Listening to the psychogeography of Belfast

One of the final events of the Four Corners Festival was a discussion on what was described as the psychogeography of the city of Belfast.

A panel of four — with one connected via a video call — ruminated on their walking through the streets, along borders and through them, sharing their perspectives to an audience of about two dozen gathered at the freshly opened Girdwood Community Hub.

The question to answer was what can we learn about a city by listening to our feet.

The festival organisers, Reverend Steve Scottman, explained in his brief introduction that the idea behind this topic and venue selection — not yet visible on Google Maps — was to get us into places that we haven’t been to.

Susan Mansfield, who chaired the discussion, provided a brief history of wandering, from Baudelaire, to Thomas de Quincey, William Blake, and Charles Dickens.

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Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur (1842)

For example, Walter Benjamin describes the wanderer as a product of the modern city. Contemporarily, think of the individual consuming their latte at a Starbucks, watching the world go by. That world is of people on their own journeys in an urban landscape created by other people.

In this spirit, Susan reviewed her preparations in organising the Belfast Passion Walk: “I walked a lot.”

In her walking, she observed that there was not much green space in the city centre, in contrast to others, like Edinburgh.

Also, in Belfast when one turns a street corner, you can suddenly enter new territory, visibly marked with painted kerbstones, murals, flags.

Garrett Carr, the next speaker, explored our North-South border, wanting to express it by what’s not on standard maps.

He described his walking journey along that line: “I got on the line and stayed on the line, until I lost my mind!”

Garrett produced his self-made map, his personal cartography, with elaborate key legend of the historical and contemporary markings, such as fortifications and official border crossings.

He also introduced us to the project, Mapping Alternative Ulster, an exhibition of the work of artists, urban planners and architects.

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Vicinity Map (2012), Séamus Dunbar et al; photo by Alan Meban

I particularly like the Vicinity Map, which shows the outline of a foot journey taken as close as possible to a one-mile radius of Belfast city centre.

Look out for the next exhibition showing in Armagh latter this year.

My presentation walked through several geopolitically divided cities, from Berlin to Nicosia, Beirut, Mitrovica, Derry-Londonderry, and Belfast.

I pointed out how our man made structures affect our emotions, good and bad.

For example, the erection of the Berlin Wall separated a people — some died trying to traverse it — yet I managed to celebrate on top of it, with thousands of others, with the collapsing of Soviet communism.

The bridge in Mitrovica has links Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs. But recent acrimony resulting in blockages put in place on the bridge itself.

While in Derry-Londonderry, we are celebrating the new Peace Bridge in encouraging easy movement of people from its Cityside and Waterside sections.

In Belfast, Cupar Way has a curious fascination with tourists, with sightseeing double-decker bus tours purposefully stopping by.

To be sure, our conflict affected our architecture, with places like 6 Castle Place built to withstand bomb blasts, sandwiched between historic Victorian and more recent glass buildings — how what we build reflects the tastes and priorities of the day.

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Belfast Wheel (2005), New Belfast Community Arts Initiative

My review of the Sandy Row Tour ended at its final stop, the Belfast Wheel. I observed that many in the city refer to it by the section they live in, not by the name Belfast itself. Yet creatively, the pieces do come together to form a whole.

But this relates to the reimaging in our heads.

For as I argued in my retracing of steps of last year’s Passion Walk, when Jesus looked back on the city of Jerusalem, wanting to bring all under his wings with passion and love, he observed that they are not willing.

Thus, the challenge is whether we have the willingness to accept compassion to overcome our divisions, and at least unite the city of Belfast.

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Walking Walls project, Kate Trenerry

Kate Trenerry had her presentation relayed by Susan, while connected by a live link. Kate is creator of a project, Walking Walls, which compares and contrasts her experiences walking along security borders in Belfast, Israel/Palestine, and Nicosia.

She queried why we walk, suggesting: (1) immersion; (2) challenge; and (3) openness (walking is a human scale activity).

In her wanderings through Belfast, she observed how painted it is, including bollards and gated entries.

Her response was, “Everyone wants to claim space, but you might paint yourself into a corner.”

Kate concluded that walls are secondary, for bad (internalising one’s community) and good (in Belfast they are easy to walk around), and that walking has the potential to clear one’s heart.

The question and answer session further explored what walking means to us, for example whether it’s more rewarding when done with others, or as a form of individual pilgrimage.

When we panellists were asked how the architecture of Girdwood Community Hub spoke to us, I replied that it reflected our current society — the promise of this building bringing people together, yet you could look out any of the four sides to be reminded clearly of the issues of legacy that we still need to deal with.

We concluded with a trailer for this year’s Belfast Passion Walk, which I encourage you to do. It is sure to have you look at our streets in a new light!

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    I loved Will Self’s psycho-geographic project of walking from his house in North London to Heathrow Airport: it sounds so mundane yet in reality is other-worldly. I wonder what a walk from the City Hall to Aldergrove as the crow flies, or as near to it as possible, would throw up?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    For anyone old enough to remember the old Belfast with its rich architectural heritage from the late nineteenth century in whose streets we started demanding civil rights in 1968, the new rather anonymous Belfast post-troubles is something of a thinly disguised “cardboard city”:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardboard_City_(London)

    And hardly walker friendly for even a hardened boulevardier like myself addicted to “Flânerie” both on the pavements, and (as I’ve often displayed on Slugger) in its more psychological aspects , combining 50/50% non-canonic curiosity and downright laziness. You have only to look at some old film of a Belfast of crowded streets, and compare these images with the empty vistas that greet the visitor today. While I applaud the tremendous act of imagination driven by local “amour-propre” that makes people think that there is still anything to encourage a musing stroller, I’m afraid that it’s simply too removed from any reality I’m experiencing myself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But I think a lot of city centres were similarly thronged before the de-industrialisation and “slum clearances” fully kicked in. I suppose those processes have made for the biggest changes. Against that, there is now life in surrounding places that then had no life. How much of it is accessible to the naked eye or ear though … much less so than before I should imagine.

