I have received a few comments concerning the “Let Them Hate..” post. I sincerely apologize if my posts sound ignorant or at all one-sided because I definitely did not intend for them to. I understand that flute band parades are important to many communities in Northern Ireland, and my point-of-view came from not quite understanding at the time what was going on. I had just arrived a few days prior to writing that post and was out exploring completely on my own while still finding my own footing in the country. The visual aspect of the parade seemed interesting and provocative from an American perspective, and I apologize if any of my questions or comments felt at all slanderous.
I have been back in the states or about two and a half weeks now.
Here are some photos that help to summarize my experience and give it some critical visual context.
Nightly public presentations/critiques of work done by students and the think tank, Forum for an Alternative Belfast. On the wall, Aoife is presenting the large map that shows all the vacant or dilapidated spaces in the city. This visual statement provokes new perspectives of the socio-spatial divides throughout the city and opens up new discussions about city development and regeneration.
A new statue along the River Lagan in Thanksgiving Square that is meant to symbolize a “a better tomorrow for all of us.” Somewhat controversial, many people have embraced that statue, and many others think it is just an oversized basketball hoop no meaning in relation to its context. The background of the photo shows lots of construction still being completed along the river. The Laganside Corporation, a non-departmental public body, formed in 1989 with the goal of regenerating the area adjacent to the river. Many of Laganside’s projects are completed, such as the Lagan weir, the Waterfront Hall, the Odyssey Arena and the Gasworks site.
I hope this helps to give a little bit more visual context to my blog. I also hope update occasionally throughout the semester as I work on my thesis.
For my thesis, I will be designing an inclusive non-sectarian community space on the edge of Donegall Pass along the Ormeau Road. I aim to address the local needs of the community, which has seen a lot of recent decline and change, but also to strategically open up new connections to the rest of the city, such as the Markets and the Lower Ormeau. Although adjacent to a lot of activity as it is between the university area and the city centre, Donegall Pass has suffered from isolation. As new and somewhat insular developments have been completed that serve a new demographic, many existing residents have gotten the sense that they are “being squeezed in order to be squeezed out.” I hope to offer a sample scheme that provides the community with services that it needs, and strategically places those services in a location to foster a crucial connection to the rest of the city, while being sensitive to access, permeability, identities and security.
Overall, my experience in Belfast was great- I learned more than I expected, but (sorry to sound excessively cliche) there was more to learn that I could have imagined. It took me a good four weeks of digesting and grappling with all of the existing social, spatial and political dynamics before I felt prepared to even pick a specific site to focus on. I could really use a few more weeks of research in Belfast, but have no choice but to plunge ahead and tackle my thesis from here at the Ford.
How can Belfast draw residents into the city centre? Residents who would be eat, shop, work, socialize, network and most importantly just be in the city centre 24/7?
Belfast City Centre has come a long way in the past few years. From the days of “the ring of steel” where every car entering the city centre was searched, and shoppers were screened before entering stores, today’s busy center of retail, offices and cafes galore seems like an entirely different city. After 6pm on a weekday, however, there are hints of its history as a virtual ghostland. Belfast City Centre has historically been non-sectarian- but this is partly because essentially nobody lives in the city centre! I learned this week that the best way to make public spaces and the city centre as a whole feel safer, is for there to be residents that occupy the city 24/7.
Security is not the only reason that city centre residents are desirable asset to regeneration. It would also be good for businesses and many aspects of the public realm. Now, how to draw people into the city?
And how to draw a diverse demographic? A lot of recent development has been profit-motivated. An exhibition, Red Light, that recently opened at the gallery, Belfast Exposed, reflects on the recent transformation of the city centre. www.belfastexposed.org
I spoke to a few experts about the prospects of building social housing in the city centre- and how to execute it well so that it is truly mixed in. One of the best strategies seems to be mixed-tenure housing, buildings where some units are owned and some are rented. One of the biggest issues is that there is no tradition of rented housing being desirable- or apartments in general. Most people- including those who qualify for social housing- assume that they will get a two-story terrace house with a small garden in the back. How can this trend be changed? What would it take to make the center city seem desirable to families? Could building typologies be fused or altered to accommodate a mix of both families and young professionals? Privately-owned housing and social housing? Developer contribution schemes are being discussed, where private developments would incorporate a certain percentage to social housing, but the Executive Director of Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations claims that this will take at least 5 years to come to fruition.
And then how about mixed housing in terms of religious/political tradition? A few schemes are part of a program called Shared Future, which some estates take part in if no more than 70% of its residents are of one religious tradition. Achieving such a percentage is rare as social housing is allocated by housing need, and not a quota system where religious tradition is taken into account.
