How Norwich Road is transforming attitudes to become the town's multicultural hub
PUBLISHED: 08:00 04 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:00 04 April 2019
The latest instalment in our series on multicultural Ipswich takes a look at the Destination Norwich Road project, which aims to transform perceptions about this diverse part of the town.
Walk along Ipswich’s Norwich Road and it may seem like you’ve left Suffolk for a far away land.
Russian supermarkets, Portuguese cafes and Turkish restaurants sit side by side, touting exotic wares to an international clientele.
For some Ipswich natives, the transformation has been unsettling. New faces and unfamiliar languages have left some people uneasy about their new surroundings. They say the road has become a no-go area, referred to in disparaging terms on social media and a focal point for fears about immigration.
According to those working with the diverse communities within Norwich Road, however, this is a narrative based on fear and a lack of understanding.
The reality, they say, is that Norwich Road is one of the most exciting and vibrant spaces that Ipswich has to offer, a cultural melting pot frothing with colour, sounds and flavours.
Their task – through the Destination Norwich Road project – is to spread that message across the wider community, breaking down barriers and dispelling misinformation.
“What has motivated us to do this work, is because we believe, overall, the view of the street is negative, but unjustifiably so,” said Phanuel Mutumburi, of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality.
“The view of the man on the street, be they prejudiced or not, unfortunately, is that this is a bad place.
“However, when I visit Norwich Road, there’s vibrancy and an energy that you don’t see in other parts of the town.
“This is something that’s quite palpable, it’s beautiful, but how do we share this with the rest of the community and the town?”
Mark Straw, of Community Praxis, another driver behind the project, said: “Norwich Road is unfortunately tarnished with a range of reputations of people’s pathologies.
“That’s what we’re trying to address.”
The project began around five years ago to support the members of the minority business community, but soon transformed into a bolder scheme to change people’s perception of the road.
A key part of this has been encouraging people to get beyond their fears and visit the businesses, meet the communities and break down barriers.
Tours of Norwich Road were held during a recent SPILL Festival, introducing members of the more established Ipswich community to some of the shops and restaurants their town had to offer, but which they had avoided.
“Many of these Ipswich people told us they would never come here in the evening, would never walk along the street on their own, because they had these negative perceptions about crime and that dangerous things would happen,” Mr Mutumburi said.
“A lot of the work that we are doing is shining the reality of what is really happening on the street.
“When you look at police statistics and what’s actually happening, what we’ve noticed so far, is that it’s more about fear of crime than crime itself.”
Mr Mutumburi said he wanted not only to dispel the negativity but to shine a light on the positives.
Rather than treating Norwich Road as a conduit into the town, to be left behind, the project seeks to make it a focal point.
“With all the amazing things that are here, it shouldn’t be just an alleyway into town, it’s actually a destination in its own right,” Mr Mutumburi said. “People can come here, shop for quality clothes at Coes, they can buy music, visit independent shops, eat, drink, spend a whole afternoon – we wanted to celebrate it.”
Rather than shy away from diversity, Project Norwich Road gives it a central role.
Mr Straw said: “There’s a beauty and majesty about how people coexist and are tolerant of each other and that’s something that needs to be sung about.”
Those behind the project say it is important to be led by the communities, not imposed upon them.
Mr Mutumburi acknowledges it has taken time to win over the foreign-owned businesses, some of whom have a natural suspicion of authorities based on their experiences at home.
“Some of these people come from places where there is police brutality, where authorities are there to suck money out of business where they’re attacking and corrupt,” he said. “So they come here with these views and we’ve got to convince them things are different.”
He said the negativity was often worsened by the way authorities engaged with foreign business people, or failed to recognise their differences.
“There’s an assumption that people who speak English as a second language are not as professional or as savvy,” Mr Strong added. “In reality, however, there’s a level of entrepreneurial flair on Norwich Road, which we don’t see in other spaces. We want to harness that and showcase that to younger people, to show how these guys have grown something, maybe not from a professional qualifications route, but through passion and heart.”
Mr Mutumburi said authorities and business support organisations were poorly equipped to engage with minority owned business, as they had developed a particular approach and stuck with it.
By encouraging both sides to meet on common ground, the project has helped businesses in Norwich Road engage for the first time with organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, Chamber of Commerce, which typically have been limited to mainstream, established businesses.
Today, Destination Norwich Road is flourishing.
“We feel like we’ve got the local people’s buy-in,” said Mr Strong.
“Now we have a truly representative group of business owners supporting us to make decisions. Everybody up and down the road is really supportive, really energised.
Mr Mutumburi added: “The brand has been the rallying point. It’s something that has brought people together. We had to do quite a lot of work to get people on board, but now they are starting to see the benefits.
“Changing mindsets is never easy, it’s a journey, but one thing we’re noticing is that almost all of the people we’ve reached as part of the campaign are becoming repeat customers, they’re becoming advocates and marketing tools. They’re going away and telling people you need to experience this. And as they experience all the positives, we will eventually get there.
“This isn’t the end,” Mr Strong added.
“You’re going to see murals, you’re going to see art on the floor, and you’re going to see initiatives around young enterprise.
“We are going to invest and regenerate this community so it can be a flagship, a real beacon of how we can build intercultural communities.”