DRAGGING her shopping bag up the almost-deserted high street, an elderly woman stops to kick an empty can of lager out of her way.
It’s just a stone’s throw from a plaza known as ‘Suicide Square’ on Shields Road, in Byker, Newcastle, where drug addicts and alcoholics waste away the hours.
The two-mile-long stretch of road in the crime-ridden suburb of Byker is strewn with rubbish and lined with boarded-up shops.
But it wasn’t always the way for the neglected boulevard, which has been voted the worst high street in the UK in both 2017 and 2019.
Shields Road has undergone a dramatic change in fortunes since its heyday, which lasted from the 1950s up until the turn of the 21st century when it fell into disrepair.
The street was once a vibrant boulevard filled with boutique shops, cinemas and an upmarket department store.
But posh establishments have now given way to discount shops and a series of pubs, where stooped figures gather outside to smoke.
‘Terrified to walk down the street’
Homeless Jane Robinson, 40, has been forced to sleep anywhere she can along the road since losing her home while fleeing alleged domestic abuse.
“There are always drunks wandering the streets,” she says, while gesturing to a small group drinking on the pavement at midday.
“You can see them congregating opposite the supermarkets so they can buy more booze.
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“There’s an area outside the swimming baths nicknamed ‘Suicide Square’ because it’s where the druggies hang out.
“They were banned from buying alcohol from the store at one point because it got so bad.
“There are always fights but there’ll be more today because it’s sunny, so they’ll drink more.
“The street is dangerous. My friend once had three fights walking from one end to the other. People start arguments for no reason.”
While nodding to a tin of cider blowing down the road, she adds: “There’s always cans littered on the floor and broken glass.
“I’ve been in this area since 2006 and it’s always been bad but it’s
because there’s no investment.
“It’s so run down people don’t think it’s worth saving but that’s not true. If people had a high street to be proud of and we helped them so they had hope and goals to aspire to, things could be different.”
Pickpockets target elderly & vulnerable
Trouble is rife here with a staggering 111 crimes reported in April 2022 in the Shields Road area alone, leaving locals terrified to stroll down the street.
Jacky Sivell, 59, walks with a shopping trolley bag, which contains her purse fastened to the inside in a bid to deter pickpockets.
The retired carer says: “You have to be careful walking around here because there are so many pickpockets and thieves.
“I make sure my bag is locked and in my sight so no one takes anything.
“They even target the elderly and vulnerable. There was an older woman who was recently attacked on this street.
“There’s often a scrap on the road, often in broad daylight.
“There’s one pub I use on this street but I wouldn’t dare step foot in any of the others as they’re too rough.
“It never used to be like this. I’m not surprised it was voted the worst
high street, there’s nothing here anymore but charity shops.
“It’s terribly sad to see the decline of our high street but there’s been
no investment in it and things have gone downhill.”
‘Nothing here but boarded-up shops & drunks’
Paul Mackie, 66, has lived in Byker all of his life and remembers the
street in its heyday.
“You used to be able to get everything you needed here but now you can’t get anything,” he says.
“This was rammed day in, day out. If you came at 9.30 in the morning you couldn’t get parked, it was so busy.
“There’s nothing here anymore but boarded-up shops and drunks. If you go to the cash point you’ll be mugged.
“It’s sad to see its decline as it was a lovely place to be.”
The high street lies in the shadow of Byker Wall, a 200-acre council estate constructed in the 1970s.
Former mechanical engineer, Drew Scott, claims newer residents that have been moved into the area have caused the street’s decline.
The 54-year-old said: “I lived here as a child and my mum worked in Beavans department store on Shields Road.
“I moved away and came back 30 years later and I was completely lost
because it’s so different to what it was.
“It doesn’t look good when women, who are my age, are fighting over methadone on the street.
“Everywhere has its rough areas, it isn’t just here. Some parts of London are equally deprived. Having said that, as soon as I came back I thought, ‘Get me out of here!'”
‘Most of us are friendly & want change for the better’
David Ovington has worked in Fantasia Florists for 28 years,
located opposite the square, and regularly spots trouble.
“There’s a lot of drug use around here. They congregate opposite the
store,” he said.
“The supermarkets have shoved local shops out, which has contributed to the decline of the high street.
“There’s one at the top and another at the bottom of the street. We’ve been in various council meetings about it because they weren’t supposed to be so close together but we never get any answers.
“No one really comes here now, we don’t get anyone travelling here from out of the area anymore but at least the locals aren’t deterred by the drug use.
“We need more police presence. If the police did more the troublemakers wouldn’t be here as often.
“You regularly see them early in the morning when they’ve left whatever accommodation they’re staying in.
“It’s got a bad reputation but it isn’t as awful as everyone thinks.
“There are a few people who give it the reputation it has, but most of us are friendly and want change for the better.”
A Newcastle City Council spokesperson said: “For generations Shields Road has been the heart of the East End of Newcastle but like many other high streets up and down the country it has suffered as a result of the trend towards online shopping and the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic.
“Government cuts, which has meant that we have had to save £335m since 2010, have inevitably deprived high streets of investment.
“We are working with public sector partners and private sector investors to address communities’ concerns across every neighbourhood in the city and help high streets adapt to changing consumer habits.”
Neighbourhood Inspector Craig Pratchett of Northumbria Police said: “We know that the anti-social behaviour of a minority can have a significant and detrimental impact on the communities we serve.
“That’s why we, as a Force, are committed to tackling any pockets of disorder through proactive policing and dedicated operations.
“A lot of hard work is ongoing in this particular area to tackle anti-social behaviour, and we’ve had some fantastic recent results working with the local community as well as our partners.
“In the last few weeks alone, we have secured civil injunctions on two individuals believed to have been involved in disorder and who are now banned from the area.
“We will continue to do all we can to tackle anti-social behaviour and anybody with concerns is encouraged to speak to an officer, contact us via our website or by ringing 101.
“By working together, we can continue to ensure the North East remains as safe a place as it possibly can be to live, work and visit.”