West Ham United is, once again, lined up to occupy the post-Games Olympic Stadium, golden heart of London 2012. For the club this could mean ascent to football's super elite. For London's mayor, Boris Johnson, it could avert the threat of embarrassment in white elephant form. The need of all concerned, Johnson in particular, to proclaim that the taxpayer won't be fleeced must now be met if the deal is to be sealed. I hope it is. But whether it would represent "a true and lasting legacy for east London", as Hammers' vice-chairman Karren Brady has claimed, depends a lot on what you're looking for.
The big legacy picture that Games advocates have always drawn features more than a thriving sports bowl in a handsome park. It sketches an East End liberated from decades of struggle and neglect, from being the poor relation of London's rich centre and affluent west. "Convergence" is the signature term here, summarising the Olympic host boroughs' aim of raising their residents' social profile stats – employment, life expectancy, school exam grades and so on – up to levels for the capital as a whole.
That's nice enough as targets go, but averages can hide more than they show. If "convergence" is achieved because of an influx of healthier, wealthier people rather than by improvements of the lives of those already there, it might not be a legacy to love. If such incomers' spending power caused local shop prices to rise beyond hard-up locals' means, the latter become less "converged", not more. If private landlords hike rents, those locals may end up moving elsewhere.
And, yes, you're right: those factors are already in play. I've lived in one of the host boroughs, Hackney, for 30 years and my present home for 20 years. Signs of this once-infamous area "coming up" weren't obvious for a long while, but then my kids' primary school intake become more middle class, a delicatessen opened and now a Sainsbury's has replaced a Somerfield. On the street I overhear disapproval of fried chicken takeaways and detect more fussiness about coffee. Waves of eastbound affluence are lapping ever closer to the banks of the river Lea. The media have been dipping their toes.
The whole phenomenon, one fostered by politicians from across the spectrum, distils on a grand scale those fraught debates about regeneration, gentrification and the dynamics of big city change. Turning the Olympic Stadium claret and blue would itself symbolise an economic landscape shift, with the cockney club deserting its historic niche of working-class Newham to the showcased new frontier of London growth. It would strengthen still more the signal that the east is primed for private investment, something Westfield, Siemens and Ikea have already worked out.
The trick, the challenge, the only right and proper goal must be to help east London's poor to gain more – much more – than they lose from the transformations. This will not be straightforward to arrange. Market force momentum will continue to move the territory upmarket with all the cost-of-living consequences that entails. But there will be benefits too, and planners and politicians must strive to steer the proceeds of renewal to the advantage of those it most affects.
Education and skills are critical to this and big progress has already been made. But being qualified to secure a newly created job is one thing, being able to afford to live close to it, another. The direction of government policy, unopposed by London's mayor, is to make "affordable" housing harder to deliver and ill-named. This makes powerful the case for preserving every brick of what remains. Those host boroughs should take note that creating "mixed communities", popular though those are, does not, of itself, make poor people better off. If it means knocking estates down it can produce dislocation, not cohesion – a result as undesirable as the population "churn" caused by the homegrown, upwardly mobile shipping out.
It's easy to take purist positions on all of this and greet change only with anguished poetry. But purism and poetry are luxuries that purists and poets can better afford than those served by my neighbourhood's pound shops and pawnbrokers, which seem to be proliferating every bit as fast as its retro decor cafes. The view from the Olympic Stadium takes in the towers of Canary Wharf, a monument to imported wealth's reluctance to "trickle down" to those living nearby. The Olympic Stadium would be in part for community use under the West Ham plan. The more empowered are the communities nearby, the more use to them that plan can be.