Tribeca, be damned…

Eamonn Duffin is a local writer, Tyrone native and long term resident of Belfast. A recent graduate of the QUB Creative Writing MA, his work is soon to be featured in Belfast’s newest literary adventure, The Belfast Review.

The Irish News of May 21st reports that The Cathedral Quarter Trust (CQT) has “formally objected to Castlebrooke Investments’ bid to renew four applications for its stalled development, and urged others to do likewise,” saying it believes that Castlebrooke “has no intention of beginning work.”


Tribeca be damned.

Tribeca. Yip, somebody in Castlebrooke actually decided to call the development that, in some deluded plan to connect it with that cool part of New York. (Is it still cool? It does seem an idea with a whiff of early noughties cool off it.) But Tribeca it is. I know, I was in the little showcase office at the end of North Street once, with its little models and all its lovely literature. (Don’t bother going now, its long closed, but you can get a dusty nose trying to look in the window.)

It’s time that this travesty in the city centre was kicked into touch.

It was declared with so much fanfare in 2020, and councillors, rightly so at the time, thought that this would bring a rather run down area of Belfast a much-needed boost.

But then, nothing.

Endless amounts of nothing.

All that has been achieved since 2020 is the run-down look that had started after the crash in 2008 accelerated – a dead zone.

Of course, Castlebrooke will blame the pandemic, the restructuring of finances the world over, the end of the need for giant office space, and the good old don’t need to shower as much, Work from Home. But the pandemic changed everything, for everyone, so it’s easy to blame the pandemic. (Like the Tories blame everything on labour pre-2010, without fail, still.)

None of this needed to happen. We were sold a pup.

I don’t blame the councillors for allowing Castlebrooke to get planning permission, they were easily fooled. It’s easy for anyone to come along with an all singing, all dancing routine, something all shiny and new and tell you that they can create badly needed jobs and build all those shiny new offices that no-one needs; though at the time, we thought we did. And, of course, don’t forget, they’d be putting much needed cash into those bare city coffers. And remember, at that time, Belfast was casting a jealous eye south. Dublin was booming, and we thought, we need a bit of that, a little bit of that sparkle, so along came the snake oil salesmen and poured honey into the ears of a section of our councillors’, and they signed it off and then…. nothing.

Much ado about nothing.

They got the jewels; we got the receipts.

The whole thing has always reminded me of the Monorail episode of The Simpson: an entire town suckered into thinking they were getting something state of the art that they thought they really needed.

So, nothing happened.

Except more decay. Rust never sleeps.

North Street became even more run down, and after the Primark fire and the pandemic, it became forgotten. Businesses closed quickly. Little can hang on there, with The Deer’s Head being the last stalwart on Garfield Street and Keats and Chapman still flogging books on North Street. (You never find the book you want, but you always find five you decide that you must have.)

And now the council are making overtures about vesting the land.

Ah, if only.

But, if they did, what our council needs to do is to think outside the box, to bring this area back to what it was, or what it could have been. To join it up with the rest of the city, and link Donegall Street with North Street, down to Skipper Street and High Street, down to the new UU and the five million students who will be living in all these new student blocks.

And do you know how we do this? We reopen the North Street Arcade. Remember it? That Art Deco masterpiece that now more resembles an urban forest than a cool, covered marketplace.

Rebuild it.

It’s been lying, rotting, since that mysterious fire in 2004. (We have had rather a lot of mysterious fires around Belfast in the last twenty years. Like Rome, circa 64AD.)

But just imagine what North Street arcade could be (Google some pre-fire images.) Imagine, if you will, the arcade ground floor, lined with little individual eateries where you could get some great street food, standing up. You could grab a coffee or even a beer as you walk through – it could be like Common Market or Trade Market on a large and permanent scale. The second floor could be full of little independent shops and workspaces for artists, and it could tie North Street to Donegall Street and add to the buzz of the Cathedral Quarter where everybody goes to be social now – despite the monopolistic price of a pint there, but that is a whole other story. Locals, and tourists would love it. I’d go tomorrow myself.

Why are we not thinking of this? Why are we not making more of this area? Or if we are thinking of it, why are we not telling people that this is what we need to do? Shout it from the rooftops. If you build it, they will come.

