Up In Smoke
A few weeks ago the newspapers and television were full of a 'good news story' - the ambitious redevelopment of Lower North Street and Donegall St. The stories were full of reports of how rundown this part of the city centre has become, full as it is of derelict and abandoned buildings. These reports concentrated on the news that Brown Thomas - the Harrods of Dublin - will be opening a big store on the site of a derelict shopping arcade. It's wonderful they gushed, as all these jobs will be coming to the area, bringing investment and new life to the area.
Regular readers of Kerr's Corner will remember how this area got rundown. On April 18th 2004 the North Street Arcade burned down. North Street Arcade - a listed building - was the home of many of Belfast's small traders and businesses. Among the victims of the fire was Terri Hooley's Cathedral Records, Kozo Paper, the Arcadia Cafe and Rip-off clothing.
This fire was not the result of an electrical fault or an accident of some kind. It was malicious. Arsonists gained entry to the arcade and had the time to place enough incendiary material to destroy the place, all the businesses in it and the livelihoods of many of the traders who kept shops there.
There is no doubt that the wonderful North Street Arcade could still be restored to its original splendour. The blueprints for its construction in the 1930's are still extant. However there's no chance that this will happen. The owners of the arcade, Ewart Properties who have also bought up much of the rest of the property in the area that the press describes as rundown, won't entertain it. Their vision for the future of the area has no place for small traders or for the atmosphere of genuine community that the arcade represented. In fact it's likely that some of the small businesses who managed to relocate elsewhere in North Street, Donegall Street or Haymarket may be forced out all over again to make way for the likes of Brown Thomas and the big multiples. They will be the only ones able to afford the high rents in the new properties. The jobs that are created will hardly offset those that are lost and the businesses that will go to the wall.
No-one has been brought to justice for the arson attack on North Street Arcade although the PSNI are still investigating it. The small businesses that were burnt out have been refused compensation by the Northern Ireland Office as there is no evidence that the attack was carried out bu three or more persons. This is a disgrace and the former traders in the arcade
are not taking it lying down.
Recently Big Lite Films launched a DVD outlining the plight of the arcade traders. Up In Smoke offers a tour of the arcade in good times and the aftermath of the fire. It was launched in the John Hewitt at the same time as Big Time (to be reviewed in the next issue of The Wizard). Professionally mixed by Biggy Bigmore whose recording studio was lost in the fire, it packs
lots into twelve and a half minutes of video footage, before and after still photos and a stylish and witty musical soundtrack. I thought the line 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone' from Big Yellow Taxi was very apt.
Copies of Up In Smoke are available from Gemini DVD & Video, Haymarket Arcade, Royal Avenue for only £5.00 each.