The news that Belfast’s Movie House cinema on the Dublin Road could be flattened hasn’t troubled the headline writers too much. We all know how this goes, we’ll have a consultation then a new office block is likely to rise in its place.
After all, we’ve asked ourselves the usual questions and for some the answers weren’t in much doubt: the Movie House isn’t particularly old and it definitely isn’t beautiful. So that’s that then.
Or is it?
There’s an obvious red flag worth a little more of our time. And there’s one single, big question about Belfast we could stop and ask ourselves before we rush to knock another hole in another street.
The red flag is this: Belfast’s oldest city centre cinema – the Movie House Dublin Road – dates back to the early 1990s but is still is younger than many Slugger readers. Once demolished, our oldest central cinema will be inside a 2008 shopping centre (Victoria Square).
This means we’ll be moving from the days of the Alhambra, the Hippodrome and the packed cinemas of the city centre – a cornerstone of Belfast life – to a chain-cinema in a shopping centre no older than a primary school child.
The alarming thing, then, about the Dublin Road plans? The fact that we have successfully wiped-out the last trace of a city-wide obsession from our centre, that the oldest surviving link is a poor example from the other side of the millennium. Ironically, its youth is the very reason some are quick to shrug off its destruction.
Obvious heritage buildings aside, what other symbols of life in Belfast could we do without because they aren’t beautiful or old: Long’s chippy? the last bingo hall? the Limelight? the Sunflower? Keats and Chapman bookshop? the old cafes and barber shops?
And what symbols of real Belfast lives have we lost, or almost lost, for the same reason? The dancehalls your parents loved so much? Terri Hooley’s wee shop? the old Harp Bar? the Mandela Hall? the teenage dreams mural? Oh, and more landmark pubs than I could list.
Those dancehalls and old pubs your parents lived for; were they old or beautiful when we let them disappear?
The big question: what simple symbols of your life today or your family’s life would you want to be able to show someone 100 years from now? And are those symbols already old or beautiful?
Most of all, while many of them are fairly small things individually, what would our city feel like without them?
FLATTENING THE PRESENT
Back to the Movie House. Can you be convinced that it should stay? The answer – there’s an ongoing 3,500-strong petition after all – may be yes or still be no. In either case, can we stop for a moment among the crane count to make sure we have asked ourselves not what is old and beautiful right now, but what we might want our great grandchildren to see in the future.
They won’t know what a dancehall or, I suspect, a bingo hall or even a record shop looks like by then. But let’s not add “Granda – what did an old cinema look like?” to that list.
The bottom line is this: just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Will we leave enough of today among the student flats and offices and chain pubs? Will future generations want to know what an early 1990s cinema looked like and regret that we lost our oldest central cinema to build desk-space?
The campaigns around the Orpheus ballroom and to revive the Floral Hall, not to mention anger over buildings intentionally left to ruin, show that many people do value the gems of our past.
A final question, then.
Are we protecting the present?
* NB – Plans to include a cinema in the new office building are noted. Also noted among the generally fawning media coverage is the defence that the development is a multi-million pounds investment in Belfast. However these arguments, taken together, could also suggest that almost any building has a price and can simply be replaced with a new version. A petition to keep the cinema as-is can be found here. Outside the city centre, the stunning Strand Cinema is obviously very worthy of support.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net