East Belfast's Regeneration Is Being Spearheaded By Culture

East Belfast's Regeneration Is Being Spearheaded By Culture

Clash meets the independent minds battling to overhaul the legacy of the past...

There’s something bubbling in the East of Belfast. This segment of the city looks like it’s beginning to shed the skin of its past. The scars and evidence of Belfast’s turbulent history are certainly still visible here, yet optimism and creativity have found their way into the deepest of cracks, thus blooming something wonderful.

East Belfast’s creative sector is going through something of a purple patch right now. A number of young, creative businesses have begun to pop up; ranging from the experimental cuisine of Freight (a hip brunch spot that utilizes old shipping containers to create a unique food experience), streetwear collective Never Never, fashion store American Madness, queer friendly space The 343, hipster brewers Boundary Brewing, Vault Artist Studios and many more.

There’s a real hive of cultural activity, so much so that some of the city centre’s most recognizable faces are choosing to branch out to the suburbs in a bid for fresh experiences and cultural re-generation.

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Timmy Stewart and Jordan have been throwing parties in Belfast under their The Night Institute concept for nearly half a decade. They now find themselves in an old working men’s club, putting on ‘socials’ with a healthy blend of age groups that is often missing from contemporary clubs in Belfast.

The idea exudes a real back to basics attitude – placing interesting environments and room layouts, mood lighting, top notch sound systems and visual arts in the slot currently occupied by the lasers, smoke machines and expensive drink prices of modern club culture.

“The city centre has been bastardised by a rise in rates, and a decrease in footfall”, says Jordan. “After many years of throwing parties in the city centre we really found it had lost its soul, and soul is something the East has in droves.”

Timmy continues: “I think people are attracted to the East as it’s presently affordable to live in or run a business here. The landscape is changing quite rapidly, but in a healthy way. So many interesting people within the arts sector are based here and that can’t help but filter into the nightlife side of things. I was at one of Studio 34’s screening at Vault Artist Studios recently and it was an incredible evening that reminded me a lot of Berlin.”

The Social’s beauty is within its intimacy. “We’re certainly not re-inventing the wheel”, says Jordan, “but standing in large vacuous rooms like cattle is just a pretty shit way to enjoy music.”

Timmy believes that we are reaching the “maximum corporate peak” within todays dance music industry. Hearing music on a great sound system, in a fresh environment, is starting to have more of an appeal than high level productions and large crowds. There’s an attitude for something different.

I’m keen to learn how Timmy and Jordan obtained permission to start throwing parties in such an old building. Licensing in Belfast is notoriously difficult to come by, such is the governments (or lack of government) disregard for the arts. It’s the reason so many buildings lie empty and unloved when they could be used for cultural vibrancy.

“Licensing the unlicensed is pretty much out of the question”, says Jordan, “which is a shame as we have so many beautiful old buildings. In terms of the East, it was less a case of being allowed, but more a case of a venue being super keen for us to make use of the bar.”

“The great thing is that it’s still an operating working men’s club – it’s not a quirky novelty thing. It’s a huge three story building and the members drink in the middle bar whilst we party on the ground floor. It all seems to work perfectly. The benefits are we get a home with great prices and character, and such an iconic venue continues to thrive and we help keeping an integral part of the history of this area alive.” 

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Adam Turkington is a creative and passionate culturalite working at Seedhead Arts in Belfast, providing arts consultancy, events management and training services. He has over two decades of industry experience and has specialized over the years in festival programming and street art, and looked after the programme for Belfast’s Culture Night – a concept that sees over 100,000 visitors descend on the city every year for a night of music, art and food – for six years.

He is also one of the creative mind behind Vault Artist Studios - an abandoned college building that is now home to over 80 different artists of different backgrounds. Adam cites a certain development in the East as the foundation of the eradication of certain stereotypes about this part of the city. He tells me: “I believe that the creation of C.S Lewis Square was absolutely fundamental in terms of changing the general vibe of the East.”

