Street spirit: How a famous old Liverpool road was reborn

“We’re not open today,” says Luca Sanvittore for the umpteenth time to another disappointed customer, as he discusses how he came to open a shop for one pound on Liverpool’s Smithdown Road. He acknowledges, with a smile, that it’s nice to be wanted.

His Italian street food restaurant Fritto has been open just a few days but there’s a steady stream of hungry clients looking for panzerotti, arancini and cannoli from the smart new unit. Situated opposite a cemetery (“I like it!,” says Luca), surrounded by vacant shopfronts and with only a video electricals shop and house clearance outfit for neighbours, Fritto represents the latest vanguard in the extraordinary transformation of Smithdown Road.

Fritto is the first business to take advantage of a scheme by Liverpool City Council to open a shop for a nominal rent, following a well-publicised plan to give first-time buyers the opportunity to buy a house for a quid. Luca smiles resignedly when describing the five years it took for his shop to come to fruition and, as yet, his is the only one of the £1 units.

Luca Sanvittore in Fritto.

Still, he has high hopes that it’s the start of another chapter in the rebirth of a famous Liverpool high street. “People said I was crazy to open here,” Luca admits, “but if no one takes the first step, nothing would get started. Maybe in a few years time this will become a cool area that everyone wants to be.”

Luca’s journey to opening a restaurant is hardly typical. Having come to Liverpool to study a Masters in criminology and crime prevention through environmental design, he’s uniquely placed to understand the benefits of innovative schemes such as the one the council has attempted here. “Restaurants can help the regeneration of an area because they can create a little community,” he says. “It feels like the independents down here made the area more desirable and there are more families now.”

This two-mile stretch of arterial Liverpool connects the edgelands of the city centre and borders Toxteth at one end to Penny Lane and the leafy suburbs of Mossley Hill at the other. Split by the Pendolinos whizzing up from London, Smithdown is literally two sides of the tracks. In between, you can find homemade kimchi, a record shop, a cereal cafe, a vegan restaurant, a microbrewery, Lebanese street food and £9 bacon sandwiches — even a restaurant reviewed by Grace Dent in The Guardian (that’s Belzan, which is “brimming with Scouse swagger”).

Smithdown is the one place in Liverpool where you can get all these things alongside Caribbean takeout, tinned Polish meat from the supermarket and a Dutch cap. “It’s a good mix of people,” says Luca. “It’s a melting pot — a very democratic, inclusive place. Smithdown Road is for everyone.” Almost completely absent are the fast-food and coffee chains that are ubiquitous on most British high streets.

The area is mentioned in the Domesday Book (its history is so varied and rich there’s an exhibition in its honour) but the high street hasn’t been around quite as long. It’s a classic Liverpool urban fare, with high-fronted buildings containing flats above and shops below. For decades here there were artisans (the old-fashioned type): tailors, watchmakers, wrought ironworkers and leather-smiths. But the grim years of the 80s were no kinder to Smithdown than they were to Liverpool generally and set in train a long period of decline.

Luca in the doorway of Fritto.

By the end of the Noughties, whole streets at the western end, where the twin cathedrals of the city centre start to become visible, were abandoned or flattened — not by the Luftwaffe, like swathes of Liverpool, but by “disastrous urban planning, stuttering regeneration and economic stagnation”. Dozens of shop units were permanently shuttered. The Smithdown Ten, once a rite-of-passage pub crawl for Liverpool’s students, was reduced to six as public houses faded away or were demolished.

Livers may have benefited but the closure of each pub felt like another nail in the coffin. Students and young professionals, despite being a significant presence on the high street for decades, were ill-served by creaky pubs and a pot-pourri of faded general dealers, no-star takeaways and two-bit salons.

“Fried chicken shops, hairdressers and estate agents,” is how Andy Scott describes the area a decade ago. “It was grim.”

“It was a bad time,” agrees Kevin Kelly, in a soft Scottish burr. “All you could see was shutters. It was depressing.”

The pair both own bars on the high street and are behind the ever-growing Smithdown Festival. The former, working from a laptop and sipping a coke in the dive-y, homemade Black Cat bar gives the impression that much about running a pub has changed over the decades. Kev, who previously ran the nearby Kelly’s Dispensary and now owns The Handyman Supermarket, a larger venue that brews much of the draught beer on sale, does not. He has a hatchback parked haphazardly outside, stuffed with drinks from the cash-and-carry and he’s short on time as he considers what has changed in the last decade.

