OUT with a strimmer in his brother’s garden, Alex Spark’s enthusiasm for the Commonwealth Games is infectious; born a stone’s throw from the new arena and velodrome, two shiny, connected hangars which sit cheek by jowl beside Celtic Park, the 80-year-old now lives in Irvine, but is back in Glasgow’s East End often enough to have kept track of the way in which the area is being transformed.
The view his 84-year-old brother George once had of the Cathkin Braes has gone, he says, now blocked by the scaffolding around parts of the athletes’ village, and when the community centre on nearby Lily Street shuts he will no longer be able to push him out there in his wheelchair for a cup of coffee and a chat, but he still has a sparkle in his eyes when he talks about the cycling events which will take place 16 months hence.
“I’m a sporty person myself – I was a sprinter and PT instructor with the Army Cadets – so I think it’s really exciting when you see it all on TV. And I think we should be encouraging people to take part in more physical activities, although I’m a bit too old to be getting involved myself,” he says.
With exactly 500 days to go, Glasgow is gearing up for the biggest festival the city has seen since it became European City of Culture in 1990. The success of the London Olympics boosted morale and generated a buzz around the 11-day Commonwealth event which, while considerably smaller, is still likely to attract some of the world’s elite athletes.
When you compare preparations to other Commonwealth Games – particularly the ones in Delhi, where some of the facilities looked like building sites just weeks before the opening ceremony – everything seems to be going swimmingly. Across the city, shimmering new temples of sport have been sprouting up; the Emirates Arena and Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome are already open. The roofs of the athletes’ village, an eco-friendly complex which will house the 6,500 competitors and officials for the duration of the games – are appearing above massive grey hoardings and the 45m-tall ampitheatre-style Hydro arena, next to the SECC in the West End, will be completed later this year. Significant improvements to the roads infrastructure including the £25 million Clyde Gateway which links the M74 to the East End stadia, have been delivered more or less on time and on budget, and the new Dalmarnock Railway Station will open later this month, albeit it six months later than expected.
And if the prospect of 261 medal events wasn’t enough, organisers last week promised a £30m cultural extravaganza to rival the Edinburgh Festival, with arts events spilling out on to Glasgow’s streets.
In the past few weeks, perhaps encouraged by the praise heaped on the London “gamesmakers”, more than 50,000 people applied to be volunteers, the highest number since Commonwealth records began and well in excess of the number required, suggesting there is a real excitement about the Games, especially amongst the young (more than a third of those who applied were aged between 16 and 25).
But to what extent is that enthusiasm reflected across all generations, classes and geographical areas? Do most ordinary people, particularly in the East End where the greatest physical changes are being wrought, feel they are part of the process? And how many truly believe in the power of the Games to transform their lives and the city they call home beyond next year?
Interviewed shortly after the London Olympics, chief executive of Glasgow 2014 David Grevemberg pledged the 2014 Games would be the most inclusive ever; and at the opening ceremony of the Emirates Arena, the leader of Glasgow City Council Gordon Matheson urged assembled children to “own” the new facilities.
Yet gazing at the Emirates Arena/Velodrome from the detritus of the community that was once Dalmarnock it is easy to see why local residents might feel a disconnect; why – despite being constantly told otherwise – they might feel as if the Commonwealth Games was “not for the likes of them”. The building is difficult to reach except by car and its facade – with two parallel flights of stairs – is almost Orwellian in the way it dominates the landscape. Inside, a shop sells upmarket sports gear and expensive-looking spa products are on display in the foyer. Far from appearing like an organic part of the community, it feels crudely imposed upon it.
Those involved in the regeneration effort insist the building is used and staffed by locals (many taken on after completing a 12-week Clyde Gateway-funded training course). They also point out that, when the Games are over, the athletes’ village will be turned into 1,400 homes, 300 of them social housing, and a care home for 120, all of which should breathe new life into the rundown area.
But down in the streets of Dalmarnock, where buildings containing homes, shops, businesses and amenities have been bulldozed and some people forcibly decanted elsewhere, many of the residents feel resentful rather than hopeful about the impact of the sporting event.
With many homes boarded up, they were initially enthusiastic about change, but having been left for months in what looks like a war zone, without shops or a GP, and a dangerous pool of dirty water appearing behind Kinnear Road, they feel their welfare is effectively being sacrificed for the greater good. There, the joke is that the Games have done what the Luftwaffe failed to do when they bombed the local power station –lay waste to the whole area. In a pre-fab shed next to the soon-to-be closed community centre, Amanda Faulds is serving customers who have come to buy daily essentials. Her husband Darren set up the make-shift shop there after he was forced to shut his grocer/off-licence/sunbed business in Springfield Road.
