Bearpit Blues. Is it time to go? A personal perspective on environment, anti-social behaviour and social enterprise.

Hello my name is Simon, I co-founded Bearritos. That big green bus in the Bearpit. We sell burritos, tacos, quesadillas and have done for almost 3 years, along with Bearpit Social we are a registered Social Enterprise, trying to have a positive impact in the area. Here, sadly, is where Bearritos and Bearpit Bristol CIC have got to after a long and painful few weeks. We think it might be time to go.

As directors, we decided to call an emergency meeting to discuss the current issues affecting the Bearpit and the conclusion we came to was not an easy one.  The only way to ensure the safety of staff and the general public is to demand changes, or leave. We are prepared to pack it all in prevent this escalation in anti-social behaviour towards staff and the general public.

I don’t have a blog, I don’t do Insta, I don’t usually shout my mouth off, but I do sometimes despair and write it all down…

(It’s a bit rambly, so I’ve highlighted some parts for the impatient).

 

“They said we were crazy, they said it couldn't be done. Maybe they were right.

Maybe, it really has been a total waste of time, trying to survive (let alone thrive) in this circle.

So we all jacked in our jobs, careers and shining futures to work here. Below minimum wage, below minimum environmental standards and mostly below the radar. We didn't scream and shout, we just got on with it. We built loyal and happy friendships and customers, with good food and drink. And for a while we changed things. For a little while it seemed that everyone was coming with us. Good feedback, reviews, likes, tweets, bookings. For a while. These little sunshine moments, we quickly realised, were just intermittent lights. A darkness was the dominant feature of our working lives. A pessimism, tempered by dark humour filled most of our days.

But how could this be? We have five stars from the Food Hygiene people, we have a 10.000+ footfall, we built a kitchen, we employed lots of people, we have great coffee, great food and a great big bus. And every day we bounced into the space, and filled it with joy and full bellies. Well, almost every day.

Then there was a creeping realisation. All of the above counted for nothing. We could have had the financial backing of other notorious Bristol food success stories (we didn't), we could have had the support of all of the notorious talented foodies that inhabit the Bristol food scene (we didn't) and none of it would have made any difference. Really it wouldn't. Why? Because of the environment. The physical, political and social environment that has simply not changed enough for any business to survive in. We are putting ourselves in danger every day we trade. Verbal and physical abuse, open drug use, drinking, aggression, needles, human excrement, an aggressive and angry physical environment.

The physical environment is simply not good enough. The area is cleaned on a daily basis and the floor level in the main open area remains in good condition. But the positivity ends there. The tunnels are an embarrassment to the city, they are frequently blocked by street drinkers, rough sleepers, drug dealers and aggressive beggars. Welcome to Bristol, to those who arrive by bus or are staying in any of the surrounding hotel chains. But it's ok because that's what this area is about; freedom, experimentation and the ability to be who you want to be and in whatever way you want regardless of how that affects other people. No, actually, that is not OK, it’s nonsense, utter nonsense. And it’s not “homeless bashing”, as what we are concerned with is crime. Criminal activity that affects the lives of the people who visit and work here.

The walls are covered in tagging and poorly executed, unplanned graffiti. There is no real credibility to the street art in the space; when the highly successful and internationally famous graffiti tours pass through the Bearpit, they spend no longer than 60 seconds admiring the "gritty urban edgy street art scene". No-one has ever said this and it is nonsense. It just helps to maintain an angry environment. Professionals  were lined up to deep clean the whole area and have been prevented from doing so political reasons. What further nonsense.

There is no code in the Bearpit. Freedom of expression equals chaos equals mess. Tagging is a city-wide problem in any urban area. In the Bearpit it appears to be celebrated or at worst tolerated as a necessary side effect of larger street art pieces. This is utter nonsense. It needs only one degree of separation to make the link between tagging and anti-social and criminal behaviour. Allowing tagging in the Bearpit, allows anti-social behaviour which has legitimised verbal and physical abuse of the general public and staff. This is not anecdotal. We see it every day and have the crime stats to prove it. And it is the start of something much much bigger.

Aspects of Kelling and Wilson's infamous broken window theory must  surely apply to the Bearpit. Maintaining the environment to prevent small crimes (including small acts of criminal damage) creates an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, which in turn prevents more serious crimes from happening. Alternatively, not fixing the small things allows much bigger, more dangerous things to fester and emerge. We see this every day.

Fix the smaller things and the bigger things shouldn't even happen. Interestingly, with regards to the maintenance of urban spaces, the broken window theory emphasises how people in the community rather than increased policing can be used to deal with many of the issues. It won’t cost a lot and good people are pretty good at doing good things and allowing people to exist without fear.  