“Evil Eye came along and it added something different,” says Kev. He credits the Mexican-styled dive bar and burrito shack, opened by Andy in a former butcher’s shop (now under new management), with kicking off a rebirth on Smithdown. Black Cat was a former car-parts outlet; The Handyman takes its name from the hardware store that preceded it. A trend developed.

“It did open up a lot of people’s minds about how you could turn what had always been shop units into really good places,” says Kev. Andy is modest but acknowledges that Evil Eye was the start of something real that built on a growing sense of community in the area. Why couldn’t a butcher’s become a bar?

“We had no idea what we were doing at first — we were just knocking down walls and seeing what happened. But you could see there were loads of people around here who had an appetite for something different — students, young professionals, locals. We always talked about making Smithdown Road more of a destination. Now there’s something on every block; there’s a critical mass that draws people in.”

Kev also cites the opening of Belzan — a small-plate ‘neo-bistro’ that was crowdfunded into existence in 2018 and opened on the site of a former laundrette — with changing attitudes to Smithdown. “All of a sudden I could eat a fancy cheese toastie in the place where I used to do my undies!” laughs Andy. Or a tonka bean rice pudding.

Kev, the ‘Dad of Smithdown’ according to Andy, says the appeal of the street is that while the individual bars, restaurants and shops have been important in its renaissance, it’s more than the sum of its parts. “Whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it on Smithdown Road.”

Other businesses on the road cite rates relief as a catalyst for smaller businesses coming into the area, feeling able to take a punt on opening up without committing to huge overheads. Peter Gleave, co-founder of Neapolitan pizza parlour Little Furnace, says the lower business rates initially made Smithdown appealing. However, once he and business partner Ryan Herr started looking at potential premises, it became clear something was afoot.

“At the time we signed our lease, there was very little happening on Smithdown,” he says. “But while we were identifying vacant lots we noticed they were getting snapped up. We learned of plans for several other bars and restaurants — so we could feel something was happening.”

Charlotte Owens, co-owner of vegan restaurant Meatless, says attitudes to food and lifestyle have made trendy new bistros and bars viable too. “My family have lived off Smithdown road since the 1970s and the landscape has changed so much,” she says. “Students and young people in the area are much cooler: they value healthy food just as much as greasy takeaways; craft beer and gins as opposed to quad vods; quirky places to socialise and shop.”

Charlotte thinks that with the city’s trendier hot spots — the city centre and famous ‘bo-ho’ retreat Lark Lane among them — becoming saturated, people are looking for cheaper housing, new places to shop and food-and-drink to discover. Smithdown may be the edgier, slightly rougher cousin but there’s more than a whiff of sophistication alongside the booze and fags. “The always-cool Lark Laners have spread into the surrounding areas,” she says. “I think the area in general is becoming so much more cosmopolitan.”

Graham Jones, owner of the Defend Vinyl record store

Something else that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago on Smithdown Road was a record shop. But when he felt priced out of the city centre Graham Jones, owner of the Defend Vinyl record store, turned his attention to a former tattoo parlour on the high street. He’s since moved across the road to a former butty shop, courtesy of a tip-off from the window cleaner who does all the frontages up and down Smithdown.

“He knows everything that’s going on down here,” laughs Graham, beset by mounds of vinyl, powered by a pot of coffee and observing the man who may be the real Dad of Smithdown trundling past with his ladders and bucket. “He’s always telling me the street is on its way out!” Graham says that seeing friends and acquaintances open thriving businesses was an inspiration, something that paved the way for others to snap up the road’s unused shop fronts.

“Seeing these people having achieved their ambitions to open their business made me feel that it was something that I could do,” he says. Graham says without help and support from the Smithdown community, Defend Vinyl may not have got off the ground. “I did a crowdfunder and the response was so enthusiastic. I thought even with the people I know here, they’d give me enough business.