As one can see, multiple factors play into the issue of attracting residents to the city centre- and attracting a diverse population is even more complicated. Then being able to provide the services, such as schools, etc., in the city centre is a whole additional cup of tea (pardon the expression?!).
Last week a fairly busy week full of meetings. I met with a landscape architect working on the Belfast Streets Ahead Programme, a civil servant in the Department of Social Development who is in charge of the Belfast Regeneration Office: Inner West, the Executive Director of Clanmil Housing Association, and three other professionals from Clanmil who work on both design and policy of social housing, and lastly with the Executive Director of Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations.
This week, I am participating in a summer school run by the Think Tank, or rather “Do Tank,” Forum for an Alternative Belfast. The program runs 9am-9pm, and I have limited access to the internet, but I return to the States on Friday, so I will most likely be able to next update you then.
Also– I apologize for a lack of photographs… I will upload some as soon as I get a chance!
This week I have come to understand how Belfast is going through multiple processes- one of which is the peace process. Yes, the Troubles have ended, but everything was not suddenly mended- finding a lasting peace throughout the city will take time, and the process will take longer for some factions of the city than it will for others. For those communities where it will take longer, the emphasis does seem to be on building peace for the next generation. A West Belfast resident told me that a survey was done about removing the peace lines and 80% agreed that they should be taken down… eventually, but not right now. A quote written on the Cupar Street Peace Line that picks up on what I think is a recurring sentiment: “Peace- If it’s not what we want, it might be what our children need.”
President Mary McAleese gave her annual PJ McGrory Human Rights Lecture on Tuesday. I was fortunate to come within two feet of the President without even having to pay for a ticket! She emphasized the process aspect of finding peace and commemorated the many people who have been working for peace for a long time.
I met with Dr. Brendan Murtagh, a Professor from Queens University on Wednesday and he pointed out a different process- one of socio-economic segregation that has become more profound as the city development has taken off since the end of the Troubles. As the middle-class neighborhoods are growing and becoming more diverse, and the economic status of working-class neighborhoods is falling, these less well off neighborhoods are remaining traditionally segregated and also retaining their sectarian territorial markings, such as flags, murals, etc. How can this trend be changed? Can sectarianism only be diffused by economic success? If we translate this to the realm of architecture and urban design: are the most successful shared public spaces commercial because they inherently attract mainly a consumer class who no longer need to care about sectarianism because, as Dr. Murtagh said, “they are too busy making money instead”?
How about public buildings that are not commercial? I joined Alison, a student from RCA doing postgraduate research on a topic similar to mine, to a few meetings with various local architecture firms this week. In one of our meetings, we toured a new publicly funded facility, The Grove Wellness Center, located in North Belfast in an area that had been splintered by the Troubles. It includes as leisure center complete with a pool and a gym, and on the opposite end of the building is a public medical practice. A public library beautifully connects the other two programs and cantilevers over the main entrance. This merge of the three programs as a holistic wellness center is becoming more common and is creating a new building typography in its own right- and it is especially intriguing in this case as it was completely publicly funded and serves the residents of a local community that never had facilities quite like it before. The architect claimed that the only prominent way that the recent conflict affected the design was in color palette, which had to be politically-neutral.
This project was funded jointly with another leisure center on Falls Road in West Belfast, which has won various awards including one from RIBA. The Falls Road building is located right along the peace line that separates was the Falls area (traditionally Catholic Nationalist) from the Shankill (traditionally Protestant Unionist) I asked the manager if the facility only drew residents of the Lower Falls, or if residents from Shankill would also use the building. He replied that a few people from Shankill do use the facility, but just like most outcomes of the peace process, it will take years for a significant number of Shankill residents to become comfortable using the Falls Road facility, but he believes it will eventually happen. Once again, putting an emphasis on how it is a process that will take time.
Another interior public space is St. George’s Market, which underwent a huge 3.5-million pound refurbishment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It attracts a great crowd of people, and definitely has some reasonable prices for produce, meats and crafts.
In a meeting with Todd Architects, I learned more about plans for the Titanic Quarter. It looks like there will be a significant amount of shared space in the plans. I have been a little worried that such space would not relate to the human scale and fail to draw many regular people, as I have observed about much of the public space in the Laganside Developments. Given that retail seems to characterize the most lively public spaces in the city, I asked whether small businesses and retail spaces would be included in the Titanic Quarter. It turns out that this is a point of debate because the Belfast Urban Plan restricts most retail to the city center, which traditionally has not included any land east of the river Lagan. It looks, however, like there will be many strategies employed to create active spaces, including a memorial to those who died in the Titanic disaster. Apparently, the history of the Titanic has been somewhat difficult for the shipyard to reconcile over the years, so the memorial and museum in the new development may be very good for the identity of the shipyard and Belfast itself. I did find out, however, that the project failed to receive national lottery money because there was lack of interaction with the existing local community… I guess only time will tell how this all works out. Until then, I still have not made it over to the site as each time I attempted to take a bus there, it was over a 2 hour wait for the next bus, and when I tried walking over, I got lost in a maze of highways… perhaps another thing to note about transportation access, or maybe I am missing out on a better way to get there.
