You’re not West Ham anymore: The death of an identity

The end of the 2017/18 Premier League season marks two years since West Ham United left their historic home in Upton Park. The seemingly constant state of crisis the club has been in since moving into the former Olympic Stadium has been a much documented, much criticised part of the Hammer’s subsequent two seasons. The disconnect between the board and the fans, highlighted by recurring protests both physical and online, seems to only be widening as memories of the Boleyn Ground fade. While on the surface this seems like a fanbase wrongly ungrateful for a taxpayer funded 60,000 seater stadium, the resentment much of the Hammers faithful have stretches beyond even the realms of the beautiful game.

When Upton Park was sold to property developers for £35,000,000, it saw the severing of a cultural connection between many and a vastly changed area of East London. The majority of West Ham’s core support live in Essex and Kent, the children or grandchildren of East Enders removed from their traditional heartland during slum clearances and the New Housing projects of the post-war era. During this process, a traditional London working-class culture was removed to the towns and suburbs of the Home Counties to make room for the gentrified middle-class culture East London is famous for today. For many of these expatriate East Enders, the fortnightly visit to Upton Park was more like a pilgrimage to an ancestral homeland rather than just the attending of a football match. Green Street, Queens Market, Ken’s Café, The Boleyn Tavern, Nathan’s Pie and Mash, the entire matchday experience was an intrinsic link to a traditional Cockney culture, one which came ‘home’ every time West Ham played at The Boleyn. The experience at Stratford City could be no further away for that which Upton Park represented to so many.

Rather than travelling down the archetypical East End thoroughfare, Green Street, fans are now herded towards the stadium by disinterested staff in high-vis amongst Missguided and Primark shoppers in the Westfield Shopping Centre. Instead of Queen’s Market one walks past a Hugo Boss and an Urban Outfitters. Instead of Percy Ingle, fans eat at restaurants owned by Jamie Oliver and Gary Neville. The whole Stratford City complex could really be anywhere in the world, and fans get no sense of traditional London culture in the build-up to the match. Once past the maze of Mr Pretzel and Bubble Tea stands, London Stadium approaches. While the underlying problems with the current ‘home’ experience are largely not a product of the stadium itself as opposed to where it is, there are some issues which only fuel fans contempt and views that the board assume mass naivety.

West Ham legend Bobby Moore takes a rest at Upton Park.

London Stadium is an athletics stadium poorly adapted for footballing purposes. The running-track is covered by an oh-so-obviously temporary set of ‘retractable seats’ held together with cable ties. The exposed track is then covered with a shockingly green felt carpet that looks like it was bought hooky by a punter at Queen’s Market. The exterior decorative cladding is tied onto the stadium frame and looks ready to be taken down at a moment’s notice. While the views from the stands are not as bad as have been made out, the cavernous bowl-shape and resultant echoing makes chanting in unison difficult, save for small groups and random bursts of clapping more commonly seen at England games or a Little Mix concert. This isn’t aided by the pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium, a result of season tickets having been sold by the club to fans of football rather than fans of West Ham. Cheap season ticket prices and a need to fill the stadium led to those with the money buying a seat at the London Stadium as a non-partisan mode for watching Premier League football. These are more inclined to come and watch the top six than show up for a Monday night game against Stoke, although they’d have missed a cracking Andy Carroll volley during the latter.

Compare this to the Boleyn Ground, which despite significant redevelopment retained much of its historic character and reputation as a ‘proper’ football stadium throughout its entire history. Despite enduring rotten seasons involving relegation, Avram Grant, and Emmanuel Pogatetz, West Ham were famous for their atmosphere and self-depricating terrace chants. This was best observed during floodlit night matches, with the three tower blocks and fans on garage roofs on Priory Road really making it feel like the East End had stopped to watch West Ham play. Yes this could sometimes turn nasty, with the 2009 ‘Upton Park Riot’ during a cup match against arch-rivals Millwall vindicating an often unjustified associated between the club’s fans and football violence, however for most matchday was all about loving Upton Park. The place was home, and for now London Stadium feels like a three-star hotel room.

It is likely that things will improve at the stadium itself, with there being a strong possibility that West Ham will eventually buy the stadium, given that Birmingham will have a purpose-built athletics stadium for the Commonwealth Games in 2022. However, the crisis at the club runs much deeper than the stadium. The Nathan family, owners of a pie and mash shop on Barking Road, announced this week that they are to close after 80 years in West Ham’s heartland. The shop depended upon it’s fortnightly visit from expatriate Cockneys for its livelihood, and the demolition of Upton Park heralded the end for that family’s business. It is likely that many more formerly match-day dependent businesses, such as Ken’s Café and the various local pubs, will close in the near future. This is symbolic of what the West Ham move has meant for so many Hammer’s fans; the loss of a culture, a history, an identity. It is hard to see how the connections people had to Upton Park could ever be replicated in the sprawling glass metropolis in Stratford, and that is something that will loom over the club for the foreseeable future.

Sources:

Cover and Body Photo – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3581963/Farewell-Upton-Park

 

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