LONDON (Reuters) - The charred buildings damaged in last August’s riots stand out like black teeth on Woolwich’s central square, a stark image made all the more gruesome as the area in east London has been given a makeover in time for next year’s Olympics.
The burned shops lie in walking distance of the Royal Artillery Barracks, one of three Olympic venues in the borough of Greenwich.
But while the scars inflicted three months ago remain, locals are already turning their attention to next summer.
“It will help the area forget the riots,” said Errol Briscoe, a 51-year-old thinly built former builder wearing a black baseball cap. “Anything will help Woolwich forget them.”
When rioters smashed windows, looted shops and burned down businesses during four days of rampage in the capital, much of the focus was on Hackney, north of the river, and Croydon, to the west.
Market trader John Hadden suggested Woolwich, south of the river Thames and the main Olympic Park, had been deliberately underreported by the media because of its Olympic status.
“Every window was smashed, the area was devastated,” he said. “I wonder whether if it was kept out of the newspapers deliberately.”
The 65-year-old was doing good business selling gloves and hats on a cold day from one of the market stalls in the center of town.
It is an area that has received a lot of improvement work since Woolwich was chosen to host the shooting events.
New paving has been put in, a new landscaped central square with a huge screen, which will show the Olympics live, has been created and a new terminus of the Docklands Light Railway opened.
“There’s a lot of building work going on,” said a 42-year-old lecturer, who did not want to give her name.
”The square looks quite a lot nicer, it’s a lot more open. We’ve got cafes now by the market and the old run-down area has been replaced by the DLR station. We’ve got a new modern library now as well.
“I‘m pretty sure that without the Olympics it would not have been done.”
The area was in need of sprucing up, especially after the closure of the Royal Arsenal in 1994 which sealed Woolwich’s decline, a process which had begun in the late 1960s when Siemens shut its doors in the area for the last time.
The town now relies on the public sector for most of its jobs, mainly at the local council.
Three betting shops stand on one side of the square, interspersed with a closed-down pool club and a pawn shop.
At the opposite corner of the square, another betting shop now occupies the old Maritime Greenwich College.
Chatting outside the H&S Halal butchers was security guard Awara Kader who said he would be working on the Olympic Park during the Games.
“It’s an honor,” the 29-year-old said. “I will tell my children I was there.”
Greenwich is unusual among London’s Olympic boroughs as it will not benefit from any tangible structural legacy. All its venues are either temporary or non-sport specific.
The equestrian events, which will be held on the world heritage site of Greenwich Park, will revert to parkland afterwards, while artistic gymnastics, trampoline and basketball will be staged at the North Greenwich Arena (normally known as the O2) which usually stages concerts.
The shooting range will be removed from the grounds of the Royal Artillery Barracks and it will revert back to its military use which dates back to 1776.
But locals hope the stunning backdrops will tempt some of the millions of people watching on their television sets to visit.
Greenwich Park is London’s oldest royal park, dating back to 1433, and is home to the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Mean Time. The Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum are also there.
The area has also benefited from job creation on the Olympic Park with about 200 locals finding jobs.
But some traders were not looking forward to the Games.
“They won’t let me work,” said Luigi Esposito, 63, sitting in his Super Whip ice-cream van. “The police will move me on.”
Reporting by Avril Ormsby