To reach Olympic Park in East London, I had to battle those fierce and unforgiving competitors, Time and Chaos.
The race to the venue, and the starting line of the tour, required pan-athletic skills: gymnastics (leaping off the train and landing on the platform), judo (wrestling down a cab), tennis (a verbal volley with a disoriented driver) and track and field (a mad 100-yard dash from the Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner to the visitors center). Steps from the finish, the shuttle drove right past me, crushing any hope of victory.
Come July, traveling to the Summer Olympics sites will be much less strenuous. According to the organizer's greenprint (the Games will have an eco-bent), shuttles and trains will transport spectators to and from the events. But on my visit, the route was a beastly jungle of cranes, construction trucks, misleading signage, concrete barriers and piles of rubble. To further confuse matters, Pudding Mill Lane, one of the closest stops to the venue, was temporarily out of commission, and my taxi driver navigated East London as if it were alien territory -- which, in a way, it was.
"East London was absolutely ripe for regeneration. The area was hugely, hugely deprived. It had all of the smelly industries," said Jo Broadey, a guide with Blue Badge Tourist Guides, one of many organizations that lead tours of Olympic Park. "The Olympics will transform the area."
London, a serial host (1908, 1948), beat out Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris for the honor of holding the global sporting event. The city will center most of the contests (swimming, basketball, cycling and hockey, among others) and key facilities (press center and athletes' village) in East London, once a severely polluted and downtrodden area.
And yet -- cue Bob Costas -- the Dickensian story of East London mirrors the dramatic narratives of many Olympiads: Underdog overcomes adversity to triumph.
You've probably heard of East London. You might even have visited the area. If you've been to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the curry houses on Brick Lane, Canary Wharf or the O2, the concert arena, then you have wandered onto the right side of the city map.
To clear up any misconceptions, East London is not a boundless industrial wasteland, nor is it entirely cordoned off for the Games. (Conveniently, just the industrial wasteland section is.)
Olympic Park fits in a 500-acre tract in the Lower Lea Valley. If you require a fixed point, look up Stratford. Or any of the four boroughs that kiss the edges and provide alternate entry points. You can, for example, hike or bike the paved Greenway from Hackney Wick, across the canal, to Olympic Park and the View Tube, an observation platform and cafe made of recycled shipping containers.
To understand the ongoing evolution of East London, I met up with Kevin Caruth, the founder of Urban Gentry, a tour company that organizes outlier excursions such as East End: Hip Neighborhood Tour.
"This is super glossy from what it was. It was quite down and dirty," said Caruth, as we passed a graffiti-splashed brick wall en route to the main commercial district. "The East End is now one of those areas where you feel relatively safe. Nothing is too jarring." (Quick explanation: The terms East End and East London are pretty interchangeable, though some people refer to Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Whitechapel as the East End and the area around Olympic Park as East London.)
Caruth led me into Spitalfields market, a glass-roofed complex with restaurants and shops along the periphery and artisans and their wares occupying the middle. The market is the oldest in London, opening in the 1680s, when farmers' markets weren't a trend but a necessity. In 1991, new owners took over and pushed the revered produce operation out -- and into an open lot behind Olympic Park. I could hear the faint beat of the past, its thrum growing louder the deeper we explored.
"It's still a hub for creative, alternative thinking," Caruth said amid a maze of artsy vendors, "but it's less chaotic now."
Off the main strip, we ducked onto Cheshire Street, a tranquil lane of Victorian Grade 2 (which means very significant) homes that have survived periods of brutality (Jack the Ripper) and seediness (junkies). Independent shopkeepers inhabit the lower quarters, their boutiques tucked away like secrets.
