This time last year, I was in my flat in Tottenham, wondering whether my street would become the next casualty of the riots that engulfed my local high street. I wrote about the smell of burning and the sense of shock, feeling that the world had gone mad. In the months that followed, I read everything that picked apart the causes of the chaos, I scanned articles, took in statistics, watched the news in grim silence and processed the events. The prevailing mood was a combination of shock, disgust, and the awful realisation that these events may have been an inevitable consequence of a failing social policy.
Last week, I was interviewed by a reporter from a small TV station who were putting together a ‘riots special’ for the marking of a year since it began. The questions I was asked were straightforward and expected: has anything changed? Who was to blame? Could it happen again? I answered truthfully, but it did make me, once again, examine the small shifts in our society that lead to serious problems. Has anything really changed?
Physically, Tottenham has nearly recovered. Looking out of my window now, people go about their daily lives – the purposeful striders, the meanderers, the browsers – they all walk the streets as comfortably as they did before it happened. Tottenham High Road is still a melting pot of cultures, with shops that sell myriad wares in all sorts of colours and shapes. You can still buy most of what you need on one street, usually for knock down prices. The road has been resurfaced to cover the damage caused by the burning bus and cars, as has my road to cover the melted plastic from burning bins. If you didn’t know the area, you would not believe that a year ago, frightening and violent events spilled uncontrollably into the streets and triggered a national emergency.
Visit the Post Office and you may comment on its size and airiness. It is the replacement for the one that was burned down last year. It seems like a positive development, the new replacing the old. However, the gaping space that housed the previous Post Office is still unfilled, fenced off from view – a reminder for those of us who know what happened. There are fewer reminders now – some businesses never reopened and are still boarded up – the fire took too much for them to be rebuilt. There are signs on the fences around the site of the Aldi that was torched last summer. They tell me that a new Aldi will emerge on the same site, new, improved and shiny. My mind approves of this, my heart wants a Waitrose and a Starbucks. I don’t live in Stoke Newington, folks, I don’t mind if they are corporate and generic – to me they are a sign of affluence moving into the area.
Look closer and you will see the signs declaring ‘I Love Tottenham’, breezy replicas spawned from the ‘I Love Hackney’ campaign a few years ago. The attempt to create the same sense of community pride is commendable, but the signs are faded now and curl at the edges. They are easy to overlook.
I do still feel alarm if I hear a helicopter – that was what alerted me to trouble last year – the constant thrum of the blades. Disturbances in the street make me jumpy. I did ring my local police when what looked like a riot was happening on my street. Groups of people at three in the morning, running and shouting without any empathy for those who may have been asleep. Turns out it was the overspill from a local club. The police arrived and it cleared.
I can’t help but feel that whatever spontaneous sense of belonging that blossomed in the months that followed the riots has now wilted somewhat. Physical improvements do not equal fundamental social change, as much as we like to convince ourselves that they do. I am reminded of the afternoon recently when the Olympic Torch came through Tottenham. The more cynical members of the neighbourhood commented wryly that it was remarkably coincidental that the Olympic Torch Relay came through Bruce Grove, skirting the starting point of the riots. It was a lovely afternoon, people lined the streets and I remember thinking: the last time there was a flame in Tottenham, people were using it to set things alight.
Most people were cheering, ecstatic that for once something exciting was happening in Tottenham. Then the police escort came through. There were humorous comments about how they must feel driving through this area, again. Not this place, they must be saying, watch your heads lads, there may be flying bottles and bricks!
There were cheers and clapping as they went by. For a moment, I was lifted by this – surely this meant that wounds were healed and people had discovered a new found respect for the police? It was short-lived. Two men passed behind me and muttered: “Why are they getting a cheer, man?” and “They’re still the same racists.”
You see, just because something happened here and it caused outrage, doesn’t mean that things have really changed. We have had some developments, a renewed focus on the area that may not have materialised had the riots started elsewhere. But people still harbour resentment – and perhaps we are lucky that the nation is being held aloft by the tide of the Olympics. Young people are no less likely to loot if the opportunity arises, children still covet trainers they can’t afford, statistics on employment haven’t changed for the better – the fabric of society hasn’t changed. The anger is now cloaked, the opinions veiled and muttered because it is not the done thing to rain on this parade, not at the moment any way.
I wonder whether next summer will be the same, when the police drafted in for Olympic security have been dispersed, when there isn’t a national event fuelling pride, when the weather may have improved somewhat.
We may have put some paint on the walls, put up posters saying ‘I Love Tottenham’, but I think we put them there to cover the cracks that are still there.