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Four gunshots create a myth: The Ordsall estate, Salford, is now seen as another potential inner-city flashpoint, but Jonathan Foster finds a different picture

EIGHT of them sprang the ambush, pulling balaclavas over their faces as they attacked the police from the dark of a Salford night. They struck two officers, who were responding to an alarm the attackers had set off by smashing a community centre window. The police drove off, unhurt but frightened, their patrol car's windows smashed.

This was another instance of violence in the week when four shots were fired at police and firemen, who were fighting a blaze at a warehouse deliberately set alight on the Ordsall housing estate in Salford, Greater Manchester. The fuse of civil disorder seemed to be smouldering in the first inner-city riot of the summer.

But the realities of Ordsall, and Salford in general, are not quite what they appear. The ambush by the balaclava gang took place more than a mile from the estate. On Thursday night and Friday there were reports of 'five hours of orchestrated violence by youths on the rampage'; but these consisted of six separate incidents over a wide area, only two of them in Ordsall. Police did not consider them serious. It was a quiet week after Monday's shooting.

Ordsall is not an identikit area of inner-city deprivation. From their doorsteps in the Coronation Street housing association, a set of beautifully renovated redbrick terraces, two Ordsall women said: 'It's the same group of lads that are responsible. There's just a handful of them, no Mr Big behind the trouble as far as we know. One of the lads got beaten up by the police when they took a stolen car off him. Some of the others had a good hiding. They're trying to get their own back.'

In the early hours, Ordsall's streets are populated only by these lads, two or three to one mountain bike. Some recited the ghetto manifesto: alienated and abused, they would defend their territory against the police.

'Some of these youngsters are not being controlled by their parents,' said Syd Turner, 73, a Labour councillor and Ordsall resident. 'But there are no particularly serious social or racial problems in Ordsall - nothing that amounts to anything that could cause civil disorder. The estate has been improved.'

Mr Turner speaks for the older generation, born when Ordsall was part of the teeming 'Barbary Coast' of slums, back-to-back with the docks. The teenagers have their problems - one in seven has no job. They get into crime - piecework in the black economy, some thieving, a bit of ram- raiding, car ringing, perhaps drugs. Infatuated with older criminals, they are manipulated.

Someone - maybe one of the lads, perhaps not even from Ordsall - got hold of a gun and fired four bullets last week. But there was no riot. Until they catch the gunman, the police can only speculate about why they came under fire. Generally, attacks on the police have decreased in Salford this year, compared with 1990 and 1991. Last year, assaults were suffered by 23 per cent of officers in Salford's 'F' division. In 'L' division of the Greater Manchester force, based in Wigan, the percentage was 29. Salford is familiar inner- city territory, with great plains of public housing wasteland; 'L' division covers smaller communities, old coal and cotton towns like Tyldesley and Atherton, just as hard and hard-pressed as Salford, but not seen as hostile to the law.

The eastern end of Phoebe Street on the Ordsall estate fits the preconceptions of where summer civil disorder may strike. Prefabricated homes built to rehouse slum-dwellers have deteriorated into slums themselves. Many are about to be demolished. Salford council has spent pounds 13m improving the estate; a further pounds 17m is budgeted.

At the other end of Phoebe Street, where the flats have been converted into houses, gardens bloom and the tenants feel defamed by last week's events. For every boy kicking his Nike trainers' heels, many more are doing their homework.

'I've been out of work for 18 months, but I don't chuck Molotov cocktails,' a man on St Bartholomew's Drive said. 'Anyway, I couldn't afford the petrol.'

The petrol bombs and other arson attacks on Ordsall that comprised the week of 'terror' totalled 17 incidents. In the whole of Salford last year, there was an average of 66 arson attacks a week; in the Wigan division the figure was 67. Four shots last week have given the estate an unfair reputation.