“We were told the Games would be good for the area, but they didn’t tell us how we would suffer in the meantime,” says Faulds, who has seven children aged between one and 12. “It’s been murder for us to be honest.”
Faulds is particularly upset about the destruction of the children’s park – a park she says was part-funded by the community itself – to make way for a bus terminus. “That’s where my children wanted to play, not the arena – most people round here can’t afford to use it anyway.”
Not everyone in Dalmarnock is so pessimistic. Retired chef Edward Hunter was fed up of living opposite boarded-up properties and hopes the athletes’ village, and the housing that will follow, will help raise the value of his own house. He also hopes the arena will provide job opportunities for his 15-year-old granddaughter Lauren who lives with him and who already meets up with friends in the cafe. “I’m quite excited about the Commonwealth Games. I’d like to get tickets for the athletics because I used to run myself,” he says. “And I’d like to think if they’re successful they might bring more events – like the Youth Olympics, which I hear Glasgow plans to bid for – to the city.” But even he is worried by the lack of shops. No-one seems convinced that new ones will move in once the population rises because there is a Tesco just over the river.
A few kilometres away at Bridgeton Cross, where the signs of regeneration are more obvious, however, people are more positive. There, the community seems to have been buoyed by the sprucing up of the bandstand and the reopening of the iconic red sandstone Olympia building, an old cinema which had fallen into a state of disrepair.
It has been completely revamped and now houses a boxing gym to be used by Amateur Boxing Scotland and a busy state-of-the-art library complete with Scotland’s first mediatheque (where the British Film Institute’s national archive can be accessed).
To Jim Clark, senior manager for communications at Clyde Gateway urban regeneration company, which was set up as a special purpose vehicle to take advantage of the East End’s role in the Commonwealth Games, this venture is symbolic of how the event has the potential to revitalise the whole area. He insists Clyde Gateway has also been instrumental in bringing new job opportunities to the area. A new office block it built on London Road now serves as the corporate HQ for Glasgow Community and Safety Services. It employs 350 people and has promised to recruit new workers from the area.
“Anything we’ve built or been involved in building, we’ve put in community benefit clauses and each contractor is obliged to take on a percentage of its employees from the local workforce,” he says. “Where that is impossible – for example if work is too specialised – they will carry out a physical improvement project instead.” In one case that involved building a garden in a school, in another, offering professional advice to a local credit union.
A spokesman for Glasgow 2014 says the organisation will directly employ more than 1,100 by July next year, with a further 30,000 job opportunities created by Commonwealth Games contractors. “The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games is already experiencing great enthusiasm across Scotland, the UK and internationally, from individuals and communities who want to be part of the biggest sporting and cultural event ever seen in Scotland,” she says.
“Our volunteer programme has seen more than 50,000 people coming forward to make Glasgow 2014 history. There are many more ways to get involved in the Games too, through being involved in or enjoying our cultural programme, the Queen’s Baton Relay and experiencing world-class live sport and the excitement of the city at Games time.”
This message certainly seems to be inspiring a proportion of the population. Outside the Olympia, taxi driver Fred Welsh says he can already see the benefits being reaped; derelict houses pulled down to make way for new ones, the revamping of office blocks, an improvement in the roads network. “I think a lot of people just don’t like change,” he says. “They complain about the Commonwealth Games and I say to them: ‘Give it a chance. We will probably see improvements.’ Over the last few summers I have noticed an increase in the number of tourists coming to the city, attracted by the likes of the Riverside Museum. I think the Commonwealth Games will open the world’s eyes to what Glasgow has to offer.”
But with much of Dalmarnock still effectively under siege it will be a while before such optimism is universal. Shettleston MSP John Mason says Dalmarnock was already in a downward spiral of depopulation before Glasgow won the bid to host the Commonwealth Games, but that the new housing provided by the athletes’ village will bring an influx of new people and break the cycle. “If you build something big and new and shiny, there can be a bit of a reaction at first – the whole ‘that’s not for the likes of us’ kind of thing,” he says.
“There’s a self-confidence issue involved in getting people in there, getting them to see that this is a facility that belongs to them.”
Perhaps when the athletes’ village is unveiled, improved riverside walkways and cycle paths completed and new amenities (hopefully) attracted to the area, they too will get caught up in the general zeal. With so many people wanting to be involved, it is clear the Games’ organisers have already succeeded in whetting the appetite of many sections of the community. But the validity of their claims to inclusivity and a legacy beyond July next year depends on whether or not they can convince those who live in the shadow of the iconic East End buildings that the sporting extravaganza is in any way relevant to their lives.