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?