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The Two Faces Of St Pauls

Posted on Tuesday 18th September 2007 at 00:00
Spend any time in Bristol and the chances are you will hear mention of an area of the city called St Pauls. In my case I heard of it from friends even before I arrived in the city three years ago. Like you, I was told to avoid the place at all costs by each and every person I spoke to on the subject. This is something of a rarity in a city where various forms of snobbery and inverted snobbery have led to everyone having bad words to say on at least one area of the city each. In fact, get the right group of people together in a room and they will collectively tell you that every district in Bristol is uninhabitable.

St Pauls though is the only place where opinions are universal. Even the local media can't resist slating the place whenever a story breaks there. It seems that this economically deprived and ethnically diverse area of town is nothing short of an urban hell, with drug dealers and criminals ruling the streets and the police intimidated to the point of staying away for their own safety.

This isn't entirely true of course. The police rarely get called out to anywhere else, and it is the council workers who are intimidated into staying away. St Pauls is famous as the home of the infamous Black and White Cafe, which until its demolition a few years back, was the single worst drug den in the whole of the UK, as well as the flash point for the Bristol Race Riots in the 1980s.

St Pauls is also the best place to go if you want to get stabbed or shot. Weekend stabbings in the area have become so common that local radio stations more or less reserve a slot in the Monday morning schedule for an in depth discussion of the latest violence. If you were to remove the place from statistics, Bristol would probably be a pretty safe city to live in.

The unanimous dislike for St Pauls and warnings against ever going there had had such an effect on me that until last weekend I didn't actually know where St Pauls was exactly, except that it was somewhere north west of city centre. It was with some shock therefore that on Saturday I found myself walking within 100 yards of the boundary to this inner city slum. It was the day of the St Pauls Carnival & a scaled down version of the one held in Notting Hill in London during the August Bank Holiday weekend & and I only realised where I was because of the road blocks on all the side streets.

Such was the importance of the event that BBC Radio Bristol had been broadcasting live from the heart of the festival all morning, and the word from presenter Dr Phil Hammond was that there were plenty of scantily clad ladies to be found. With such high recommendations, temptation got the better of me, and I found myself taking my first tentative steps into a world I wasn't entirely sure I wished to discover.

My mind was soon set at ease though. The carnival was in full swing by now and it was clear from the moment I stepped into Portland Square that the day's stabbings had been put on hold for the celebrations. The square itself is a beautiful little place, surrounded on all sides by Georgian architecture and styles. I'm told that St Pauls used to be the residency of choice for the slave traders who once made Bristol a rich and powerful city. How ironic that these once great homes should become the run down and dilapidated dwellings of the descendents of many of those slaves.

There is something terribly sad about seeing such beautiful buildings in such a terrible condition, and I might have dwelled on them for a while, had I not been distracted by the precession that was going passed. Unlike Notting Hill, there were few barriers here, and crowd control was at a minimum, so I was able to cross the street and walk among the brightly coloured costumes that danced before me.

The area was crowded and it took a while to cross the square and set off on my own to explore the neighbourhood. I wandered for maybe half an hour around the nearby streets and was amazed by what I saw. The houses looked very run down, the tarmac on the road was in a dreadful state of repair, and I couldn't help but think how terrifying a place it could be on a dark night. But the people! There were people everywhere I looked. Those who lived locally had set up stalls in front of their homes and were selling everything from Jerk Chicken to cans of cider. In some places I felt I'd walked into a smoke filled market place and in others a music concert, thanks to the numerous stages and speaker sets in place on every street, blaring out popular tunes of the genre.

Official estimates say there may have been 60,000 people there, and I believe it. It was with great regret that I left St Pauls after an hour, in order to return to Broadmead, just a street away, and continue my shopping.

On Monday morning I turned on my radio in time to hear the latest stabbing report. Part of me hoped that amid the joy and happiness of the carnival, perhaps knife crime had been given a miss that weekend.

I was disappointed to discover it hadn't.

On Saturday night a man in his 30s had died of a stab wound to the neck, just hours after the festival drew to a close. By the time I switched on for the evening report a few hours later, it had emerged that the ambulance crew who attended the scene had been attacked by a mob of around 100, some of whom pulled them away by their hair as they tried desperately to resuscitate the man.

As a result of the incident, the police were forced to delay the clean up from the carnival for a day whilst they searched for a murder weapon. Rubbish was left rotting in the streets until mid Monday when the knife was recovered, much to the displeasure of local residents.

After my visit to St Pauls I feel many things about the area, but none more so than sadness that this deprived and downtrodden place, that has so much potential and such a lot to offer, continues week after week to confirm the very worst prejudices that the rest of the city has about it. They claim to want help to regenerate their town, and to bring it up to the standard of the rest of Bristol, but first they have to help themselves. If they can't do that, then why should anyone else put their lives on the line to visit this wasted area?

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