A version of this article appeared on Slugger O'Toole
As fingers point towards the Markets community of Belfast they do so perpetuating a forty year long narrative that began, in the name of ‘regeneration’, with the unpicking of the grid street system, that since the 19th century had knitted the inner city together. “They started to disconnect the communities and build a wall around the area” says local Councillor Deirdre Hargey showing me a historic plan from the 1800’s when the Markets, were built. A stark contrast with the wall of housing that bounds the site today. ‘The wall’, with its back turned to the city, punctuated by a series of narrow alleyways leads into cul-de-sacs of rear facing housing and a network of more narrow passages.
Lost in a maze of cul-de-sacs, alleyways and dead-ends I begin to understand what Deirdre means when she describes how in the 1970’s, the Markets area was “redesigned in partnership with the British army so they could contain and close down the area.” It is now widely accepted in urban planning theory (see for example the work of the Forum for an Alternative Belfast) that large parts of the city were redesigned as a response to the challenging urban conditions that the troubles created — segregating, separating, zoning. The Westlink is a good example. After about ten minutes trying to find the community centre where the MDA are based I emerge through an alleyway back out onto the main road, only fifty yards from where I began.
Since the redevelopment in the seventies “the residents have always had a sense that they are being contained.” As I walk around the community it’s easy to understand why the residents feel this way. To the north and west the area is bounded by two main arterial routes into the city centre. To the east a series of new office developments and the river Lagan, and to the south, the Gasworks site.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, there are now more so-called ‘peace walls’ dividing communities across Belfast than before. “Initially the residents were contained for political reasons”, explains Deirdre pointing to a model of the area that shows the long continuous wall of housing around the site. “Now they see a sense of containment for economic reasons; there are physical and economic boundaries that completely contain the area.” Dr Conor McCabe from University College Dublin calls this a ‘double transition’. The move towards peace has been coupled with a move towards an aggressive economic neoliberalism. This pincer movement is now affecting vast areas of the city as Belfast sees an unprecedented level of redevelopment. Including Europe’s largest urban regeneration scheme at the former Sirocco works site.
“This is a very real issue for us” says Deirdre as she shows me plans to help reconnect the Markets to the surrounding area through the conversion of eight vacant tunnels into an access route and a number of community uses. The success of the project is now under threat from a large office development on the adjacent Stewart Street site. “The local community would have loved this site for housing and mixed use development, something to compliment the tunnels” says Fionntán. The undercurrents of mistrust that flow from the cities past continue to run deep and wide. A local resident is about to begin a legal challenge to the scheme.
Housing for the Markets area, as it is for many inner city communities in Belfast is a major issue. The area — classified, like nearly all of Belfast’s inner city communities as being in multiple deprivation — currently has 106 applicants for housing and 86 households in housing stress and is designated as having a critical housing need. With Belfast City Council’s target for 37,000 new homes to be built by 2035 and the adjacent Gasworks site designated for social housing the residents were hopeful that this need was being addressed. But, showing me a masterplan of the Gasworks site, Deirdre tells me that “the council are just trying to push through office developments”. I ask if there will be any housing on the site at all. Fionntán shows me a cardboard model of the Councils current proposals and points to a small block of around nine houses, which the Council are yet to confirm are actually going to be built. “All the community wants to know is a guarantee of houses. The fundamental issue is that the community knows that no firm commitment is no commitment at all.”
“There’s definitely the belief among many residents that if developers could irradiate the community in the morning and move them out of the city they would do that.” There is no excuse for violence, but there is a context in which these acts take place. Remove them from their context and we fail to understand the complex, interconnected narratives that weave their way throughout the communities of our city.
Deirdre sums up the situation by quoting her father, one of the founding members of the MDA; we are “redeveloping the area for future decay”. The prescience of these words is not lost on me.