When Covid-19 and assorted lockdowns struck over 2020-21, the community rallied around to support the restaurants, cafes and bars on the road, which became bottle bars, takeaways and delicatessens instead. As a mark of the collaboration and mutual support that typifies the area, the Handyman made a signature beer for Defend Vinyl to celebrate Record Store Day 2020. All have survived as society has gradually reopened, and locals are looking to the future.

Graham with his signature beer.

Andy and Kev are planning the latest Smithdown Road Festival, the first since before the pandemic. 22 venues will be involved, including the local cricket club and church. Beer and food will be a part of it, independent shops too. Lots of music. And there will be wrestling, because… who doesn’t love wrestling?
“Smithdown Road is more than just a road,” says Graham. “It’s a place where big things happen.”

• Originally written for the Liverpool Post – click here for the original: Street spirit: How a famous old Liverpool road was reborn 

A Very Liverpool Christmas

“Come on Nicole, we’re all waiting for you.”

Nicole runs along Peasefield Road to join her classmates from Dovecot Primary School to perform an enthusiastic rendition of Silent Night and a few other Christmas favourites.

It’s 20th December, just before the Winter Solstice, and by 4pm the night is setting in; clouds scudding overhead look heavy with snow and cold stings the face. But the watching group — dads making their way home from work in hi-vis and knapsacks, mums corralling groups of kids that may or may not be their own and dogs yelping excitedly at the end of leads — give hearty applause and join in with abandon when Slade’s annual banker gets another run-out. “It’s Christ-maaaaaas!” yells one of the mums, in a surprisingly, even startlingly good impression of Noddy Holder.

Everyone is gathered outside the house of Frank McKenna who, along with Theresa Nuttie, has organised the carol service as part of the Peasefield Lights, a festive tradition that sees virtually all the houses on the east Liverpool street decked out with inflatables, Christmas scenes and fairy lights. Some 50,000 of them line the road, connecting houses adjacent and opposite one another. Move up the street and there’s something else to see in every front garden. Hi-tech and homemade sit side- by-side: there’s a rocking horse; here’s a rear-projected Santa; further along, a wreath made of disposable plastic cups.

Frank McKenna

Conceived during lockdown in 2020, Peasefield Road has been labelled Liverpool’s most festive street. The national press came to Dovecot — a ‘new-age village’ when built in the ‘20s and ‘30s — last year along with thousands of visitors keen to partake in socially-distanced lockdown festivities. £8,500 was raised for charity. But Frank and Theresa (along with neighbours Wayne and Helen) weren’t stopping there. 2021 has seen taxi driver Frank and retiree Theresa expand the scale and scope of the attraction, with the carol concert just one example.

“They got me at Silent Night,” admits Theresa, who has lived on Peasefield Road since 1977. Frank concurs as we chat inside Theresa’s cosy house. The pair have lived opposite one another for 20 years and began stringing fairy lights across the road at Christmas a few years back.

But in the depths of the first lockdown, Theresa had an idea: what if the street had a big bingo bash? Frank could be the caller, they could win prizes — and all in the fresh air. Then at Christmas, Theresa had another brainwave. What if the pair of them did Christmas lights for the neighbours?

Theresa Nuttie at the lights.

“The first week we did about five houses,” says Frank. “Within six weeks we’d done 45.” Neither could believe the response. The streets were log jammed with cars, packed with families who’d travelled for miles to see the lights. And then Peasefield Lights went global.

“We had messages from Canada, Australia, Spain, China, New Zealand, America,” Frank continues. “People came from Blackpool — Blackpool! — to see the lights. That’s the seal of approval isn’t it? They said they’d never seen anything like it.” The impact of Covid and lockdown meant the lights were a glimpse of normality in a world where social gatherings were banned — for some it was overwhelming: “We’ve had grown men in tears,” says Frank.

But what the festivities have done for the local community is just as important. “Before the lockdown, before our lights, I didn’t know anybody at the top of our street,” admits Frank, a dad-of-three and a grandad. Arguably he performs the same function to most of the street. “Now it’s such a community. Within 12 months, it’s like when we were kids. We all know each other’s names, what jobs we do.”

Theresa’s house

People who were born on Peasefield Road in the 1930s have come back and told residents about the area’s civic spirit. “They said even then there was something amazing here,” says Frank. “So we’re just carrying that one and trying to bring the community back a little bit.”

