Life and times in Chapeltown

He's been mugged, burgled and arrested for rioting. But a Yorkshire sociologist still loves Chapeltown, Leeds, his home for 30 years. Eric Roberts met Max Farrar.

In the 30 years he has lived in the Leeds suburb of Chapeltown, Max Farrar has been mugged and beaten in the street, and been burgled persistently in his home. But he still loves the place, and his new history of Chapeltown over the past 30 years emphasises its many qualities.

The mugging came when Farrar was walking down Chapeltown Road in 1994. "A group of kids stopped me and asked me for money. They were no more than 14, the same age as my son, and I thought I could sort the little b*****ds out. I thumped one or two of them, but I was no match for five or six – they beat me up."

A year later, Farrar suffered his worst burglary. "We had been visiting our daughter in Paris, and when we came back, the whole of the front of the house was boarded up. Some lads had got in, but because we had very heavy security, they couldn't get out again without smashing every door and window.

"The neighbours had gathered, but they were threatened with baseball bats. The police arrived within 10 minutes, but it was too late. For six weeks, it was like living in a bombed-out house; but they only got the TV and video."

Experiences like this mean that Farrar's book is more than a social treatise from the lofty heights of academia. A senior lecturer in Community Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, he says he fell in love with Chapeltown while a student at Leeds University.

"As a teenager, I had developed a huge admiration for black literature and music, and for the civil rights movement in the USA. My best friend was a black British kid. When I graduated, I wanted to do a PhD on the Chapeltown Community Association, as I had lived in Spencer Place and got involved with the community, so my admiration was combined with a research project. But I realised that as a relative outsider there was no way I was ever going to know anything serious about Chapeltown in two years – I remember thinking it would take me 20 years, and, in fact, it's taken 30."

In summary, Farrar's book depicts Chapeltown in the '70s and '80s as a vibrant, well-organised and highly-responsible community, of many ethnic groups, campaigning for better schools, better facilities and social equality.

"They were making a real difference to people's quality of life, but they were resented by some authorities because they could be stroppy," he says.

The decline of Chapeltown came about in the 1990s, he says, when hard drugs became the alternative economy. "People were demoralised as Chapeltown became a dangerous place to walk."

As an example of the effects on the community of a small group of hardened criminals, Farrar cites the Palace Youth Project, which he helped to set up as an anti-drugs campaign. "By 1995, we had lost heart; we had failed to stem the tide. You can't just do it by education – you have to provide people with jobs. The current Government is making some impact, but it's too little, too late. There's a tiny but very hard core of persistent and dangerous young men, and they have to be tied down, to be counselled, educated and trained and put into work.

"I might be branded as a muesli-eating, bleeding-heart liberal, for not saying they should be locked up and the key thrown away – but look at the alternative.

"One of the lads who mugged me in 1994 went to jail at 16. Four years later, he had grown five inches, and he was the first Don of the next generation of street criminals. A rival gang shot him in the leg 18 months ago, but that hasn't stopped him. Someone will kill him, and that will be such a waste. We have got to have some sympathy – his mother was a hard drug user, he was excluded from school at nine, and he was a street criminal a few years later."

A walk through Chapeltown illustrates both the deprivation suffered in the area and the resilience of the local people. Several shops on Chapeltown Road have been boarded up for as long as anyone can remember; all the buildings are heavily protected by steel shutters at night.

But a small sign that the economic prosperity of the Leeds city centre might at last be reaching the suburb came when a shop that had been boarded up since the riots of 1981 was rebuilt, and an Oxfam shop was converted into a well-used emporium selling produce from around the world.

Farrar points to well-tended gardens and cross-cultural conversations, the conviviality of shouted greetings or friendly sounding of horns – it's all a sign, he says, of lively populations making the best of hard times.

His book, academic in tone, focuses on the definition of community: "I hope that despite its jargon, it betrays my personal, political support for the extraordinary struggles of ordinary people to realise their dream of a better life for all, to attain an earthly paradise," he says.

That struggle, of course, was made much harder by the riots of 1975 and 1981. On Bonfire Night, 1975, some 300 black teenagers fought running battles with the police; two officers were critically injured after their car was stoned and crashed into a tree.

Farrar, then aged 26, himself was arrested, along with several Rastafarians, after taking a photo of a police car which had been overturned: he was charged with assault, affray, threatening behaviour and incitement to obstruct a constable in the course of his duty, but was acquitted of all charges after a six-week trial.

In the wake of riots in Brixton, Southall and Toxteth in July 1981, 43 police were injured and 2m damage caused to shops in Chapeltown by rioting and looting youths, both white and black.

Farrar says that the violence had little support from local people: they preferred to follow the route of consultation and reform, a non-violent "community-building" strategy. But, ironically, projects established by the Government, both national and local, took the initiative away from the campaigning locals, and demobilised their social movements.

The riots, and the way they were reported, also added to the negative image of Chapeltown: "It's been reported in terms, not of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, but sex, drugs, murder and mayhem," says Farrar. "I wouldn't want to minimise the problems – I've suffered myself – but this consistently negative representation makes you despair, when you know the other side, the dedication, the talent and determination there is here."

The title of Farrar's book hardly trips off the tongue – at almost 80, it's aimed at the academic community. But it dispels many of the traditional images of Chapeltown: for instance, Afro-Caribbeans are only the third most numerous ethnic group, as the population is 39 per cent white, and 26 per cent Asian. And the number of Caribbean people has dropped from more than 8,000 to 6,500, while the number of Asians has increased from 5,300 to 9,300.

Many Caribbeans have moved onwards and upwards as they have succeeded in their jobs, but one in five of the population is described as managerial, technical or professional, often holding university or other higher qualifications. Many of them have been involved closely with community organisations, and it is they, says Farrar, who hold out hopes for the future.

The criminals who cause so much anxiety form only two per cent of the population: the rest are strongly law-abiding.

"Chapeltown isn't the impoverished ghetto that people think it is," says Farrar. "There is a very small group who haven't got the resources to make a move out of the heartland, but there is a far bigger group, working in white-collar jobs,

in the health services, making the best of the

education and resources that society has given them. Such people are the mainstay of British society."

Farrar has moved out of Chapeltown, his home for 30 years, up the road to Chapel Allerton. His children had left home, and he admits that while he could handle the social problems of the neighbourhood when he was 40, he doesn't fancy dealing with them at the age of 70. "It's been a fantastic relief not to be burgled," he says.

But of his Chapeltown years, he concludes: "This is a culturally rich, intelligent, vibrant and capable population. I've no regrets and if I was starting again, I would do exactly the same."

The Struggle for "Community" in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner-City Area, by Max Farrar, is published by The Edwin Mullen Press, Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales, at 79.95.