The importance of Belfast undergoing a process of pedestrianisation has been brought up by a new group, Forum for an Alternative Belfast, which was just recently started by local progressive architects and planners. forumfab.wordpress.com/ I am looking forward to joining in on some discussions and design projects as part of a summer school run by FAB that will take place during my last week here.
This upcoming week, I will be meeting with various regeneration trusts, and an architect that is a leader in The Belfast Streets Ahead programme, which is funded by the Department for Social Development (DSD). More on the programme after my meeting…
Also to follow-up on my last post that mentioned the Black Taxi Tours, I found out that the black taxis still run services for many residents in West Belfast. The service started during the Troubles when very few buses dared to drive on Falls Road because buses were often bomb targets. I went on a Black Taxi tour myself, and below is a photo of the Bobby Sands mural that I just had to take because according to my taxi driver it is the most photographed mural in the world.
Today I ventured into West Belfast into the area that they are calling the Gaeltacht Quarter, which is dedicated to the promotion of Irish language and culture. This is the week of Féile an Phobail- Festival of the People. While West Belfast, a neighborhood that was at the heart of the violence during the Troubles, has intrigued me the most throughout my research, I have been a little wary about visiting it by myself. After being impressed, however, by the brochures for Féile an Phobail, I decided that I could not wait any longer to find a companion to go with me, and I set off for Chultúrlann
McAdam Ó Fiaich, which is a cultural center for the Gaeltacht Quarter- complete with a bookstore, a café, a tourist information desk, a theater and exhibition space.
Now the big question was how to get there? All of the tourist information said that the best way to travel into the area was in a Black Taxi tour. Black taxis were used by both sides during the troubles and now have become a big icon for the tourism industry. I wanted to get a real sense of the place and gauge how cut off it felt from the city centre, so I decided to suck it up and just walk along Falls Road.
I have read about how the Westlink freeway has cut off West and North Belfast from the rest of the city- and now I know for sure that they weren’t kidding. Here is a photo I took while crossing the Westlink. The Divis tower looms in the background- it is a housing block that was a notorious spot during the Troubles. The British army, in fact, had a lookout post on the top few floors of the Divis Tower, and they used to access it by helicopter.
It took ages to cross the Westlink because many of the lanes are divided and have separate pedestrian crosswalks. I counted ten crosswalks in total.
Walking along Falls Road, I saw some of the famous political murals. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned black taxis full of tourists stopping by the murals while regular modern-day life operated around them.
There were many people walking along Falls Road, and there was quite a sense of life even in an area with desolate history. It became clear to me that although some awful atrocities took place here, simultaneously did a lot of community bonding, and a rich Irish heritage existed before and through the Troubles. Something felt so real about the place- very different from the commercial setting of other public spaces in the city centre. Chultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich was packed with people when I arrived- I couldn’t even find a seat to get a cuppa (a cup of tea), so I headed to St. Mary’s University College, where there were numerous photography and art exhibitions about the Troubles and there was a discussion entitled “Dealing with the Past.”
The discussion was quite heated and a bit, as one participant called it, morbid. Most of the people in the room had had close relatives murdered during the Troubles. A report was published by “The Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past,” with recommendations for establishing a Legacy Commission and other means to uncovering the truths of the past for victims, survivors and their families. A more controversial part of the report recommended a “Recognition Payment” of 12,000 GBP to every family bereaved as a result of the conflict. The argument was that such a payment would end a “hierarchy of victimhood” where the deaths of IRA members were not recognized by the state as victims. It emerged that many people thought that “compensation money” was an insult,, and that there is no such thing as compensation for what they went through. In many cases, however, uncovering the truth about what happened was important. Many would like to see an independent Truth Commission set up because they do not trust anything connected to the British State, but the problem is that there is no funding for such a thing.
One woman shared that her husband had been shot dead in 1972. She had six children, but three were too young to remember their father. When her mother died a few years ago and was buried on top of her husband, her youngest three children went to the funeral early just so that they could see their father’s coffin. The woman shared that she had become a drug addict following her husbands death, and she does not even remember putting jam onto a piece of bread for her children. She has come through it all 37 years later and is still on medication, and now has ten wonderful grandchildren, and when they ask about what happened to their grandfather, she wants to be able to know so that she can tell them. She is insulted by the thought of recognition money.