"Younger people are coming here," said Marianne Lumholdt, who runs the modern home design store Mar Mar Co. "We smile and think: 'This is our little neighborhood. What are you doing here?' "
There are countless draws to an area once snubbed by the masses but now part of their social calendars. Boundary, for one, a renovated Victorian warehouse that opened in 2008 as an inspired retreat with a rooftop garden and bar, a British pantry and guest rooms themed on different designers (Eames) and styles (Bauhaus). And the Londonewcastle Project Space, an art venue that recently exhibited candid photos of Noel Gallagher, the irascible singer-songwriter of Oasis. And for contemporary art groupies who find beauty in tortured cow heads, there's White Cube Hoxton Square, the legendary hatchery of the Young British Artists.
"When you came here, it made you feel like you were part of an unknown London," Caruth said.
Alas, this is no longer a lost neighborhood; it has been found.
"East London has always been on the fringe, but now it's pretty well explored," said Andrew Merritt. "You could say the Olympics is like the full stop rather than the capital letter."
Merritt, with a team of partners and volunteers, runs Farm:Shop, an experimental gardening cafe in Dalston. Before 2010, the eastern district was not an easy hop away; a visit there required some strategic routing. However, as part of the London Olympics' transportation enhancement plan, the organization added a London Overground link from Dalston to Central London, bridging a gap that many locals now eulogize.
Dalston is the anti-twee. Its main drag, Kingsland Street, reminds you of the unglamorous side of life: the mop you need to buy for the kitchen, the sock drawer that needs replenishing, the laundry that is not going to wash itself. But pockets of whimsy enliven the landscape.
Housed in a former refugee shelter for Turkish women, Farm:Shop takes locavorism to the extreme. Its staff farms in the basement, the backyard, the former bedrooms and on the rooftop.
"We wanted to see how much food we could grow in a shop in the middle of London," said Merritt, who opened the business with friends in July 2010.
>The Olympic preparations
Standing on the elevated platform of the Hackney Wick rail station, I looked beyond a grotty lot splashed with graffiti toward a massive bowl-shaped stadium docked like an extraterrestrial spaceship. One hopes it came in peace.
Many groups offer tours of the park, but only one, the Olympic Delivery Authority, grants visitors access inside the secured gates. The group has connections.
"Well done for getting here," said guide Joanna Head after we took our seats on the bus. "I know it was quite a task."
Head started off with an abbreviated history of London and the Olympics, evincing an extra note of enthusiasm for 2012, which also brings the Paralympics (Aug. 29 to Sept. 9) to the city where they were conceived 54 years ago.
We drove in loops that provided front, back and side perspectives of the main venues, including the Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre and the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Presiding from on high was the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 377-foot-tall observation tower painted stop-sign red. Short of closing your lids, you can't miss it.
The organizers are also touting the more natural attractions, once buried beneath 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil and the toxic waters of the River Lea. The crew cleaned the soil six times, relocating 2,000 newts to safer grounds; sculpted hillocks and valleys; and planted more than 4,000 semi-mature trees. They also erected bird and bat boxes for some wing action.
"They don't want this to be barren land," Broadey said.
If you go:
*Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express London-Stratford City, 196 High St., Stratford (877-834-3613; www.hiexpress.com). Official Olympic sponsor. Within walking distance of Olympic Park, rail station and Westfield mall. Rates from $140, with breakfast.
Boundary, 2-4 Boundary St., Shoreditch (011-44-20-7729-1051; www.theboundary.co.uk). A dozen rooms inspired by different designers and movements, such as Bauhaus. On-site restaurant, rooftop bar, British grocer. Rooms from $250.
*What to do: Blue Badge Guide walking tour (011-44-20-7403-1115; www.tourguides2012.co.uk). Selection of walking tours around Olympic Park, morning and afternoon. $14, cash only.
Olympic Delivery Authority tour (www.london2012.com; 011-44-300-2012-001). Free bus tour inside Olympic Park grounds. Reservations required. Weekends only.
Urban Gentry (011-44-20-8149-6253; www.urbangentry.com). Insider private walking tours, including one of the East End. $240 for group tour.
*Information: www.london2012.com; www.visitlondon.com.