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London Riots: Down and out in Tottenham, still

LONDON, UK — “639 is now open,” reads a hopeful printed banner affixed to a stately brick Victorian building at the corner of High Road and Lansdowne Road in London’s Tottenham neighborhood.

Named for its street address and opened just two weeks ago, the community center aims to be many things to its diverse north London patrons.

There’s a job center, office space for local start-ups, a volunteer coordinator, a café and an airy gallery showcasing local artists.

Set at the end of a street of kebab joints and barber shops advertising curly perms and braids, the building was closed for two years for a complete refurbishment after it was “damaged” in 2011, customer service advisor Mandie Jacobs says.

She doesn’t need to explain how.

This corner was a war zone two years ago — the epicenter of the 2011 riots, a five-day conflagration that reduced pockets of the capital to ash and broken glass.

The chaos began on a Saturday night in August after crowds at a protest over the police shooting of a local man turned violent. As the late summer dusk fell, someone threw a gasoline bomb at a parked police car and pushed the burning shell into the street.

It set off a spree of rioting, looting and burning that spread across London — and to other cities — before flaming out as quickly as it started.

An estimated 15,000 people took part in the violence, which killed five people, cost $775 million and destroyed countless homes and businesses.

The Carpetright building on August 8, 2011. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Two years later, the glass has been swept up and the scorch marks scrubbed away. But across London, many people affected by the riots say matters have yet to be put right.

This corner of Tottenham hasn’t regained the bustling energy that enervates the main streets of London’s outer boroughs.

The 1930 façade of the Carpetright building, whose decimated shell became a symbol of the riots’ devastation, has been restored. Its interior remains gutted, however, with the ruined apartments on the upper levels still uninhabitable. Temporary fencing covers what were once busy street-level shops.

“Slowly, slowly, it’s coming back,” says Ali Uzum, manager at the Can Perde upholstery shop across the street, through an employee who translated from Turkish.

Although government relief funds have helped, business isn’t back to pre-2011 levels, he said as he measured out a length of drapery.

“It’s not the same as before,” he said. “It’s not as good as before.”

A study in May by Royal Holloway University found that the riots effectively doubled workloads for those small businesses that managed to survive. Business owners have added to their day-to-day trading the time-consuming work of keeping up with insurance, refurbishments and a battered local economy.

Many interviewees equated the riots’ psychological and emotional legacy to a death in the family.

“One owner told us that it was like a bereavement, but without being able to take time off to mourn,” study author Rachel Doern said.

The government has tried to tackle the worst of the economic damage. In late June, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne — Britain’s equivalent of treasury secretary — announced a $750 million revitalization package for Tottenham that will cover new homes, better transport and a makeover of the soccer club Tottenham Hotspurs’ White Hart Lane Stadium.

Nearly all insured and uninsured damages claims have been resolved, the government stated in July.

But many residents were dismayed last month by the official reply to a community panel set up to examine the riots’ root causes.

Heavy on economic figures and rioter conviction rates, the response missed the point of the conclusions reached in a 145-page report, critics said.

Its recommendations focused on improving education and reforming public services to enable caseworkers to better help parents form stronger relationships with their children.

It also requested community job programs that would provide useful skills, and controls on the type of marketing that suggests coveted sneakers are worth smashing store windows to obtain — which many did during the riots.

Those are complicated and expensive goals the government’s response mostly ignored, local MP David Lammy said.

“There was a big inquiry: it toured the country, it went to places like Tottenham, Croydon, Salford — all over the country — to look at these issues and they came up with a raft of things and that’s why this morning I am incredibly disappointed,” he told the BBC.

Many believe a large part of the problem lies in making simply “back to normal” the goal of riot recovery.

The violence erupted in parts of the capital disproportionately affected by economic disenfranchisement and ever-growing cuts to social services — places like Tottenham, Croydon and Enfield.

Repainting buildings without addressing the deeper-rooted problems leaves a community no less vulnerable than it was before.

More from GlobalPost: UK: The curious case of Mahdi Hashi

At a local street market off Tottenham’s High Road Thursday, Donna Smith, 50, sat on a folding chair by a plastic tarp laden with women’s shoes and used children’s clothing. Originally from Jamaica, the health care assistant carries her wares here each Thursday in the hope of making a few extra pounds.

She’s watched new buildings rise from the razed high street sites since the riots, when “I woke up in the morning and I saw the place on fire.”

Despite developments such as a new Sainsbury’s grocery store, she says, the revitalization hasn’t tackled Tottenham’s dearth of jobs and affordable housing, which were already in short supply before the fires started.

“I’m paying a rent I can’t even afford,” she said. 

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