Riots in Tottenham: 'We are broken but we are coming back to life slowly'

One of London's worst-hit areas begins to repair damage, as a local barber has a surprise visit from footballer Peter Crouch

There is a smell of fresh paint in Niche Mufwankolo's pub on Tottenham High Road. New windows have been fitted and full bottles placed in the optics. But the floor has yet to be laid, and some of the windows remain boarded up. Despite working round the clock since the street attacks in this part of London, the scars of that night remain.

A little more than a week ago Mufwankolo had to lock himself in an upstairs office while looters tore through the Pride of Tottenham, just a stone's throw from White Hart Lane. They smashed glasses, stole alcohol and tills, and set fire to his furniture on the street. Mufwankolo finally climbed out of a window and escaped across the roof.

Everything he had worked for was destroyed. But now, like the rest of the community here, Mufwankolo is trying to rebuild things.

"We are broken, but we are coming back to life slowly," he said. "The community is trying to really be together, to support, and give it a go again. Those people who came to destroy Tottenham failed. Tottenham will never be destroyed."

But the area is still reeling from the riots that erupted here 11 days ago.

"It was like a bomb hit Tottenham," said Mufwankolo. "I didn't expect to make my money back for years, but now I have to start from ground zero."

Many are similarly placed. Near the Pride there is a large gap, site of the burnt-out 1930s building that housed the local Carpetright store.

On Tuesday, David Cameron, who was on holiday in Tuscany when the building was destroyed, visited some of the people who lived in the 26 flats above the shop and lost their homes.

In a tour of the area that started at about 7am, the prime minister visited the fire station and talked to residents who were left with little more than the clothes they were wearing when their homes were destroyed. He commended the "major effort" to rebuild Tottenham. "I've seen the community come together with great co-ordination. We can rebuild all over again," he said.

At the Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, transformed into an emergency bunker where up to 200 people made homeless receive food, clothing, housing advice and counselling, Cameron met about a dozen staff and volunteers.

Helen Constantine, the centre manager, said: "I think it was important that he came and saw what the local authority and, more importantly, local people are doing to help others in dire need."

Not everyone was happy about the visit, though. "When David Cameron goes to the US he is statesman but when he comes to Tottenham he is a ghost," said Symeon Brown, co-founder of the youth group Hype (Haringey Young People Empowered). "Many people have a lot to say in Tottenham in regards to his approach. Visiting in the early hours when many are asleep is the opposite of listening and learning."

But for many here, a visit from the prime minister is the least of their concerns. Standing next to the community assistance centre's help desks and trestle tables packed with donated goods from residents and shops, Constantine said many people were struggling to cope with what they had been through now that the adrenaline surge had worn off. "The trauma is starting to hit them. You can replace a kettle but what about the memories? One woman told me she had lost the first letter her husband gave to her, the wedding gift from her mother – you can't replace that."

Victoria Norman, a graphic designer, watched as the Carpetright store behind her house lit up in flames, showering her home in debris and filling it with smoke. She took her 19-month-old daughter to safety. "We are not sleeping, we are having nightmares, everyone is scared of hearing police helicopters," she said. "We are a week on and I keep sweeping but I can't get rid of the burnt black tar."

But, like most people interviewed in this area she was determined to stay. "I love my home, my neighbours – and the new neighbours I met because of this. There is strength in numbers, we are stronger than we were before. We all care about where we live and are sick and tired of people putting Tottenham down."

The desire to rebuild and put the riots behind them is tangible, but there is no escaping the extent of the task. Trashed shop fronts are hidden by plywood, burnt-out buildings sit in the terraces.

The owner of a computer repair shop said he had not had internet for over a week, with BT saying reconnection might not come until the end of August. "Business is dead," said Lombego, owner of the 10p Street Digital Center. "We keep waiting for it to improve, what option have we got? People used to think twice before they invested here, now they will hesitate even more." Asked how he thought the community was coping with the violence they had seen he said: "Are they coping? Everyone is victimised, demonised – how are they supposed to cope?"

Following the killing of Mark Duggan almost two weeks ago, which prompted the violence, part of the fabric of society that will have to be re-stitched is the trust between police and community, say some local people. "The relationship between the community and police has suffered a major setback and the progress made over the last decades has been undermined – it feels precarious," said Brown.

Sergeant Jim MacPherson, overseeing young volunteers painting the plywood boards that dot the road, did not take that view. "It has been strange. But we have had a lot of support and very little negativity," he said. The police had to work harder than ever now to make contact with all members of the community, he added. "We need to take a long, hard, look at where we go next. We can't look everyone up forever and we need to give people the aspiration to improve their lives."

With the painting over, the young people unsheathed marker pens and wrote their own messages. One note, surrounded with hearts, read: "Love your community like it's a part of you." Another said: "Look for the unity in the community."

Michelle Cart, 18, explained why she had offered to help. "Everyone is trying to do their bit. Of course it hurts and it will be remembered for decades, but community does exist. It's a shame it took riots to bring people together but it has helped community spirit."

It is a message often reiterated. Residents speak of meeting their neighbours for the first time, traders discuss a sense of solidarity with other businesses. At the assistance centre staff are now asking for cash after receiving many donated goods. "People want to help each other, they want to do something," said Constantine. "People are working to bring back that community spirit and we can't afford to lose that."

Footballers who ply their trade locally are doing their bit. On Tuesday the Spurs striker Peter Crouch visited 89-year-old fan Aaron Biber, whose barbers, a fixture in Tottenham for 41 years, had been trashed in the riots. Biber, taking celebrity in his stride (and giving Crouch a haircut) explained that he had been overwhelmed with messages of support and had had dozens of letters and cheques from people wanting to help. "There are a lot of good people in the world," he said. "I didn't used to believe that, but I do now."


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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