Heritage for regeneration: A walking tour of North Belfast Cultural Corridor
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
22 March 2017
As part of the Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, participants walked along the North Belfast ‘Cultural Corridor’, ending up at Ulster University for a brief seminar on the potential of community-led regeneration utilising local architectural heritage.
Gathering at Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, Duncan Morrow (Ulster University) explained how this event was conceived by the North Belfast Partnership (since defunct with an abrupt funding cut), assisted by Belfast City Council and his own university’s contributions.
“In two years’ time, the university will be a transformational presence in the north city centre. And the challenge for us … is that it doesn’t provide a new barrier, but becomes the potential for a bridge,” Morrow said.
David Flinn (Belfast Civic Trust) described the work of his organisation, which includes lobbying planners and government regeneration departments. He provided successful examples of incorporating historic assets with economic development in Belfast: the Opera House (enhancing the ‘Golden Mile’), the Merchant Hotel (creating the Cathedral Quarter), the Lanyon Building at Queen’s University, and Belfast City Hall.
“These are things that bring people into a place,” Flinn said.
Shane Quinn (Belfast Buildings Trust) continued this theme: “It’s not about the buildings themselves; it’s what happens inside the buildings.”
He added that the task is to apply the authenticity of a building to what is relevant to the local community, today and into the future.
Quinn then reviewed the history of the building that we were standing in, the Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. Built in 1875 by James Carlisle, an early investor in the linen industry and became wealthy. But his daughter died at age 18, from scarlet fever, and he built the church in memory of her.
In a way, this was Carlisle’s gift to the city, and it served as the Methodist cathedral for many years. It is now a key, multi-million Pound project of Belfast Buildings Trust, after a thorough consultation process with the local community.
“In reimaging North Belfast, it’s absolutely critical that people get to touch and feel, and see what the opportunities are. They have to sense it. They have to experience it,” Quinn said.
He concluded by outlining his organisation’s plans for further community engagement.
The audience divided into two groups. Ours made their way walking up the Crumlin Road, while the other’s path took them to Clifton House. Flinn provided insightful and interesting narrative as we stopped at Greenville Hall Synagogue, the Crumlin Road Courthouse, the Crumlin Road Gaol (with a tour inside the grounds), and finishing at the Carnegie Oldpark Library.
At Carnegie Oldpark, Fiona MacMillan welcomed all and briefly explained the recent acquisition with her partner, Quintin Oliver. The building had been vacant since 2009, formerly used as a public library alongside community activities overseen by the Lower Oldpark Community Association (LOCA), led by Janice Beggs. The new owners are collaborating with LOCA and the Northern Ireland Foundation, on a plan to restore and repurpose the building.
As for the building’s origins, it is one of over 2,000 in the world built by order of the magnate-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. They were built to encourage reading and the exploration of imagination, as MacMillan put it. There were 80 built in Ireland, and three exist in Belfast.
“We really bought [this building] because it was a bit like a before-and-after. We know what the after can look like, because we work in one [at Carnegie Donegall Road]. That inspired us,” MacMillan explained.
She further described Carnegie Oldpark as part of a ‘string of pearls’ of buildings in North Belfast, where the planned work contributes to the benefit of all.
Our group boarded a bus, which took us to York Street for a bite to eat before a seminar presentation, introduced by Professor Raffaela Folli (Provost, Ulster University), who said:
“Nothing is more important than our engagement with local communities, the future students of our university, the future citizens of our society, the future powerhouse of positive transformation and regeneration.”
The keynote speaker was Paul Mullan (Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)), who began by arguing that heritage need not to cause societal fragmentation. Instead of curating one’s particular, singular narrative, he suggested a more exciting challenge is “to complicate the narrative”, to see the richness and contradictions within history and the past.
“The key thing about heritage is that we [HLF] don’t try to define it; we leave it to people themselves … It’s fundamentally important that communities feel the tangible benefits of our [HLF] investment. It is not simply funding what ‘experts’ see what heritage is. It is recognising that there is a very broad approach that needs to be taken, for communities to properly engage and benefit from heritage,” Mullan said.