Focus on Upperthorpe: Reaction to fatal shooting reflects strong community

Samira Salah at the Zest Centre in Upperthorpe
Samira Salah at the Zest Centre in Upperthorpe
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The fatal shooting of a young man in Upperthorpe, a short walk from Sheffield city centre, shook the neighbourhood back in February.

But the response to Aseel Al-Essaie’s death showed the diverse community’s true colours as it pulled together in grief.

Dave Thomas, owner of the Donald Trump and Richard Branson Selfie Centre in Upperthorpe

Dave Thomas, owner of the Donald Trump and Richard Branson Selfie Centre in Upperthorpe

The 23-year-old’s image is everywhere, from the photos on the railings in Daniel Hill where he was gunned down on a Saturday afternoon to the mural on the wall of a tattoo parlour accompanied by the message ‘rest in peace bro’.

His smiling face also looks down from the sign of his grandfather’s Yemeni restaurant on Upperthorpe Road, named in his honour as Aseel’s Restaurant.

Inside, Aseel’s cousin tells me how although the area is not the same without Aseel’s charismatic presence, his family has been touched by the community’s reaction to the tragedy.

“There’s been a great community response.

Dave Thomas, owner of the Donald Trump and Richard Branson Selfie Centre in Upperthorpe

Dave Thomas, owner of the Donald Trump and Richard Branson Selfie Centre in Upperthorpe

“A few days after it happened the whole community gathered for a vigil to pay their respects, and it’s nice to have the mural too,” says the University of Sheffield student, who asks not to be named.

“This has always been a strong community. There’s a mix of cultures and everyone gets along and people are very close.”

It is a view echoed by Matt Dean, chief executive of the charity Zest, which runs the Zest Centre at the top of Upperthorpe Road.

The centre is the beating heart of the community, housing a volunteer-run library, a swimming pool, gym and cafe, and it runs a plethora of activities and courses for everyone from young parents to old people at risk of social exclusion.

A mural in tribute to Aseel Al-Essaie on the wall of Red Monkey tatttoo parlour in Upperthorpe

A mural in tribute to Aseel Al-Essaie on the wall of Red Monkey tatttoo parlour in Upperthorpe

Many people turned to Zest for support in the wake of Aseel’s killing, and it worked with other groups to provide counselling for young people left reeling by the tragedy, and assistance for worried parents who feared their children could be lured into committing crime and antisocial behaviour.

“For Upperthorpe as an area, the way we have responded is a reflection of how strong the community is,” says Matt.

“It brought everyone together to look at how we ensure it doesn’t create a divided community and to support those on the periphery of crime and antisocial behaviour.”

It is wrong for one tragedy, however awful, to define an area, and although Upperthorpe does have its problems Matt points out they are no different to those of any other inner city area with pockets of severe deprivation.

Aseel's Restaurant in Upperthorpe, named after the shooting victim Aseel Al-Essaie

Aseel's Restaurant in Upperthorpe, named after the shooting victim Aseel Al-Essaie

He is keen to focus on what makes it a great place in which to live and work.

There are the fantastic parks and green spaces, for example, like The Ponderosa, which will host this year’s Tramlines and Peace in the Park festivals.

The small shopping parade has every thing you need – including a post office, GP’s surgery and a handful of eateries, among them a new fish and chip shop – while the city centre is only 20 minutes or so away on foot and even less by tram or bus.

Then there’s Zest itself, which began life some 25 years ago at a terraced house on Upperthorpe Road, where a group of residents met to discuss how to improve an area which the impending demolition of the 13-storey Kelvin flats block in 1995-96 would change forever.

When the library and swimming baths were at risk of closure in the early noughties, the community rallied round to save them and transform the building into a community hub.

Today, Matt explains, Zest provides an ever-expanding calendar of activities tailored to suit the needs of the community it serves, including discussion groups for people to hone their English, youth clubs, employment advice and a women-only gym.

Zest Centre in Upperthorpe

Zest Centre in Upperthorpe

A new Real Junk Food Project cafe is due to open shortly, where customers can pay what they feel for meals made from ingredients which would have gone to waste.

Downstairs at the Zest Centre, a parent-and-child singing session, run by Primrose Children’s Centre, has just finished.

Samira Salah, who was there with her two children, Ayah, aged eight weeks, and one-year-old Jabir, says: “It’s a great facility which I use for the groups, like this one, and for the women-only swimming. I moved here less than a year ago, after more than 20 years in Broomhall, and I really like the area.”

Maneka Whitaker, who works as a doctor for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, is there with 10-week-old Alex.

“I like Upperthorpe because it’s convenient for work, you can walk into town in 20 minutes and you have this place on your doorstep,” she says.

“I’ve lived here since 2009 and I always walked past but it was only after Alex was born that I had a reason to come. I’m here all the time now, and it’s a great place to meet other mums.”

Upperthorpe is becoming an increasingly popular area with young families, it seems, and Netherthorpe Primary – just up the road – was one of just five primary schools in the city which were so oversubscribed they had to turn away youngsters from within their catchment area.

The neighbourhood has a proud history of philanthropy, having been home to some of the city’s biggest benefactors like master cutler John Blake and steel magnate Sir Stuart Goodwin, who is commemorated by the Goodwin Fountain in the Peace Gardens.

A blue plaque, meanwhile, marks the former home of ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ Ebenezer Elliott on Blake Grove Road, a poet and factory owner who fought to repeal legislation causing hardship and starvation among the poor.

That caring spirit has not disappeared, according to Helen Neale, who is walking her lurcher Skye in Upperthorpe Peace Garden.

“I love living here. It’s a very friendly place,” she says.

“It’s also between a lot of places, which sounds like a funny thing to say but it means you can move around and visit other parts of Sheffield very easily.”

Dave Thomas, one of Sheffield’s true eccentrics, recently opened possibly the city’s most bizarre business.

He claims the intriguingly-titled Donald Trump and Richard Branson Selfie Centre is the world’s only selfie centre, where customers can pose with numerous props and backdrops, including a blood-stained guillotine and a gruesome toilet modelled on the iconic scene from Trainspotting.

On the counter lies 14kg of ‘cocaine’ – another prop but one which caused a lot of bother when he jokingly offered some to a police officer, who he says demanded to know what other drugs he was hiding before twigging it was fake.

Dave says the venue recently hosted what he calls an Albanian Warrior Party, and is due to host a Rastafarian get-together where there will be 20 Bob Marley impersonators.

He claims to have visited nearly 90 countries but says Upperthorpe is ‘unique’ in having such a mix of cultures living so harmoniously.

Upperthorpe is separated from Walkley by one of Sheffield’s most famous roads.

Blake Street, which stretches at an energy-sapping 16.6º angle up towards Ruskin Park, featured in The Full Monty and was recently named by the BBC as Britain’s third steepest street.

At the top, beside the park, sits The Blake Hotel pub, which has proved the salvation of many an exhausted walker, or should that be climber.

Bar lady Jane Burgin says it’s easy to tell which drinkers have made the trek up Blake Street from their shortage of breath and the various shades of puce colouring their faces, while one customer jokes ‘they supply gas and air as well as pints’.

Taking in the majestic view of the city, it’s easy to appreciate Upperthorpe’s charms. But the only true way to do so is to head down there and get chatting to the people who make it such a diverse and vibrant community.