The Olympics and Preservation III: Imagine All the People

For the last few days, I’ve been talking about the Olympics and preservation. Up to this point, I’ve focused on the actual Olympic facilities and their preservation (or lack of). Today, I’m going continue my Olympics wrap up, but I’m going  to veer off that course a little. I’m going to talk about people displaced by the construction of massive Olympic venues and what that means for them, for their communities and for preservation.

Forced displacement is not just an Olympics issue.  The poor, the homeless,  ethnic minorities, the working class – they are often displaced in the name of progress. They are displaced by parks, by urban development and infrastructure. It happens every day. I can think of at least three incidents in Kentucky off the top of my head (Old Birmingham under Kentucky Lake, the Between the Rivers Communities, the Ohio River Bridges Project. But the Olympics is big-time.  The money spent is big. The amount of construction is big. The stakes are big.  The viewership is big (some speculate as much as 2/3 of the world’s population tuned in for this summer’s games).  And the number of people displaced is big and is getting bigger. In 2007, the Centre for Housing Rights (a UN-funded entity), found that more than 2 million people were displaced (directly or indirectly) between 1988 and 2008 by the Olympic games. This makes the Olympics one of the top causes of displacement and real estate inflation in the world.

A man beside his partially demolished home in Beijing, 2008 via NYT

The Centre for Housing Rights also reported that forced displacement increased in each successive city, it disproportionally affected the homeless, poor, and ethnic minorities and it had long term effects on adjacent working class areas due to accelerated real estate inflation. For example, in Barcelona, housing prices rose 139% while rental prices rose 145% and public housing decreased by 76%. The Barcelona games also displaced 90% of the city’s Roma population. In Atlanta, 2,000 public housing units were demolished for the 1996 Olympics displacing 6,000 low income residents. An additional 30,000 residents were eventually displaced due to gentrification.  Five years before the London games, property values were already escalating on the East End. More than 1.5 million people were displaced by the Beijing Olympics according to some human rights organizations (the Chinese government denied the allegations). Currently, the favelas of Rio are in the news with stories of people forced out of their homes at gunpoint and bulldozers lining the streets to make way for World Cup and Olympic venues.

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Techwood Homes in Atlanta demolished photograph via the Affordable Housing Institute

The people displaced by “mega-events” or the construction of interstates or the creation of parks – they lose more then their homes. They lose their neighborhood and community. They lose their collective history, experiences, and day-to-day routine.  Sometimes they lose their livelihood when their business is demolished or they are relocated to an area too far from their place of work to feasibly commute. With little or no compensation. With little or no choice.

They lose the place they grew up. The park  where they learned to swing a bat, kick a soccer ball, shoot hoops.  The place they had their first kiss. The store that gave them their first job. The church where they got married. The place they started their family. Saw their children take their first tottering step. Shared stories over cups of tea or sangria or Caipirinha with their mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors.  They lose the culture of the neighborhood.  These places and their distinct characteristics just cease to exist.

A home in the Vila Autódromo favela threatened by World Cup and Olympic development in Rio via the Global Post

Historic preservationists talk a lot about place memory.  The intangible associations that are wrapped up in a place  (historical or not) that give them meaning.  This is why we have memorials – a place to go to remember. It’s why we walk through the Coliseum and think about all the people who have walked there before us for hundreds of years.  It’s why we touch a bannister in an historic house and think, “I’m touching something George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, Louisa May Alcott etc.” touched. Or when we visit the place our ancestors were born – be it another country or a rural farm one state over. Places connect us to our history. For the people displaced by the Olympics that sense of connection is often lost.

On the other side of the coin, some argue that many of the neighborhoods demolished to make way for new development are derelict, have crumbling infrastructure, or have negative associations with the past and the people who live in these areas are better off in new communities with better infrastructure and amenities.

This and a closer look at a few neighborhoods lost to the Olympics tomorrow.

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