A Royal Visit but Little Change for Riot-Scarred North London Community

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Ian Gavan / WPA Pool / Getty Images

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, center, and, near right, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visit London's Tottenham community on Feb. 9, 2012

A working-class pub might be the last place you'd expect to run into a royal. But during a recent visit to the Pride of Tottenham, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla showed that they do more than hunt pheasants and wear silly hats. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall stopped by the pub as part of their Feb. 9 tour of the riot-scarred northern London community of Tottenham, where the unrest that engulfed the city began last August. Speaking with local business owners amid multicolored lights and a jumble of red chairs, Charles and Camilla knitted their brows, mumbled condolences and cracked the occasional joke while their handlers and the media looked on.

The owner of the pub, Niche Mpala Mufwankolo, had put on a brave face and his best suit for the visit by the heir to the British throne and his wife. But six months after looters ransacked his business during the riots, Mufwankolo is still shaken. "I haven't recovered. There is no more post office. There is no more job center here," he says. "Everything has changed — the image of the business and the community is not the same."

Mufwankolo barely survived the riots. He confronted the armed teenagers who broke into his pub, only to be chased upstairs to his office. As they tried to kick down the door, he escaped by squeezing through a tiny window and clambering down a drainpipe. He has since managed to piece back together his business, but he can do little about the deserted streets that have robbed the Pride of Tottenham of its regulars.

It's a problem that plagues shops up and down Tottenham's High Road, half a year after a local protest over the police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan spiraled into chaos, causing more than $15.8 million in damage to the area. Many of the some 100 shops damaged on Tottenham's main street, the longest Georgian high street in London, have reopened since then. (Those that are still boarded up bear the insignia "I ♥ Tottenham.") But the anchor businesses on the block, such as the Fitness First gym and ALDI Supermarket, have gone, taking much of the area's foot traffic with them.

The Prince, who first visited riot-hit areas of London just a week after the unrest, sent his charity Business in the Community to Tottenham last fall to help prop up businesses while they waited for insurance payouts to be processed. And though the charity has helped business owners access more than $3 million in public and private recovery funds, many are still struggling. Jewelry-shop owner Stephen Moore explained to Charles how his business has remained in limbo as he fights to collect his insurance money. The Prince commiserated, promising to "try and stir up the insurance companies."

All over Britain, people are still trying to recover from the riots — both financially and emotionally — while a fierce debate continues to be waged over the root causes of the violence. There are any number of explanations, depending on whose report you read. The government's official report, released by the Cabinet Office in October, said young people saw the riots as an "exciting event" where they had the "opportunity to get free stuff" and "get back at police." The Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics launched a study in September called "Reading the Riots," which identified "distrust and antipathy toward police" as a central driver of unrest. (The second phase of the study, focusing on the perspectives of police and criminal justice officials, is due to be released next year.) The latest report to be released — "A Citizens' Inquiry into the Tottenham Riots," written by local community leaders — focuses on "police management," "youth unemployment," "the aesthetics of Tottenham" and a pervasive feeling of a "lack of power" in the community as the causes of the riots.

Locals understandably want to have answers as to what happened last August, but they are also looking to the future. And there are signs of hope. On Jan. 16, local and city officials launched a $65 million initial regeneration package to help fund arts, heritage, green space, housing and cultural initiatives in the area. Many of the new development projects will be centered around White Hart Lane, the home stadium of the beloved local Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur. There's also a nearly $12 million jobs package in the works to help the unemployed find work.

But there is clearly still much work to be done. As the royals walked up the High Road, they surveyed the spot where the landmark 1930s Allied Carpet building used to stand. On the night of Aug. 6, rioters set the store and the 30 apartments above it ablaze, leaving only a smoldering shell. The gutted building — which became a potent symbol of the riots' destruction — has been torn down and will be rebuilt over the next two years.

At the nearby Kemble Hall community center, Camilla sipped tea with those who had lost their homes and possessions when the Allied Carpet building went up in flames. Two of the men chatting with the duchess — bus driver Ken Bowen and child care worker Garnett Weekes, both immigrants from the Caribbean — are living in temporary housing until September 2013, when the new apartment building is scheduled to be completed. "It's nice that they took time out to meet people and to find out what we're doing through," Weekes said of the royal couple.

Like Bowen and Weekes, many residents are frustrated that the riots have left permanent scars on Tottenham. Derek Lewis, owner of an ironmonger shop in the neighborhood, is upset that Tottenham has become synonymous with burning buildings and yobs (British slang for delinquents) in hoodies. Lewis' shop, which celebrated 80 years on Tottenham's main street this week, was one of the first that rioters looted, smashing its windows and snatching up pickaxes and bolt cutters to break into other stores. He proudly told the Prince that he was "the first up and running the next day. I said, 'Nobody's going to beat me.'"

As Charles worked his way through the crowd, Lewis remarked that "Tottenham is no worse than anywhere else." That may be true, but it may be difficult to convince the world outside to feel the same. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, says the community could benefit from the royal touch. "We can't be left in Tottenham to do things solely on a parochial basis. We need that national attention, and the Prince brings that."

One local youth worker who chatted with the Duchess disagrees. "They spend their time to show the world, 'We care,' but I've never heard they give their tuppence in to help anyone," says Paulette Campbell, who took to the streets during the riots to help protect shops. "At the end of the day, it's our money they're getting. And the job that they're doing, I could do it with my eyes closed." It's not unthinkable that Britain's most under-privileged people might bristle at the sight of a titled toff practicing the art of noblesse oblige. Most Tottenham residents, however, are just looking for some help — and seemed to appreciate the genuine concern shown by the royal couple.

As Camilla and Charles moved towards their car to leave, Charles shook the hand of a young woman who's chanced upon the royal party. As their car pulls away, she wipes tears from her eyes and jumps up and down while trying to take pictures with her iPhone. Lammy thinks it's a sign that the power of the royal mystique could actually do some good for Tottenham. "I don't think she's going to wash her hand," he chuckles.