Overcoming a troubled past
By Rob Bird
Despite its troubled past, the residents of St Ann’s, in Nottingham are regaining their community spirit again. The annual Holding Hands Unity Day event plays an important role in enabling them to do so.
From the late 1990s, St Ann’s has been the scene of high levels of anti-social behaviour, gang culture, drug abuse and crime. This led the community to become withdrawn and fearful. The streets were without life.
Feuding drug gangs brought guns into the area. In 2000, armed response began with routine patrols of the St Ann's area. During October 2000, after 14 serious shootings in several months, Nottingham became the first city in Britain to experience routine armed foot patrols by police. Operation Real Estate was focused on St Ann’s. During 2002, there were more shooting incidents than in all the seven previous years combined, including the murder of a 16 year old boy.
In 2003, a group from Hope in the Cities, part of Initiatives of Change, came to host a series of dialogues between residents, local authorities and service providers. Local community leader, Maxine Cockett, desperate to see an end to the violence and poor reputation of the area, said, 'We need to come together and hold hands'; thus spawning an event to unite a community.
The event is held on The Robin Hood Chase, once a vibrant shopping area, filled with laughter, shoppers and many happy faces, is now a deserted waste land. The shutters of many of the shops are down, soon to be demolished. But for one day a year, this empty space springs to life to unite and celebrate together as a diverse community.
The success of the first Holding Hands Unity Day in 2004 stimulated the community to call for its return. Since then, the community pulls together to host this annual event, showing that it is possible to overcome all that has happened over the years.
Bringing out the talent of the area to showcase themselves on centre stage, providing activities and cooking glorious food, they are showing the wider city that St Ann’s has grown from the troubles of the past and is still the strong, vibrant and diverse place it used to be.
The 2011 Riots, fuelled by a low level of employment, old scores to settle and opportunists, saw the strength of St Ann’s ebb away. For three days, the streets were once again empty, the residents locked behind closed doors. Crime rates for the area soared as car crime, vandalism, burglary and anti social behaviour took to the streets.
In 2012, Holding Hands once again showed that a community, after trials and tribulation, can steadfastly hold together.
This year on Saturday 13 July, bathed in glorious sunshine, music and laughter and the scent of Jerk Chicken filling the air, the Robin Hood Chase, once more hosted the Holding Hands Unity Day!
Together with the local resident community, local groups and organisations participated in the event. Many community and organisations set up stalls and showcased their work. They were able to inter-act with the community in general. Many new groups from neighbouring wards also joined in with the community spirit.
Holding Hands actively promotes volunteering opportunities, training and skill based learning. This year information was provided by Nottingham City Homes, The Renewal Trust and St Ann’s North TRA and SATRA Central.
There was lots of fun to be had during the day. From circus skills workshop at one end to the bouncy castle at the other, joyous laughter could be heard.
The afternoon stage, hosted by Christine Belle from Kemit FM Radio, was filled by performances from singers, dancers and the church choir. The Seventh Day Adventist youth Pathfinders gained huge applause from the crowd.
Local tenants and residents' groups, the library service and 4th Nottingham Scouts group joined the festivities, providing activities and volunteers.
Local Councillors from Nottingham City joined the throng, which included local police and community officers to become a fully integrated part of the community. Even the police inspector joined in a water fight!
At 3.15 pm, a hush fell on the Robin Hood Chase, as Reverend Karen Rooms from the St Ann with Emmanuel Church led a minute of silence and reflection. Hundreds of people, creating a circle, stood side by side, hand in hand, friends, family and strangers, united to give thanks for becoming a community again.
This year's event was special, as it was the 10th year of Holding Hands and, after 10 years of commitment and dedication to the project, Richard Hawthorne, stepped down as ‘Chairperson’ to spend more time on other community initiatives.
As the sun began to set, the festivities calmed, moving into the St Ann with Emmanuel Church for a public showing of a film, made by local young people. As the viewers settled into their seats, with popcorn and fizzy drink, a final thought was handed to them in the form of a short film A Spark That Changed A Community. The film shows the journey of a broken society in inner city Nottingham that didn’t leave the front door, to stand together as one community united, caring and proud of itself.