Another woman, whose own son was killed in 1992, shared about her sister whose husband was killed when she had eight children and was expecting her ninth. Seven years ago, one of her children committed suicide, and four year ago, another one of her children committed suicide. She is not interested in who killed her husband, and she does not need money, but she knows that some people could use the money, and there has to be some more investment put into the community so that the next generation will make it through.
The topics of compensation, the “hierarchy of victimhood,” and truth and reconciliation are complicated. I felt such community spirit as soon as I entered West Belfast that I wonder if people would accept recognition money if it was put into a community fund, and therefore, the “hierarchy of victimhood” could be squashed without people feeling personally insulted? Such a fund could help to build connections between this neighborhood and the rest of Belfast. The investment put into the Gaeltacht Quarter seems to have a lot of potential for being incredibly successful, but I worry that its historical social isolation will only be compounded by its physical isolation, causing it to only attract tourists in their Black Taxis and not other Belfast residents. If there were a corridor that better physically connected it with the city center, perhaps there would be much greater potential for building social capital.
I’m afraid that my last post may have given a slanted image of Belfast today. In fact, the reason I had been somewhat shocked by what I had seen at the parade was that it was the first hint of active sectarianism that I had seen. The city does actually seem much more cosmopolitan than I depicted earlier. Cafe after cafe with people busy shopping and milling about the streets, the University area is a quite nice place to be. The traditional 3-story brick terrace building pervades the cityscape, creating a quaint but strong sense of place that seems somewhat cozy and really suitable for boutiques, cafes and new modern renovations. Here is a photo of a block near where I am living… this is mostly residential, but it still gives you a sense of the place:
There were a ton of people also just hanging out around City Hall. Downtown has changed a lot over the past decade. It was mostly always seen as a “neutral” space, but it was also a target of IRA bombings, etc., so effectively a “ring of steel” was created around the commercial core and everything shut down at 6pm. As my aunt said earlier today, it used to be that you would take the earliest bus possible out of the city centre. Not anymore. City Hall with people around:
At the same time, many of the new regeneration sites seem somewhat inaccessible. I went to Victoria Square today, and my aunt remarked on how inaccessible it is. I think a lot has to do with parking… most people use cars as a primary source of transportation instead of the buses. Victoria Square is essentially an expensive mall, but it is open to the outside on its ends, so that it is a fusion of an actual square or street and a shopping mall. It is sort of difficult, however, to distinguish it from the street because it isn’t just one big box like a typical mall, and the multiple levels on the interior are somewhat confusing to navigate. There is a big focus on shopping, and very little non-store space to sit or gather, such as in an ordinary public square. Also, many of the stores are too “dear,” or in other words, very expensive. So although it feels like a safe, neutral space, only a certain portion of the population can afford to regularly shop there. It seems that semi-private places, such as cafes and shops, make good public spaces because the do feel safe. Victoria Square has a glass dome at the top, which one can climb to the top and see all of Belfast- a great way to celebrate the city, which makes it quite unfortunate that the space may only regularly attract certain shoppers. What are ways to create a public space that is accessible to all and where people feel safe in a city that was plagued by violence for so long? Does it need to be commercial to successfully and subtly denote neutrality and safety?
I was walking home yesterday from photographing downtown. Suddenly, I realized the street was rather empty and there were very few pedestrians. I then passed a little girl standing with her father on the corner. The writing on the back of her startled me as it read “Let Them Hate- As Long As They Fear”:
Her father’s shirt read: “The South Will Rise Again.” I walked a bit further and there were a bunch of people gathered outside the headquarters of South Belfast Northern Ireland Supporters. I noticed that the police had the road barricaded off and then I heard some loud drum beats. A series of flute bands then came marching through- nearly 50 bands, so this lasted quite a long time. Many British flags waved and other signs stating: “Ulster Protestants,” etc.
Young kids dressed in costumes circled around collecting money for S.B.Y.C., which I assumed stood for “South Belfast Youth Club,” but later, I discovered it was “South Belfast Youth Conquerors,” the name of the hosting flute band. The band is situated in Donegall Pass, which is a small and often forgot about loyalist enclave. One of the young boys collecting donations was dressed as the stereotype of a terrorist from the Middle East with a toy machine gun and a string of fake bullets. He had dark facial hair drawn onto his face. A few bystanders gave him donations and then took his photo as he posed with his fake gun ready for action.