Tribeca has been a disaster for this area of Belfast. Castlebrooke have allowed it to fall into so much ruin that most of it will need to be flattened, and they’d be happy enough. Costs saved. Listed building, you say, ah well. They only know the price of the land; they don’t care about the price of the buildings.

Belfast, as a city, loves to boast about its history. We are never done talking about it. We built a bloody museum to a ship that fecking sank fer God’s sake, yet we have allowed The Assembly Rooms, a truly historic building, one of the oldest in the city – where a brave Belfast man, Thomas McCabe said no to slavery: “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document,” he proclaimed – to fall into wrack and ruin, not unlike the Crumlin Road Courts.

All for “the monorail.”

We need to do more to protect our built heritage. We want people to come to Belfast and think, cool, aren’t those buildings great, I’ve never seen anything like that, not come along and think, great, looks just like every other bloody steel and glass city in the world.

We have a wealth of lovely building. Just look up the next time you are walking down High Street, or Ann Street, or Royal Avenue, it’s all there above you. The Luftwaffe shattered quite a lot of the city and the troubles did plenty as well, but there is so much still that is so unique. (Check out the wonderful photos along the wall for the Hi-Park car park entrance on Church Lane.)

Primark, after the fire, showed what could be done if you had the will, and just look how the old Tesco beside Primark has been transformed into a great working artistic space in 2 Royal Avenue.

Let’s not have this crumbling Castlebrooke/Tribeca disaster dominate what could be the best part of the city, a thriving hub, surrounded by a state-of-the-art university and a wealth of culture. We don’t need shiny, we need functional, used, and occupied.

When all those boats pull up in the summer, let’s see them come into the town and then take their pictures and want to come back, to make their friends come. We need to show a bit of love to the place. Belfast could be so much better than office space nobody wants, housing nobody can afford and retail space that nobody will rent.

Yes, Belfast can be rough. Yes, the accent can go through you sometimes (I’m looking at you especially local actors. Dial it down. NOBODY in this city talks like that, here’s me wha’, so it is). Yes, we unfortunately have our fair share of social issues: junkies, homelessness, and anti-social behaviour, but the Tories and their absolute addiction to austerity are as much at fault for that. Austerity Junkies.

But deep-down Belfast is a great city. It has so much to give and so much to offer.

How does it? says you, who doesn’t live in the city.

Well, Belfast is small. Let’s be honest here, Belfast is not Dublin. You can walk across Belfast in a couple of hours. You can cycle from the Cavehill to Shaws Bridge in less than an hour – thankfully it’s mainly downhill the whole way. I recently talked to a student from England in QUB and they said that they loved the city, “it is so handy to get everywhere” was the very thing they said. You can walk everywhere.

And imagine if we had a cultural and entertainment hub right in the middle, the envy of any city on the island. For this is the other thing we can add to a new Belfast Cultural Centre (see, does that not sound better than Tribeca) – Belfast, rightfully so, can sell itself as a city of street art.

Just look at the celebration of street art recently finished in the city centre, Hit the North. I have to admit up front that I love the street art in Belfast. It is some of the best that I have ever seen. The large piece of the chef on the bottom of High Street is still amazing, all these years since its creation, and we have loads of other pieces, painted by world famous graffiti artists all around the mighty Sunflower bar, many who come over specifically for Hit the North. It’s a great festival. So good, David Holmes comes and spins the decks on the street during the day. David Holmes!!

Art is one of the reasons people come here, one of the reasons we now have walking art tours around the city and endless tourist clicking with phones as they wander the art filled streets. Much better than the boarded-up shops and old things that no one wants to fix at the bottom of Royal Avenue or down North Street.

Where is the love? Yes, we are trying, but we need to try harder.

Cards on the table here, I am a blow in, a fully formed culchie of the Tyrone variety, but I have had a love of Belfast since I moved here in the 90s. (And believe me, it looked a helluva lot worse then.)

I want this city to be so much more.

So, we don’t need Tribeca, we don’t need shiny offices, empty of people after five o’clock in the afternoon and a ghost town at the weekend, bereft of any buzz. What we need is Belfast: a Belfast that people can love, a Belfast that can thrive, a Belfast that people want to visit and think, God, I loved that place, I can’t wait to go back there.

That’s what we need.

We don’t need a Monorail.

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