How one woman's energy drove out urban despair

10th September 1999 at 01:00
AT the back of a derelict shop, someone has daubed the words "smack shack" in white paint. Until recently this was a haven for drug addicts and dealers - until a diminutive 50-year-old called Mary Smith came along and told them all to clear off.

She points out these run-down buildings in Knowle West, Bristol, with a certain pride. "You come back in a year's time and you won't recognise this place," she says. "We started off with nothing in 1994 - every shop was boarded up."

This former drug den is about to be renovated to become the headquarters of the South Bristol Community Construction Company, which will train local youngsters in building skills, and regenerate local housing.

This initiative is the latest in a series of community efforts that have seen Knowle West transformed. The area has been blighted by unemployment, crime and drug problems.

Now there is a drop-in centre giving help to drug addicts and families. There's a new community cafe which will offer youngsters training in the kitchens. Next door is a thriving information technology learning centre, run in partnership with City of Bristol College.

In September, work starts to transform a derelict petrol station into a community supermarket. All these initiatives are community-led. And all have come about largely through the drive and determination of Mary Smith.

Her work has brought recognition. Michael Howard came to see Knowle West for himself when he was Home Secretary. Mary has addressed a United Nations conference and she met the Clintons on a visit to Belfast. She has just been invited to Prince Charles' garden party at Highgrove. And a film company has approached Mary with a script and talk of getting Julie Walters to play her.

On her mantelpiece is a card from a well-wisher. It is from a lad who had weaned himself off drugs and just done his first job as a bus-driver with the community bus service - another of the Knowle West projects.

The card says: "For a very special, very busy lady who has the soul of an angel. Thank you Mary."

Yet Mrs Smith's feet are still firmly on the ground. Her conversation is peppered with expletives, she works part-time in the local bookies and still lives in the post-war redbrick semi where she and husband John brought up their two children.

Their daughter Emily is a Bristol University graduate and now works as a geologist. Their son Christian is a former heroin addict who recently came out of jail for the seventh time following a string of offences, including burglary and car crimes. Mary believes many of his crimes have been drug related and it was because of his addiction that she began fighting back.

"I thought this estate had gone about as far down as it could go. Drug-users and their families were in an absolute pit of despair. It seemed as if there was nowhere for us to go. No light at the end of the tunnel.

"There are still an awful lot of dealers on this estate. I know who they are - every single one of them. I just confront them. I should be afraid of them, but I'm not. I never have been afraid of them. They're just people who live in this community. I don't think they see me as a threat."

Five years ago she launched Knowle West Against Drugs, which became a registered charity supporting drug-users and families. In 1997 the organisation opened a brand new drop-in and counselling centre jointly funded by social services and the health authority.

Feeling it had achieved what she wanted it to, Mary resigned from the charity and founded Knowle West Development Trust, which has set up local initiatives including a youth forum, the cafe and the IT centre.

Now she has moved to become project manager of South Bristol Community Construction Company. There is a steering group of local people aiming to have it up and running in September.

They have applied for Single Regeneration Budget money, but in the meantime Mary has put in pound;10,000 of her own pension money and there have been donations from local firms.

The project aims to buy and renovate derelict houses on the estate. At the same time local builders involved in the scheme will train 16- to 25-year-olds in construction skills through the Government's New Deal. Mrs Smith insists that, like the other projects, this will be run by local people, for local people.

"Experts on tap, not on top - I have said that for years. I believe that's the only way for local people to get their confidence back. We need experts - we all do. But if the project is to succeed, it has to be motivated by the people."

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