A Journey to Justice mural at one entrance to the Bearpit is marred with graffiti tags and an almost eerie calm rests over the area.
There is nobody busking inside the underpass, with just the reassuring clatter of skateboards to be heard as people go about their business, passing through the sunken roundabout in Bristol city centre.
The once notorious no-go zone was splashed across the headlines for all the wrong reasons early last week as traders sent out a cry for help, amid a worrying increase in antisocial behaviour that has left them fearing for their safety and businesses.
Police have taken heed of the warning and have stepped up patrols in the Bearpit, but all involved agree this is not a long term solution to the problems in an area that has become fraught with conflict.
Two groups, each with its best interests at heart, have their own vision for what the public space should be. But despite professional mediation, they have so far failed to agree on how this should be delivered. While they are at loggerheads, crime is on the rise.
“Well done for speaking out mate,” calls one passer-by. He is speaking to Simon Green, of Bearritos, who candidly opened up about the abuse and antisocial behaviour he and his staff face, saying it can’t go on.
Together with Miriam Delogu, of Bearpit Social a fellow member of the Bearpit Bristol Community Interest Company, he is calling for change, or says the traders will be forced to leave in the wake of daily abuse and threats they are subjected to from a small minority of people.
“I come to work in fear,” says Miriam, “It’s really hard to focus and it’s hard for staff to focus.”
It was after she was physically assaulted that a stakeholders group was set up specifically to address issues of antisocial behaviour, but the traders say that things have escalated severely in the last three months and are calling for the area to be cleaned up.
While admitting that no one should have to face the kind of abuse described by the traders, Chris Chalkley of the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), argues it is not a space for business and wants to reclaim it as a genuine community space.
“It’s a matter of attitude,” he tells Bristol24/7. “At PRSC, the street people are not demonised, they are a part of the community – we have a water tap for them to use at any time and street art is encouraged.
“Getting rid of all the graffiti would take us back to where we were years ago when it really was a no-go zone. What we actually need is more freedoms there.”
It was around seven years ago that Chris and others went to the council to say something had to be done in the area and the Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG) was formed.
Many hours of volunteer time and effort since invested in the ‘social experiment’, which triggered a number of successes, including the Incredible Edible gardens. Originally a part of the BIG, the traders went on to form a breakaway group.
The animosity between the two groups has now reached a stalemate, triggering the creation of a new Bearpit Community Trust (BCT) to lead the future development of the space.
So, what is the best solution for a problem like the Bearpit?
“We believe the Bearpit should be for everyone. Our two things are safe and welcoming and it’s only when someone threatens that, that we will intervene,” says Miriam. “I get really angry when people say I want to kick out the homeless because they say that when they do not want to focus on the real issues.”
Since the press coverage, she says a number of people who have made the Bearpit their home have come up and expressed their support, saying that having the traders there makes them feel safer and many have taken refuge inside before.
Miriam continues: “People say, ‘Why would you open a business in the Bearpit, what did you expect?’ But it’s so beautiful, it’s a really special space.”
Miriam and Simon say they are the eyes and ears of the area, and while this may mean informing police of persistent antisocial and abusive behaviour, it also means looking out for vulnerable people.
Simon adds: “I feel it would be negligent for us to continue because of the safety of staff, but for the amount of people that have come up and said they don’t want us to go.”
He believes activity is the biggest antidote to antisocial behaviour and says the “angry” street art needs to go to make way for a genuinely inclusive space.
PRSC, meanwhile, is seeking a more radical creative solution, with a vision to turn one toilet block into an office and information centre. They would also run 24-hour toilets, and plan to use the space for theatre and arts productions and more.
Chris says it’s time for the city to choose between a clean, corporate approach, or a creative, inclusive one.
Richard Jones, a former vice chairman of BIG who resigned in November, agrees the only solution is a creative one. “We are dealing with an incredibly vulnerable street population,” he tells Bristol24/7.
“When people see someone in the Bearpit, they often just see a homeless person, or a drug user, they don’t see a father or a son or a musician. It’s a very complex situation down there. To focus on the negatives in the Bearpit when there have been so many positives is a distraction.”
He argues it is the last safe space for people sleeping on the streets.
But David Ingerslev, of homelessness charity St Mungo’s says that while the Bearpit has a small number of rough sleepers, it is not considered a major rough sleeping hotspot.
“There are ongoing issues with alcohol, drugs and antisocial behaviour in the Bearpit and people assume those drinking are all homeless when they are not,” he says.
“Our outreach teams are out four times a day connecting with people who are rough sleeping and we will continue to do everything in our power to reduce rough sleeping.
“It’s important to recognise that sometimes people are not ready to engage with the support available. Our teams continue to connect with people until they feel ready to come inside and accept the offer of support.”
City centre neighbourhood police inspector Martin Rowland recognises the area has been an issue for some time and patrols have recently been stepped up, but he says the answer is not to “enforce the way out”.
“We have to concentrate our efforts on antisocial behaviour. I’m not here to criminalise people who are just sleeping down there. It’s those that are being persistently being aggressive and threatening. As long as the illegal graffiti’s there, it’s like a ‘broken window’ situation in that the place becomes a bit more lawless.
“When people are acting anti-social and threateningly, we will deal with them quickly, fairly and robustly.”
He says someone needs to make a decision on how to lead the space forward and that rests with Bristol City Council.
Paul Smith, a ward councillor, says the matter will be discussed by the cabinet as a whole and stresses the council needs to be really clear about what it wants the space for. The council is due to grant a license to one group imminently which will help determine the future for the Bearpit.
“The Bearpit is a major gateway to the city for visitors, and a commuter route for tens of thousands of Bristolians every day,” Darren Hall, of the newly formed BCT, tells Bristol24/7.
“However, recent increases in crime and anti-social behaviour are undermining this progress. BCT’s aim is to ensure that the Bearpit is a safe, enjoyable and sustainable space for everyone that uses it.
“Our first priority is working with other stakeholders to make sure recent issues are acknowledged and addressed and by the summer of 2018, BCT intends to put in place a long term plan that will ensure the Bearpit is a place that helps people thrive and that everyone in Bristol can be proud of.”
Read more: Something has to change in the Bearpit