> This issue’s news feature gives a compelling account of how one of Bristol’s arterial roads has created social division and conflict between two previously united neighbourhoods
Battle your way through the gleaming, polished thoroughfares of Cabot Circus on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see few indicators that Bristol has only recently untangled itself from recession.
Thousands of shoppers pour in and out of the designer stores and boutiques, their arms laden with pricey purchases and takeaway coffee, their attire suitably labelled and their faces content. Yet a few hundred metres beyond this towering tribute to retail therapy lies the deprived ward of Easton, butting up against Cabot Circus’ glitzy environs like discarded rubbish washing up on a paradisiacal beach.
There is a distinct dichotomy between these two areas, starkly highlighting the divide between Bristol’s poor and everybody else. This situation is far from ideal, but is not even the most pressing divide in the city. Just along from here, Newfoundland Way’s traffic-heavy lanes melt into the beginning of the M32. Opened in the 1970s as a main artery leading into Bristol’s consumer centre, the M32 has been an invaluable addition to Bristol’s commercial prosperity, yet its construction and subsequent heavy use has cut through the formerly united districts of Easton and St Pauls.
The motorway has had a significant impact upon the relationship between the two areas that flank it, and it is young people in particular who have suffered the most from this dissection. In recent years, several youths have been killed or injured in violence that has erupted between groups from either side of the M32, brutally highlighting how a young person’s life can be affected by the physical environment and surroundings in which they grow up.
Militarised urban spaces.
Hen Wilkinson is the director at Community Resolve, a group from Easton that aims to solve conflict between young people. Wilkinson has witnessed firsthand the motorway’s socially damaging impact since its construction in 1975. “The M32 has been a great big barrier between the two communities,” she says. “It drove this line between the two areas. Before the motorway was built people used to walk between Easton and St Pauls; there were roads that joined up the areas and that community was one community.”
Community Resolve first started working with young people affected by the divide a decade ago after a particularly violent clash involving a group of youngsters from Easton and a group from St Pauls. An altercation on Gatton Road in St Werburghs turned violent, leaving two young people hospitalised and continuing the trend among youths to identify themselves along divisional boundaries.
This wasn’t the first incident of fighting, and it hasn’t been the last. “At least three young people have been stabbed and killed in these areas, related in some way to the tensions between the communities,” explains Wilkinson. “It’s not just those extreme cases either – young people from both sides are reluctant to move into the territory on the other side.”
The M32 creates a mental divide as well as a physical barrier to those wanting to cross from one area to the other. As a result of its positioning, the motorway created rival territories and distinct borders and separation. The walls of the pedestrian underpass at junction 3 of the M32 are branded with the tag ‘BS5’ – the territorial markings of a group of young people from Easton named after the postcode they inhabit. ‘BS5’ are in opposition with a rival group from St Pauls called the ‘Bloods’. In July last year, a fight broke out between two groups of youths on Stapleton Road in Easton, resulting in the stabbing death of 18-year-old Abdirasak Mohamoud.
Sue O’Donnell is a councillor in Easton and believes that the media misunderstands the impact the M32 has had on the areas around it. “The media portrayed the murder of Abdi as a ‘turf war’, as the Bloods vs. BS5” she says. “But the ultimate facts are that somebody killed somebody else. It’s easy to blame young people, easy to say that they’re responsible, but you’ve got to look at the physical surroundings that these young people are growing up in.” O’Donnell’s ward extends to the boundary of the M32 and she believes that, despite the M32’s unmoveable presence, there are ways to work around it. “I’m sure it wasn’t the council’s intention to create a boundary, but they didn’t look at the unintended consequences. There are ways to find access routes that do not decimate an existing community or divide it.”
The residents of Easton and St Pauls are not apathetic about this issue afflicting their community, and with the help of Community Resolve are actively tackling the problems head-on. The My New Friends project was set up to address the conflict between young people in Easton and St Pauls, seeking innovative ways to repair the relationship between the communities either side of the motorway. The project has brought together year six pupils from Cabot and Millpond primary schools, which are situated either side of the M32. The pupils, teamed into groups of four, have been out and about in their respective areas, taking photographs of their physical surroundings.
The idea of the project was to build relationships between these two distinct– yet hardly dissimilar – groups of young people. The project enabled them to become accustomed to both St Pauls and Easton, hopefully reducing the potential for hostility outside the school environment. When the project was completed, the two schools put on a joint exhibition to celebrate the children’s success. Ria, a participant in the project, remarked: “Making new friends from Millpond is like finding an extinct flower. I’m sad that I can’t continue with the project because I miss my friends from Millpond. I hope someday that the wars between St Pauls and Easton can stop and we can become one big community and, most of all, friends.”
Innocent words they may be, but few could argue with the sentiment. If these projects and community schemes can help bridge this divide both emotionally and physically, then there is hope that the new generations of St Pauls and Easton will soon be coming together for benevolent reasons, rather than malevolent ones.