Having read articles about the annual Protestant marches on the Twelfth of July and the usual rioting that ensued, I got nervous that this parade would throw the city into chaos. When I went home, however, I could not find any information about the parade on the internet, let alone the news. Finally, I stumbled across the parade commission website, and saw that the parade was one of several scheduled in Northern Ireland for that day. Although there has been relative peace in Belfast for a few years, these blatant sectarian references seem to be accepted as a norm.
What was more striking, but perhaps not surprising, was the extent to which young people were involved in the event and exposed to these messages at such an early age. Perhaps there was a story that I didn’t know behind the little boy’s “terrorist” costume, and maybe I read the costume differently as an American, but how he was so desensitized to this image was somewhat baffling to me. I doubt he understands everything that the costume references, but what struck me was that he did probably understand its reference to violence. Young American boys dress up as soldiers for Halloween, but this seemed different to me at a parade that already seemed political- especially in a city that had been plagued with internal terrorism for decades. Given the fragile peace, will the next generation be different than the past if they still are being raised with these messages and images?
I am safely in Belfast! They gave me a bit of trouble at border control again, but they eventually let me in. Of course I was the last one let through- about 15 minutes after everyone else- and my poor aunt was waiting for me on the other side the entire time… but she knew if there were any stragglers, I was bound to be the last one.
Not much to report yet. I have just been getting myself situated in my apartment and have been getting my bearings around the city. The Queens University library is unfortunately closed this week because a brand new library building opens on Monday. This will give me an excuse to continue exploring the city this weekend, and I brought a bunch of books with me anyway. I should have some appointments with architects and planners next week, but I am still working on all of that… Hopefully I can reconstruct most of my plans to fit within the month! I will upload photos as soon as I get a chance… I don’t have internet in my room, so my access is spotty until I find a place with reliable wifi.
I got an email today saying that my visa has been issued! It looks like I will be heading back to Belfast soon. More details to come…
Many of the interfaces between segregated working-class neighborhoods are still marked by peace lines- an ironic term for physical barriers built between many Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in order to allow each side a sense of safety or security from their enemies. These peace lines have outlived the Berlin Wall, and one can easily tour them on google maps.
In his book, Belfast Diary, John Conroy shares a narrative on the tricky nature of these borders (I highly recommend this book if you’re interested at all in learning more about the Troubles). He tells the story of the wall that separates Clonard, a Catholic neighborhood, from Shankill, a Protestant neighborhood. Along the peace line on Cupar Street in Shankill was a series of abandoned row houses ( Conroy 112). Every roof had caved in, the windows and doors were filled with cement, and it would have made sense to knock them down, right? The answer was definitely not that simple.
Richmond Stokes, the architect assigned to Shankill, felt that something needed to be done about the empty shells (Conroy 113). He proposed knocking them down and creating an open, green area. Many people, however, feared that a green would just become a shooting or stone-throwing arena offering more opportunities people of both religions to attack each other. Informal barricades would likely probably be put up like before and people would flee from the next row of homes in from the border, and then those houses would deteriorate. Others thought the homes should be bulldozed and replaced with a brick wall. The architect put together a proposal for a 20-ft brick wall topped with a 4-ft fence. This, however, would take a lot of money, work and maintenance, and it additionally would symbolize the failure of the Northern Irish state. These decrepit homes presented quite the conundrum, and it seemed simplest to leave them standing.
Some comments collected by Conroy on the dilemma of a wall:
” ‘One argument against putting up a permanent wall,’ says McDonald [a Department of Environment Official], ‘is that it is far easier to put them up than it is to take them down…. By and large, it looks like we have built a psychological barrier, and it’s the psychological barrier which is hard to take away.’ (Conroy 117)
” ‘The wall is a monument to back bigotry and sectarianism,’ he [David Thompson, Stokes’ co-worker in the redevelopment project] says, ‘And it reinforces the myths, the stereotypes, and powers of bigotry. It is proof to us that civilization is a great veneer. And where that veneer is ripped off, and those powers of destruction surface, you need that bloody wall.’ ” (Conroy 117)
So what did happen to the empty homes on Cupar? I am still trying to figure it out. It seems that they built a large wall, and actually renamed part of Cupar to Cepar. It looks something like this today:
So how could these spaces be used today? Do people still feel safer with the walls? Was McDonald correct in that they are easier to put up than to take down? Or could they be replaced with public space? Would that sort of public space be used or would it become dead space? Are the walls today sort of like those dead shells on Cupar Street- simplest to just let them be?
Also, a news update: This past Saturday, Loyalist paramilitary groups announced historic acts of weapon decommissioning. For more info, see the BBC News: news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8121842.stm
*Conroy, John. Belfast Diary. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987, 1995.