On Tuesday morning the Moss Side police cut the no-go tape and moved the flowers to the shop where the 14-year-old boy was killed: 20-odd bunches, some already rotting in the cellophane, and four small teddy bears.

Who left the bears? Not Benji Stanley's mates, who walk by the murder scene on their way back from school, heavy footed and heavy lidded; they know what Benji liked, like kids all over: computer games, music. And not the older members of the community, who cross themselves and shake their heads as they pass; they've seen this stuff before, very often, and they don't get sentimental any more.

According to the sparse notes, the bears came from women. One says he did not die in vain. Another says how much she loved him, and that he is always with her.

They're gunning for the 2000 Olympics here in Manchester, and they're boasting of their international airport. The Arts Council has named Manchester City of Drama for 1994. The civic PR machine tells you Manchester has suffered less in the recession than London or many other big cities; it says local pride and confidence remain high.

Moss Side lies about one mile south of the centre of town, and you drive past it thinking, well, that doesn't look too bad: the Parkway Business Centre, with Wang and Renault and Data General; the massive Scottish and Newcastle Breweries; some adventure playgrounds, signs to the shopping and leisure centres, few high rises, plenty of satellite dishes. How could this possibly be the place we call Britain's Bronx, or Baby Beirut, or Gunchester?

You look at the statistics - 14,000 population, 40 per cent unemployed - and maybe you think, why don't the people here just do something, like go into town and get work? And then you read the other figures: more than 10 killings in two years, three of them teenagers, about a hundred shooting incidents, crossbows found in dawn raids, countless arrests for drugs and petty crime. Many of the locals say: 'It's never been as bad as this.' Local teachers talk of 'endemic despair' and the 'crushing of hope'. You wonder how it could ever get like this, and what on earth are the police and council and Government doing?

It's not just Moss Side, of course. The neighbouring concrete estates of Hulme and Whalley Range have terrible problems, too, but Moss Side steals the national headlines. In July 1981 it was the riots, several fierce nights of burning and looting and clashes with the police, resulting in many injuries and about 250 arrests. Every year since have come reports of the gangs and the drug trade and the gun-play. But last week was a new low: the shooting on Saturday of John 'Benji' Stanley, an apparently motiveless killing of a boy with no criminal record and no known involvement in the drugs industry. His school photograph - the one in all the papers and news bulletins, the one on which his mother wrote 'Please find my son's murderer' - shows him smiling, a charming lad. If only he'd lived somewhere else.

MOSS SIDE was not always like this. In 1870 a resident who signed himself 'JC' wrote: 'When I first went to live in Moss Side in 1850 it was like an earthly Paradise . . . our front windows overlooked fields and meadows.'

JC noted the existence of a Moss Side Conservative Club. Pepperhill Farm, now a housing estate, was the site of Mary Barton's farm in Mrs Gaskell's novel. 'You cannot wonder,' Mrs Gaskell wrote, 'that these fields are popular places of resort at every holiday time.'

Great Western Street, the scene of the recent murder, was at that time populated mostly with geese; it was the streets of central Manchester that provided the worst industrial slums.

Most of Moss Side's narrow, congested streets were built between 1900 and 1930, but even in 1925 Alexandra Park, at 66 acres Manchester's second- biggest park, was described as a local beauty spot, a venue for the wealthy's Sunday strolls. In 1991, the Alexandra Park Estate was the site of Operation China, a dawn drugs raid involving 200 officers, which yielded 23 arrests for possession and firearms offences.

In 1981 a probation officer giving evidence to the riot inquiry spoke of a 'Moss Side mythology': the place had become bad because people believed it was. He said this reputation was unfounded - it was no worse than many other areas. But five years later things seemed much worse. Guns had begun appearing at muggings and were used for protection in the drugs trade. Teenagers boasted of being able to buy a gun for pounds 100. They were seen running drugs errands on bikes, as dealers, all under 30, spoke into mobile phones.

