The name conjures up many images from trendy bars to painted kerbstones, elicits a variety of responses from curiosity to boredom and almost everyone has their own opinion of the place whether or not they have visited the city. Its media image has not been great (to say the least!) and has been described by one of the most popular travel guides as a PR firms nightmare since the 1960s. Lonely Planet does go on to say however that the new millennium sees the city defiantly shaking off its grim reputation as it reinvents and rebuilds itself like those other cities beginning with B, Berlin and Beirut.
There is indeed evidence of this reinvention, but it is by no means widespread. Belfast is a divided city, but not just in the obvious sense. It is divided between the image that those in positions of power are trying to project to the world, and the disjointed, and often disappointing, reality one finds on the ground.
A divided city
Situated on Northern Irelands east coast, Belfast is enclosed on three sides by rolling green hills that provide a wonderful vista of the city. From this vantage point one can trace the path of the River Lagan as it winds its way to the sea; one can pick out the many church spires glistening in the rare moments of sunshine; one can marvel at how even the tallest of these spires are dwarfed by the two huge yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolf shipyard. From here the city appears at ease, just like any other
Take a closer look however and one can trace the path of the Peace Line-a seven feet high wall that separates nationalist and loyalist West Belfast; one can pick out the many army watchtowers and observation posts that remain nestled in the rooftops; one can marvel at the artistic talent but sheer bigotry of the colourful murals that adorn many walls depicting people and events of historical significance to one side or the other. At this level you are reminded that this is a city like no other in Europe with a weighty, domineering past bearing down on a fragile and uncertain future.
City of Culture
From our vantage point on the hill, one can understand the reasoning behind Belfast City Councils decision last year to nominate Belfast for City of Culture 2008. Since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998 much effort has been put into regenerating the city centre and improving Belfasts image to the world. The run-down area where the Lagan meets the sea has been completely redeveloped and now houses the impressive Waterfront concert hall, a Hilton hotel, state-of-the-art sports and leisure arena and impressive apartment blocks. Similarly, a conscious effort was made to redefine the area around St. Annes Cathedral heretofore a warehouse district of little note as a cultural quarter in an attempt to replicate the success of Dublins Latin quarter Temple Bar. The Cathedral Quarter Festival was launched five years ago and has had an increasing amount of success in attracting visitors to the music, drama and comedy performances. Add to this the proliferation of trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs that continued to spring up around the city and you can see why Belfast was tipped to take the title. Yet despite not even making the shortlist for City of Culture, the battle to improve Belfasts media image seemed to be winning. While the rest of the world may have been swayed by the apparent transformation, it failed to convince those who mattered most the citizens of Belfast.
A closer examination of Belfasts City of Culture bid at the grassroots level shows glaring discrepancies. On the day the bid was launched, the Northern Ireland Arts Council slashed funding for theatres, local drama groups etc by 20 percent. Across the board there was and continues to be a consistent lack of commitment and investment in the arts. The slogan used to promote the bid, One Belfast, was an (arguably understandable) attempt to bypass the fact that there are two distinct traditions in Belfast with their own unique cultural identities. The key to the citys image going forward is not to ignore the rich resources the city already has, but to separate the notions of these cultural identities from the violence that uses them like a shield to protect its position on each side. Efforts in this regard have been made by the communities themselves. Feile an Phobail a summer festival held in nationalist west Belfast has grown to attract many international acts and thousands of tourists since it started out over a decade ago. Republican terrorist links are not ignored, as this is a community that has been greatly affected by such, however they are presented and explained in an historical context underlying the fact that the community is trying to move on.
The problem with the image that the decision-makers in Belfast are trying to project is not that its too visionary. Its that it is a vision of the future built on a very flimsy foundation of bright new buildings and paved courtyards. It is far removed from the reality of peoples experiences on a daily basis with no clear strategy on how to bridge the gap. A sense of culture cannot be created through renaming streets, nor can it be imposed from the top down. Culture is about the people. It must be fostered, facilitated and allowed arenas of expression. Anyone who has been to Belfast will probably tell you that its most attractive feature is the friendliness of its people. It may seem obvious to say that they must be included in any future vision of the city but try telling that to the Council. Until a link can be made between Belfasts turbulent history (and present) and the role this is to play in its future, Belfast will remain a Jekyll and Hyde city of contradictions.