spacer spacer spacer
home spacer Citywide
spacer
spacer Develoment my Arse
spacer Daniel Jewsbury
spacer spacer
spacer
spacer
It cannot have escaped frequenters of Belfast city centre that we are now, like any other modern European city, blessed with a cultural quarter.
spacer
This jewel in our post-Troubles municipality can be found nestling in the crook of Royal Avenue, which bounds it to the west and north; its eastern boundary is debatable but seems now to extend to Dunbar Link (which side of the road is currently unclear). It is almost certain that the Northern Whig falls just within the southern limits.
spacer
The main responsibility for the development of this cultural cornucopia lies with Laganside Corporation (although they are disarmingly modest about their role, and keen to stress that they are only one of a number of public agencies working to shape the quarter). One of Laganside's first responsibilities in defining this new heart of Belfast was to give it a name, one which reflected the great history and tradition of this network of narrow streets and alleys, which paid tribute to its industrial past and which looked ahead to its future as the hub of the city's cultural activity. They chose `Cathedral Quarter', presumably because only one quarter of St. Anne's Cathedral (easily the finest landmark in the district) has actually been completed; the finished monument, it is rumoured, will rival the (also unfinished) Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, dwarfing Wren's more workaday achievements at St. Paul's in the process.
spacer
How does one create a cultural quarter? It would obviously be handy if there were some cultural activity, however negligible, in the area already, which could be developed and encouraged. Having eliminated the more nave, untutored elements of this `culture in the raw', it could then be channelled into something more fitting of an officially sanctioned cultural quarter (or is that Cultural Quarter?) Luckily, the area was disproportionately well-endowed, with community arts organisations, artist-run galleries, studios, art publications, artisans, instrument makers and many others co-habiting cheek by jowl in the former shirt factories and usury offices. This band of makers, doers and thinkers-about-making-and-doing had landed in the Donegall Street area primarily because of the availability of low-rent office space, empty since the old control zones forced many smaller businesses out of the city centre. But the days of negligible rents and box-room offices have gone with the arrival of the Cultural Quarter (Cultural 1/4?).
spacer
Once their original premises have been demolished or re-designated, organisations and individuals find themselves bidding against one another for re-housing in one of Laganside's `managed workspaces' on Royal Avenue, Donegall Street or Waring Street.
spacer
And that seems to be where the problems start. There's a great deal of confusion surrounding the chain of command in Cathedral Quarter: currently, Belfast City Council, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure are all 'partners' with Laganside in defining a vision for the future of this new precinct. Anyone expecting the redevelopment to be carried out with similar ruthlessness to that executed by Temple Bar Properties in Dublin would be disappointed.
spacer
There's not much impression, so far, that the different agencies-when they're talking to each other at all-are that aware of what the others are doing. This coyness, shown by each agency in defining its role in the development of a cultural agenda in the Cathedral Quarter, is most unbecoming. Laganside are keen to point out that they only own four properties in the area, (the managed workspaces) even though the development blueprint for the whole neighbourhood is theirs. (And they seem to have recently acquired another property in the area: a small, but serviceable, car park, now to let on Talbot Street.) They also seem to dissociate themselves from any questions concerning housing provision. Inevitably, the laissez-faire attitude, the dogged belief in trickle-down economics, more than ten years after the end of the yuppie boom in the UK and as the Celtic Tiger finally succumbs to its tranquiliser dart, means that provision of social housing is someone else's responsibility.
spacer
How can it be that, more than three years since the publication of the original plans for the area, a unified, inter-agency plan, covering housing, transport links, and other social issues, in addition to defining a clear cultural policy, has yet to be formulated? Cynics would suggest that the whole operation is merely designed to push up property prices in the city, and to help private developers capitalise investments which have lain dormant for fifteen or twenty years.
spacer
In fact, the question of cultural policy hasn't been avoided at all, even if it's currently less than clear what it is. The recent allocation of 3-Million to a new arts centre on Talbot Street by the Arts Council is a significant development. It could pose significant problems to existing practitioners and organisations in the area and has already had an impact on other Arts Council clients' funding, elsewhere in the city. What point is there in replicating what's already going on at a massively-subsidised centre of approved culture?
spacer
The question of commitment to groups already in the area is a troublesome one; while Susan Quail at Laganside asserts that their sole concern is in `securing the future' of those existing groups, others feel less than assured. Factor in Imagine Belfast's bid for the European Capital of Culture, not to mention Belfast City Council's inexplicable cut to arts funding, and the question of an arts agenda becomes far more complex.
spacer
The final question must be whether we really believe in Cultural 1/4s anymore. Their lineage can be traced back to the first wave of New York gentrifications in the 60s and 70s, and followed through London in the 80s, to their eventual popularisation in smaller towns and cities within the last decade. Why do we need a cultural ghetto in a city where delineation and demarcation have been something of an unhealthy obsession for the last thirty years (at least)? What happens to those groups who choose to work outside the walls? Artists and arts organisations urgently need to re-examine the logic of the 1/4. The forks may be in the spoon drawer.
spacer
spacer
home | back to Citywide
spacer