Somerstown resident Kelly Turner doesn’t think the area’s council-owned houses and flat complexes are very pretty, but this doesn’t mean it’s a bad or dangerous place to live.
Somerstown began life as a working-class residential district in the early nineteenth century. In the early 1950s Somers Road was lined with shops and a school, which gave it the feel of a village. By 1964 the district consisted of tiny Victorian so-called ‘houses for artisans’. In the mid to late-1960s houses on the western side of Somers Road were demolished to make way for ‘high rise, medium rise flats and a modicum of two-storey houses.’ Some 1,245 new dwellings were built inside an area of 33 acres. Judged by today’s standards these were modern slums.
I live in Somers Road in an ugly five-storey block with no attractive features. The even higher blocks adjacent to me are equally foreboding. The old saying goes ‘beauty is skin deep’, but in the case of Somerstown ugly is skin deep because there is beauty on the inside.
I didn’t know this as I was preparing to move there. A quick Google search revealed that I had apparently chosen to live in one of the most horrible, dangerous areas of Portsmouth. Phrases like ‘soul destroying’, ‘deprived’, ‘bit risky’, ‘your car will get vandalised’ popped out and, hard as I tried, I could scarcely find any positive reviews. Yes, I was worried I’d made a serious mistake.
Time has shown me that the serious mistake I made was to judge the area on appearances and misinformed prejudices. My neighbours come from a diverse mix of ethnic and social backgrounds, and they’re all pleasant and friendly.
So why the bad press? Police statistics for the St Thomas ward – which encompasses Somerstown – show that the majority of crimes occurring in the area relate to antisocial behaviour (ASB). From January to April 2017, 435 such offences were recorded. During the same period there were 189 violent and sexual crimes.
I asked the Police Team leader for our area, Inspector Marcus Cator if crime in Somerstown is higher than it was ten years ago. He pointed out that extensive shifts in the ways in which crime is recorded, together with other social and technological developments mean that comparing past and present statistics cannot easily show whether crime has gone up or down.
‘The style of crime has changed as the means by which to commit it has forced change,’ he said. ‘Cars cannot be broken into like they used to. Cars cannot be stolen like they used to. Houses and windows are more secure. So, crime types in certain areas have changed massively through problem solving, crime prevention and manufacture changes over ten years.’
Intriguingly, Inspector Cator then told me that, in the past twelve months, while more ASB-related crimes had been reported than ever before, the number of these crimes had decreased by 8%. Why?
‘People have more communication facilities so they tell us more as and when these crimes happen,’ he said. ‘The calls for service to police and partners have risen massively and the expectations for service have risen with it.’
I asked Inspector Cator if he felt Somerstown was a dangerous area.
‘No, not in comparison to the rest of Portsmouth,’ he said.
The statistics highlight two areas in the city that have higher problems with anti-social behaviour. There were 417 ASB offences reported in St Thomas ward from January to April 2017, and over the same period, 981 ASB offences were reported in Charles Dickens, and 430 in Nelson ward.
I have spoken to a range of people, not just about their view of Somerstown but Portsmouth as a whole. One elderly gentleman told me that a former boss told him to always say he lived in Southsea, never Portsmouth. He also said that, thirty years ago, if you were to tell an employer you lived in Leigh Park (another large council estate in Havant, just outside Portsmouth) you would not get a job. I then told him I lived in Somerstown. Apparently back then I would have struggled to get a job as well. It seems these council estates have always been viewed negatively, with words such as ‘common’ and ‘scum’ being thrown around, even from one of the nicest elderly gentlemen I have met.
A German national, resident in Portsmouth, was horrified to find out where I live. She too had only heard negative things about the area. How dangerous it is, how to never walk alone there at night and so on. But she had never actually seen Somerstown for herself and was apparently unaware of the relatively low crime rate here. I invited her to my flat so she could see what the area was like. She politely declined my offer.
Many of these skewed opinions stem from people who have only walked through the area or heard about it, but not actually lived here. I then decided to speak to some of the residents of Somerstown. From these small conversations it became apparent to me that Somerstownians are happy with where they live and they don’t view it as dangerous. They agreed that other residents are friendly, however, the majority shared the opinion that Somerstown looks horrible. The buildings were described to me as ‘ugly’, ‘old’ and ‘un-homely’.
If you walk through Somerstown, don’t worry about being attacked. Just avoid looking too harshly at the eye-sore, you don’t want to damage your eyes.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.