concentration of hotels and restaurants, and the Olympic Park could take hours. Here, as water taxis deliver clients quayside, 30 corporate suites will overlook imported palm trees, rented deck chairs and enough sand for a beach volleyball court. Says Forman, "It'll literally be an oasis from the Park, yet you'll still be able to hear the roar of the crowd in the stadium."
A place on Fish Island won't come cheap. At one end of the spectrum, an individual could escape with a champagne breakfast tab of $120. At the other, a Riviera suite for the length of the Games will run $120,000, plus VAT. Forman turns to the language of poker: "We're holding the nuts. We're going all in, gambling everything on this. And we've got the river card."
In fact, Forman has hedged his bets. When the Olympics and Paralympics are gone by the end of September, he'll still have his core business. Many of the 250 firms that used to operate on the Olympic Park site weren't as lucky. Some 75 simply closed. Another 100 are still fighting for compensation. With a $320 million gap between what's in the Olympic organizers' compulsory-purchase pot on the one hand, and what bereft enterprises are asking for on the other, Forman counts himself fortunate -- both that he dug in his heels, and that he chose to settle when the settling was good.
Forman believes that London organizers have done plenty of shape-shifting in their seven-year slog to the Olympics, depending on how it suited their purposes -- sometimes playing down economic negatives like the extinction of indigenous industry, and at other times taking credit for economic positives that are more the result of developments, like the Eurostar train connection and the Stratford City mall, that began long before the Games were won. But he's bullish on the East End and its long, steady swim upstream.
"When people come out for a visit to the restaurant or gallery, they tend to have two reactions," he says. "One is a variation on, 'I didn't know this part of London existed.' The other goes something like, 'I didn't realize how close it is.' They think the East End is in Moscow. And they're pleasantly surprised -- so much so they say they'll come back.
"The center of gravity of London will move east. This part of the city will become like [Manhattan's] Meatpacking District, truly artsy. And if tech companies move into post-Olympic buildings, this could become the Silicon Valley of the U.K. With a huge and thriving artistic community here, tech will want to follow, because they tend to be creative people too."
In a kind of Olympic truce, LOCOG executives have used Forman's Fish Island for receptions and entertaining since the new smokery's opening three years ago. Forman and Coe have laughed about their near-clash in court. And at one point, London 2012 CEO Paul Deighton sidled up to Forman to say, "You realize, Lance, that Forman's has become a legend in the Olympic movement."
"It was quite a David and Goliath battle," Forman says. "I have a cheeky relationship with them, but I think they have respect for us."
Indeed, LOCOG hired Forman's to cater its first event within the Olympic Stadium. That day Forman couldn't help but reflect on his previous quarters, which sat on the track, roughly where Usain Bolt will settle into the starting blocks.
"It was nice," Forman says. "Quite nostalgic, actually. As if the salmon were returning to their river."