'Drugs are the economy on Moss Side,' a 28-year-old dealer told the

Independent in 1991. 'There's so many offshoots, like so many businesses that have been based on drugs money. Given the chance to do things right, half of them guys out there could be top businessmen. I mean, they've got business minds: selling drugs is a business.

'The difference between my dad's generation and my generation is that we don't see it as right that you should work the whole of your life and at the end of the day you've still little or nothing to show for it.'

At one point in the Sixties the Lingbeck Crescent/Gretney Walk estate probably represented the shining future. Now you find syringe needle-tips on the wet stairs, graffiti in the walkways: 'Join the Housebreakers Association - cost: 1 TV'. These blocks were condemned last year, but living conditions must have been unbearable many years before. In one of the flats a warren of tiny, damp rooms has bubbles of mould on the floor and warped, soaking wood throughout. On one floor lies a letter from the council addressed to A Antassya: 'Re: Rent Increases . . .'

It overlooks the shopping precinct, which also must have represented some developer's dream of Arcadia 20 years ago. Today it is barely one-third occupied. The Job Centre is still open, as is the precinct's police station and community and youth associations. Inside these places there are very committed people trying to provide guidance on minuscule resources. But it is mostly food and cheap clothing. There are a lot of security guards, almost one for each shop; they warn against taking photographs of the decay. And then there is the most telling sign of all: a poster on the window where Kwik Save used to be. The store - the cheapest and most basic of the food chains - ceased trading on Christmas Eve.

MANY of the Moss Side pubs are boarded up, but in the Little Alex I meet John, a 27-year-old who moved to the area when he was 16. He has short, light brown hair, a small face with a big jaw, and he wears the uniform: jeans, British Knight trainers, black puffa jacket. He says he is not involved in the drugs or the violence; he calls himself 'an unqualified everything man - a bit of electrical work, plumbing, painting and decorating'. He hasn't done a job for three weeks. 'But I don't advertise. People know I do this and that.'

Like most people in the area, John does not like the media. 'We have nothing up here but journalists. You ponce up here from London and shit on the place, and ponce back. And then nothing changes, and you're back next year.'

John said he would talk for a pint, 'and if you want more after that it's another, and another.' He says he would get 'canned' if his friends knew he was helping a journalist. Canned? 'Blacklisted. Life made horrible.'

He drinks Samson bitter; can't abide that fizzy stuff they make across the road. During the first pint he says he's going to the Manchester United FA Cup game at Old Trafford tonight, against Bury. He says I can go with him if I pay; 'Seats, mind, expensive seats.'

John smokes Rothmans, which he calls Coughmans. He offers me one and I'm tempted, even though I don't smoke; anything to gain some confidence. I dare not tell him I support Chelsea.

'I don't trust you,' he says, 'but I'll put you right. I'm not in the gangs and never have been. I don't have a gun, though I've seen more than a few. The gangs aren't so big any more. Five years ago it was Pepperhill v Gooch Close (the two biggest gangs) all the time, about drugs areas and respect, protecting your patch. Now it's more each to his own. You have your mates, but there's not so much gang code. It's us against Cheetham Hill (a neighbouring area), but here you're on your own mostly. It's true about the drugs, a lot of heroin. A lot of people come from outside to buy.'

On the bus to Old Trafford, John talks of the riots. He is still upset that he missed them; he had moved to Moss Side a few months before, but he was spending a few weeks in Ireland with a relative when the violence started. 'As soon as I saw it on the telly I wanted to come back immediately, but I was forbidden. It looked so great, and I never thought, 'Oh, that's my street burning, that's my offy.' I thought it looked like real power, which it was, and it had been coming for a long time, because the police are so hated.

'I haven't seen much police trouble, I've been careful. But it's not like you just see them when there's trouble. It's every night, you walk to the end of your close and there's a van, or two cops, and they're all talking into their phones, because they're so scared. The big vans - it's like they want trouble, want something to do so they can crack heads. You get stopped all the time. Nothing's changed since I came. (The police claim significant advances, and point to less aggressive policing methods and closer ties with community associations.)