Theresa says the lights have brought back something of the road she knew when she came here with her family, 44 years ago. “When I moved here we’d only know the people around us. We all stuck together down this half and we were close when our kids were growing up. But slowly people moved away and I was left the only one still living here.”

It could have been a lonely time for Theresa, who lost her husband Alan eight years ago. But the new neighbours brought more friends and the advent of the Peasefield Lights seems like a new lease of life for her. “I love this,” she says. “I’m Mrs Christmas.”

Frank beams: “She’s a 70-year-old woman who does five hours a night, seven days a week!” but Theresa waves it away. “We’re just a couple of people from a local street.”

That might be true, but the pair — along with Wayne and Helen Murray and the residents of Peasefield Road — have raised thousands in donations for nearby baby hospice Zoe’s Place this year and last. It’s inspired all concerned to try for bigger and better things in years to come.

Theresa’s house

“We’ve worked through the snow, the rain and the wind,” says Frank, who strings the lights across the road. He says the work is hard (“really hard,” in fact) but adds that handing over the cash to Zoe’s Place makes it all worthwhile. “When we took the money in they had a few residents there, they clapped and sang Christmas songs… ah, mate, I’ve never cried like that before.”

Frank looks close to welling up again. “We’ve got the bug now, me and Theresa, to give something back to the community. I want to do it for 25 years — until I retire.”

Frank is eager to point out that he couldn’t do it on his own — neighbours Wayne and Helen have helped enormously too. As Wayne is posing for photographs beside an inflatable Raymond Briggs Snowman, Frank can’t resist a wisecrack: “How will you tell which is which?”

Wayne, who runs the Peasefield Lights Facebook page, lives a couple of doors down from Frank. He and wife Helen start work on tying the lights to ropes in September to prepare for Christmas, but acknowledges that it’s Frank who does the leg work. “I think he’s a bit of a local legend now. People come up to him now and say ‘are you that Frank McKenna?’”

Like Frank, Wayne has a busy job. He’s a team leader in a supermarket and days can be tiring. When there are several hours on the street with donation buckets to factor in, the winter days and nights are long, but camaraderie and team spirit go a long way. Sometimes the neighbours dress up; it helps the time pass more swiftly. Wayne is The Grinch; Frank, inevitably, is Santa.

Wayne outside his house

Wayne laughs: “He didn’t want to do it at first, but we made him!”

Wayne and Helen’s display is one of the biggest and brightest. He admits there’s a friendly rivalry between neighbours, but he’s philosophical about the attraction of the lights — and what it has done for the neighbourhood. “During hard times it was a bit of festive cheer for people. We’re much closer now. I’m not the most sociable of people but I’ve made friends for life up and down here now. I’ve heard stories about when my Mam and Dad were growing up, how neighbourhoods were so close to one another. So this is our little way of bringing our neighbours together.”

Frank concurs. “I think Covid has brought a lot of people and communities together. Before the pandemic I don’t think you would have had people checking on neighbours, asking if they needed any shopping. Now everyone’s looking out for one another.”

I walk down Peasefield Road later, taking in the displays. QR codes for contributing to the Zoe’s Place funds are strung to most fences and here and there are residents with buckets, braving the cold. Every minute or so a car crawls by, packed with families marvelling at the attractions: “Hello, Santa!” comes the cry of a young child from one, passing a large inflatable Father Christmas.

Mandy and Cath have brought the former’s grandchildren. They’ve come from Runcorn — a good 30 minutes drive in rush hour — to see the handiwork of Frank, Theresa, Wayne, Helen and the others. “The kids love it,” enthuses Mandy. “The lights are amazing.”

But it isn’t just about the lights, impressive as they are. They’re also the vehicle for a community that has rediscovered itself. Frank and Theresa have fostered a group of people who have become much more than people who happen to live next door to one another, reestablishing a bond in their neighbourhood with a sense of style and solidarity, pitched somewhere between a socialist parable, West End musical and episode of Brookie. It’s a very Liverpool Christmas.

So where next?

“Someone asked us if you could see our lights from space,” says Wayne with a grin, “so that’s the challenge now!”

• Originally written for the Liverpool Post – click here for the original: A very Liverpool Christmas – by Robin Brown – The Post