Consistent messages are key. We have a simple statement of intent and some minimum requirements for running our social enterprise as tenants of Bristol CIty Council. We would like these to be listened to and acted upon.

We will not tolerate anti-social behaviour, we will not tolerate tagging, we will not tolerate illegal constructions, we will not tolerate drinking and drug taking. We will not tolerate aggressive begging. Agencies must act to prevent this from happening. It really is that simple.

The responsibility for this informal social control has been taken on by the staff who are here almost every day, but without the physical support of mending those "broken windows" it is an impossible battle. If you challenge people's behaviour/activity, you get abuse, because the environment allows people to behave like this. An innocent person will get hurt, we have been saying this for a long enough and sadly it's not enough to just say it any more. Serious action to prevent this happening is the only way, and that action may well involve us leaving the Bearpit.

The Bearpit currently instills fear in people, and that fear spreads. People talk of "no go zones", social media is awash with "concrete over it" theories. The opinions are that you will never fix this place so what is the point. It's somewhere to pass through with your head down and your hands in your pockets, fingers crossed that you won't get harassed or intimidated. Are we happy with this? Is this true or fair? Could it be different? Is there a willingness to address the failures of the past and look to something more radical for the future?

In addition, allowing unauthorised semi-permanent structures to be built, contributes to the feeling of an unfinished space with sporadic growths of minimal visible value or purpose. The general public have very little knowledge of the purpose of these features and there is a mystery as to how they contribute to the space. They comment on the pointlessness and wastefulness of such structures. For examples, have a look at the structures near to the Bus Station tunnel. Nonsense.

The overt political nature and bias of some of the artworks simply adds to the feeling that this is a radical space, a free space, one where you can do what you want, drink what you want, smoke what you want, take what you want. Even if that involves offending, assaulting, insulting, hurting and hating others. Should we have advertising in Bristol's parks? Should we have political advertising in the Bearpit more like? It would be dangerous to underestimate the impact that this has (besides preaching to converted) it creates a loop of disruptive behaviour and belief systems that are reinforced by some of the slightly anarchic left wing that have giant chips and small shoulders. There’s a place for debate, there’s a place for radicalism, but it’s not here. Everyday feels “radical” when you’re being harassed, intimidated or assaulted whilst trying to do your job.

These environmental failings directly contribute to the social ones. Can we live with the fact that people are unwilling to enter a space, in the heart of the city centre at any time of day? We shouldn't but we do. And that's where the problem lies. We are complicit. Bearpit Bristol is part of the problem. We are the problem. I am the problem. If we continue to do what we are doing we are contributing to this mess. We are destroying what we have been trying to build up. We would be allowing for the potential (eventual?) assault of a member of staff or a member of the general public. This is not exaggeration for effect; it is going to happen and we are struggling with the dilemma of knowing that we will have allowed this to happen if we do nothing about it.

Let's get one thing clear, the main issues in the Bearpit are regarding drink, drugs and crime. The consumption and distribution of drugs and the associated violence, pain and suffering that often comes with this. In the Bearpit, homelessness or rough sleeping are not the major issues that many people believe them to be. This must be communicated loudly and clearly, because the sooner the general public understand this the better. It may be difficult  to accept, but it is true. The agencies that we work closely told us this before we knew, this comes from experts in their fields and we respect their judgements.

So, yes it does seem like an ultimatum, but I guess it has to be. To live with knowingly allowing the serious endangerment of colleagues, strangers or friends, is not something we are prepared to accept any more. So pretty soon we may well be gone. On to quieter, not better, things. Sad that we weren't able to complete the project, but happy that we weren't to blame for the injury (or worse) of people we care about. This can't go on, and it won't.

The minimum standards we are asking for are imminently achievable, but it's the consistency of the application that's the tricky bit. Make the Bearpit clean and neutral, police it effectively, remove dangerous and illegal structures and allow us to use toilets. Not much to ask.

How long will any agreed changes last? How long before we're back here again? The standards require agreement and backing and following through on promises. History suggests that this will not happen. Our pessimism is born from experience. With so much change happening in the surrounding area, how can the Bearpit hope to fit into a city centre that has the potential to be so brilliant, but fails so spectacularly? We think Bristol City Council needs to listen to us, back us and believe in us.

A safe, welcoming, clean, tidy, neutral space. That is simply all we are asking for.

Sadly, with all the historical precedents and political inertia, I fear the worst. The broken window will soon be two broken shipping containers and a broken bus.”

Thanks for reading,

Simon







 

Quick footnote :  We are currently awaiting a response from Bristol City Council with regards to the minimum standards we have requested. Key council members are aware of our issues. However, if you would like to support us then please do. You could contact councillors or just come down and have a chat and make sure you bring some happiness with you.