'People still talk of the riots as this high point in their lives. A lot of people weren't from Moss Side at all, but everyone here says they were involved, even if they were four or five at the time. 'I got this video, I got this telly' - they think they're local heroes, but what did they do? They stole from people in the area, which wasn't going to help anyone. I used to hate shop owners, too, but they're not rich.'

We arrive at the stadium almost two hours before kick-off. John drinks more, and turns philosophical. Moss Side has a future, he says, although most people have given up. 'The future is its people, and most people want change, want to work. But a lot also don't, thinking that drugs are the way out, the business way out. Drugs and taxing (stealing a drug-dealer's profits) and robbing are seen as easier, and I understand why. Some make big money - a thousand a week dealing, until they get put away or hooked or killed.'

John says the hardest thing is getting out. 'Where can you go? The council and food takes all your money.'

I ask him about 'postcode discrimination', the theory that job applications from Moss Side and the surrounding area are rejected automatically, but he hasn't heard of the phrase. 'But they don't like you if you come from Moss Side. You're branded. People try to get jobs in London.'

John is vocal throughout the match, often to the annoyance of those in the seats around us. United win 2-0, but should have beaten the Third Division team by more. He says he is glad it wasn't his money paying to see it. I ask him why he isn't wearing a United scarf, and he explains that most of the people he knows in Moss Side support Manchester City. 'If we win the league, I'll probably get canned.'

LAST Saturday at 9pm Benji Stanley was waiting inside Alvino's Pattie and Dumplin Shop on Great Western Street, about a hundred yards from his house. He would often call in here on his way home, and that evening dropped in with his friend Tito, 15, with whom he'd been playing records earlier. A gunman in combat fatigues blasted a hole in the glass door before entering the shop. 'Benji was lying on his back,' Tito told his mother. 'We were all on the floor, and I saw a man in a mask come in out of the corner of my eye. I was too scared to look up. I just closed my eyes.'

Benji was killed with a pump-action shotgun, point-blank.

There are several theories. The gunman may have got the wrong guy. Benji's father, Junior Stanley, was involved in the drugs scene several years ago, and the killing may have been a vendetta (Mr Stanley dismisses this as absurd). And then there is the theory that he was killed over attempts to retrieve his stolen mountain bike, which Mr Stanley had bought his son for his birthday in November.

The police have guaranteed protection to anyone with information, and yesterday were interviewing a number of people in connection with the murder. They were pleased with the local response; unlike the wall of silence that has greeted other requests for assistance, about 70 people have come forward with helpful information.

But they are also aware that two other recent teenage murders in Moss Side have not resulted in convictions. In April 1991 Carl Stapleton, 17, was killed with a machete on his estate; six months later Darren Samuels, 19, was shot by three men in a pie shop in the shopping precinct. According to the Manchester Evening News, four men were cleared of the first killing when no evidence was offered, and two men were cleared of the second killing last month on the direction of the judge, after a teenage witness went into hiding and then took a drugs overdose.

On Wednesday the police released more bad news. Enoch Sassi, a 28-year- old Italian chef, was kicked and beaten in Moss Side after he had come to the aid of a man being mugged. The attackers turned on him. He died in hospital on new year's day.

Is there hope here? A little. There are several active regenerative bodies formed by local residents. A three-year pounds 6m scheme to redevelop the Alexandra Park Estate and surrounding area begins in April, and includes demolition work, sealing off the dark walkways favoured for drug deals, and establishing a new secuity system, community group and drop-in centre.

Chris Eubank, the world boxing champion, has said he will come up to speak, the way the Rev Al Sharpton came before. Ron Astles, the Chief Superintendent, says he won't rest until he rids the area of guns. His force has charged a 22-year-old Whalley Range man with the murder of Enoch Sassi.

And Denise Stanley, the mother of the murdered boy, makes another tearful appeal on local television. 'If anyone knows anything,' she pleads, 'please, please, please . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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