“Having a public square where people could congregate into the evening, with a little café there that isn’t trying to keep skateboarders away and is connected to a really beautiful greenway… That makes people think. Nobody used to go out in the East, you know? There’s something about ambition, and the people feeling a little bit more connected to this part of the city, as opposed to simply being a place that you live.”

One idea that has certainly led to people feeling more connected with the city is the creation of Vault Artist Studios. Again, I’m keen to learn how permission was obtained for such a huge creative endeavor. Adam tells me that Vault actually began its life in an old Ulster Bank building which now houses queer friendly space The 343.

“That building was offered to me out of the blue by a developer who was bored waiting for planning, and loved the building and wanted to see it animated”, he says. The building was needed by its owner for personal reasons – leaving Adam with a month’s notice to find a new space - which led to a re-location to a space that was four times the size of the original. The key, he tells me, is the temporary nature of it all.

“A nine month license is what we got,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of potential there that is untapped. I get the sense that there’s a general shift in developer’s attitude, and we very much try to move away from the idea that we’re going to demand squatter’s rights so they can’t throw us out.”

“We want people comfortable with us being there, and we’re able to make a very cogent argument for the benefits of that. As far as I’m aware, what we do is unlike anything else, definitely in Ireland. There are other models similar to ours globally, but very few of them have a space as good as ours.” Vault houses a diverse and eclectic range of different art categories, from fire-breathing to band rehearsals and screen-printers to DJs.

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One concept that is particularly intriguing is the development of an online streaming radio station called Ayeland. It is a team of tech whizzes and passionate creatives that want to have a drastic impact on the vibrancy of Belfast’s cultural community – encouraging diversity, collaboration and growth through a detailed programme consisting of interviews, workshops, discussions, DJ sets and live performances, all streamed in the industrial shadow of Belfast’s iconic shipyard.

There’s a real feeling of old and new coming together to create something truly revolutionary for the city. “What we’re doing is different in the context of Belfast, never mind East Belfast,” says Adam, as he tells me more about Vault. “We might be out of the building in a year, but part of me is very much of a mindset that if we keep doing what we’re doing we should be able to find alternative locations.”

“I do a lot of work in street art. I have what I tell people is a ‘wall radar’. When you’re walking round you see a big gable and you think, ah, that’s a nice wall. That’s the way my mind works now. Once you start to look at the city through the eyes of dereliction you’re suddenly aware of just how many spaces are lying empty. The nature of what we do means we’re continually caught up in the present and trying to plan for the future, but fuck knows what’s going to happen.”

Now, this all sounds bloody brilliant – and it is – but there is a bigger picture here. Adam delivers some alarming statistics when it comes to how the arts are viewed in the Belfast art sector. “We are the lowest funded arts sector, per head, in Europe, yet we are also conversely have one of the highest public expenditure in general,” he says. “As a society we don’t think the arts are worth anything. You travel around the world, and that is super unusual. That is not how people view the arts, in general, in the rest of the world.”

“Around the world, artists are encouraged to be artists. They’re not told that you’d be better off being something solid. I think there is a slight shift happening here, or maybe that’s just in my mind.”

Adam’s words paint a portrait of a much larger, systematic problem regarding how the arts is viewed in Northern Ireland. “The arts is not the equivalent to the off sales in a supermarket; when you’ve got all your essentials, you decide you’ll maybe get a few beers because it’s the weekend,” he says.

“That’s how we see the arts. When we’re poorer, we can’t afford that luxury. That’s a very problematic way to approach something as vital as what we do. That’s why you’ve got communities that are grey and dull, and you have people that never leave their house and just watch Netflix, and are not able to engage critically with the news, never mind what we’re doing.”

The vitality of what Adam, The Night Institute and all the creative and cultural collectives of East Belfast is driven home further by the alarming fact that Northern Ireland has been without a government for nine hundred and eighty one days, at the time of writing.

It feels incredibly inspiring to me that so many creative ideas are flourishing despite the blockades, ignorance and general disregard of a government that would rather bicker about religion than tackle the important issues. There is still a long way to go in terms of how the arts are viewed in Northern Ireland, but in the East of the city the creatives of today are showing just how colourful Belfast can be.

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Words: Andrew Moore

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