    My Dad’s business is a case in point. He was a distributer of bakery supplies. In the 70s, he had his warehousing on Corporation Street and I remember it as deeply grim – rain-filled potholes a-gogo – but teeming with activity and traffic down there. I was usually keen to stay in the car. He had another spot in Jennymount Industrial Estate – similar, though looking back on it, housed in pretty beautiful, in a gritty industrial kind of way, red brick warehousing. I cleaned people’s shoes there for my bob-a-job week. Then in the late 70s / early 80s he moved it up to a warehouse between Valley Leisure and Carnmoney Cemetery, just by Rathcoole. More space, cleaner, less traffic – it was better from a business point of view.

    And meanwhile Corporation Street was being disembowelled. It’s now one of those streets the likes of which you see in most northern British former industrial cities (Liverpool springs to mind), a street where they’ve preserved some token monuments of what it used to be, but left otherwise a tidy wasteland. They might just as well erect a big road sign saying “It’s All Happening Somewhere Else Now”. And perhaps it is – but dissipated out into dozens of quiet, efficient, soulless little places, hiding away from the world. The bustle is gone. The flaneur certainly does have his work cut out these days.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you MU for the story, although mine was a semi-rural childhood, I knew Belfast well (especially the bookshops, museums and art galleries) and worked summers in similar situations to those you describe where my school friends fathers ran small local enterprises that could “carry” a slacker like myself engaging in a pretence of seeing real life from the ground up to earn a few coppers.

    I don’t think we are necessarily disagreeing particularly, although the post- industrialisation explanation does not seem to have emptied out the streets of most of those Scots and English cities I visit on research trips, or as a local example, Dublin. Certainly Edinburgh, Durham, York, Oxford, London and Bristol might be arguably to some degree non-industreal, but places like Hartlepool or Leeds (where I have some friends)?

    The contrast between Belfast and these towns is dramatic. I simply cannot see Belfast as anything but asset stripped by the disorganised efforts to clean out everything old that followed the cobbled “peace”. I’m perhaps old enough to contrast those strong communities with some real pride in place of the 1960s and the isolationism of today where any weeds local identity pushing through the tarmac are tainted by the paramilitaries.

    I’m just saddened that this idealistic effort to try to put people back out on the streets and in some manner invoke the ghost of what was a vibrant urban culture has such thin architectural gruel to feed from.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well there’s been a revival of city centres to some extent as retail, eating, drinking and entertainment centres in most of those old industrial cities: Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle all spring to mind. Belfast too. But I think they’re all in this weird position of having most of their infrastructure built when their purpose, their activities and their sense of who they were as a city were entirely different. I actually quite like the La Dolce Vita aspect of living a modern life among the ancient monuments. Buildings change much more slowly than people. But there is an ideal blend to be had and I’m not sure we have it just yet.

    A more extreme example of that kind of dislocation of place and activity is Abidjan, where I went for the BBC World Service a few years back, though part of a different process. A city of three million people boasting a grand total of three sit-down restaurants … one of which had no food left – now that was a civil war. But the centre of Abidjan was largely built in the 70s when it was a boomtown sloshing with French investment francs, so you get these almost La Defence style aluminium and glass towers. F-all happening in them now – a few banks, an overseas corporation or two, but mainly they’re just a bizarre throwback to a brief period in the city’s history.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d be very ready to agree with you about the dislocation of a city being constructed around one thing and being faced with changes that utterly alter this. The Belfast inherited in the 1960s was built around Linen and the Empire, and as someone with Music Hall links in my family, I could not pass those great barns across the city during the 1960s without thinking of what I’d heard about the cultural climate of their heyday.

    The symbiotic relationship between the urban environment and its relationship with those who live in it has interesting implications. Jonathan Rabin wrote “Soft City” back in the 1970s, suggesting in it that the urban landscape was a mirror of the human psyche, and the physical forms of the urban environment are themselves maliable material in which to reflect and in this express that psyche.

    What Belfast currently says about us all here in the wee six is a rather frightening mixture of amnesia (with an almost viseral hatred of the older buildings very evident) and an almost driven attraction to the “Holsteinisation” of the world into one homogenious typing of the urban experience.

    The real problem I’m finding with this call to experience Belfast in some act of “flânerie” is that the city has little or no character that is truely local or particular, distinct from the products of the general homogenisation process that has ensured that whereever you go across most of the globe you will encounter the same “global” commercial ventures and have in essence the same experiences. The overarching control outside forces such as Blackstone and Cerberus now hold over how our urban environment will develop in future years does little to suggest that Belfast will develop any character of its own that would interest any self-respecting flâneur in the future. These things don’t simply happen, they are caused by human agency. Abidjan is the result, both in its buildings, and in the decay of is culture, of choices by individuals. Similarly, Belfast has and will reflect similar choices, and the “revival” of its urban life will reflect the requirements of those controlling the multinationals, rather than being crafted by any contrary expression of the locals. Instead the locals will be themselves shaped by their new Holsteniised environment, with the steady loss of what once made them a distinct people with their own local culture.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d start soon or “throw up” might be just too aposite! There will soon be a lot of slurry down over the fields “as the crow flies”………..