LONDON - Forget the games. Let the shopping begin!
That was the cry Tuesday as the Westfield Stratford City mall opened its doors at the hub of the 2012 London Olympics site. Thousands jammed the mall, the largest retail space in Europe, to see with their own eyes how their once drab, rundown community is being transformed into the gathering point of champions.
Women with strollers, teenagers in headscarves and others in impossibly high heels ran across a bridge and through the mall's swinging glass doors. They lined up outside outlets like Forever 21, sipping coffee and chatting excitedly. Some sought the free pyjamas being offered to the mall's first customers, but others just wanted to be there.
"I just wanted to be part of history," said Fazela Patel, 19, who came with her friends. "We want the memories."
The centre houses some 300 shops and 70 bars and restaurants. Built next to Stratford's main bus, train and subway station and the Olympic Park in east London, it will be the nexus of all things Olympic. Some 70 per cent of visitors are expected to flow through the mall en route to the Olympic park.
But for local shoppers, the mall's size was not the main attraction — it was the signal that their corner of London had arrived.
Up until now, the neglected area in eastern London was better known for its once-thriving but long-derelict shipyards, its dirty canals and its toxic waste dumps. But shoppers like Patel said the glitzy, downright brassy new super structure will bring a whole new life to the area.
"People will want to see what east London is all about," Patel said.
The mall is airy and bright, capturing the sunshine in a country where it rains a lot. Puffy white clouds could be seen by looking up while riding the escalators.
And it was packed from the start.
"It's a community thing as well," said Tracy Aldrich, 47, waiting to be one of the first to enter the new Uniqlo store. "You can come here and people watch."
The mall is seen as one of the lasting legacies of the summer games — a permanent investment in a community that has often been starved for attention. Together with improved transport links, many hope the mall, and especially its jobs, will benefit locals.
A key goal with the Olympic development has been to link east London with its more prosperous neighbourhoods in the west, raising living standards and leaving the community better off once the athletes leave.
"One of the fantastic things about the Olympics is that it brought together the community with the commitment to improving infrastructure," said Peter M. Harris, the co-founder of the deluxe chocolate seller, Hotel Chocolate. "It's not just about the 100 metres. It's about going through difficult economic times."
The mall is expected to create thousands of jobs, though exactly how many remained unclear. Frank Lowy, the chairman and co-founder of the Westfield Group, said 10,000 permanent jobs would be created, while London Mayor Boris Johnson insisted it was really 18,000 jobs.
Throwing himself into his role as chief Olympic cheerleader, Johnson all but jumped up and down as he prepared for the ribbon cutting, describing the mall as the greatest regeneration in eastern London "since the Middle Ages."
"Yes! I can tell you I did some research this morning. It was in 1380 or thereabouts roughly," Johnson said, "(that) the great London poet Geoffrey Chaucer dared to hint ... (at) the cultural backwardness of Stratford."
Johnson claimed that errant view would be forever banished.
"You're going to hear more and more French spoken here in Stratford" as shoppers flood across the English Channel to seek cheaper Big Macs and Levis, he declared.
Amid his joy, there was a least one bad omen.
During Johnson's interview with a radio station, a large glass roof tile fell to the ground and shattered. No one was hurt.