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Contested Space

When I first got to Belfast I took a wander through the city.  I find it’s always the best way to get to know a place, take a walk or a jog, get a little lost, find your way home. I have to admit I was a little ignorant about the Troubles as well as the divided spaces within Belfast, so you can imagine I was a little confused when I drifted into North Belfast on a sunny September Saturday, just a short walk from the lively Cathedral Quarter downtown, and saw almost no one walking about. As I really started to look around I realized in just a few steps I’d gone from a busy mixed use section of the city to a nearly deserted area featuring miles of fencing around everything, including patches of grass, and towering walls where houses peered just above the barbed wire.  I had stumbled up Crumlin Road and found myself at an interface of communities around the old Crumlin Road Gaol. At the time, I just thought the lack of development of such a central location bizarre, but after seven months in my program I’ve come to have a much fuller understanding of contested space in Belfast and found it very similar to many culturally divided cities in the American South.

In my Environmental Management course Queens we are taught to be managers of the natural environment (i.e. rivers and streams), physical environments and infrastructure (i.e. building efficiency), and human or social environments. My classes range from planning in contested spaces to managing the sustainable business.  My planning courses are some of my favorite.  In the fall I took a course on sustainable planning.  I have absolutely no experience in planning so at first I had to recover the huge learning curve when planning students started spouting things like BMAP (which I now know is the ever important Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan) or discussing the planning authority, a completely foreign idea to me as a rural American who doesn’t have to do much more than get a building permit to erect a new structure. But after I caught up on the planning system in place in Northern Ireland I was intrigued by the development of Belfast, past, current and future.

My undergraduate thesis looked at the ability of community gardens to bring divided communities (economically, racially, etc.) together through the creation and fostering of bridging social capital, or the building of social networks across lines of difference.  Coming to Belfast after finishing that work has inspired lots of questions about divided communities and ways of creating bridging social capital. Belfast has plenty of bonding social capital, or the creation of social networks within similar groups. Both Protestant and Catholic communities have leisure centers, clubs, services and public spaces- they are just all separate. The perspective I get from my planning courses is that planners and government have been encouraging bonding social capital through funding and development and have hoped those capacities would spill over and bridging capital would begin to be formed.  But spatially, bridging social capital is nearly impossible with walls, roads and sometimes even businesses acting as lines of divisions splintering the city.  Even open spaces like parks and football pitches are contested in areas.

In sustainable planning I undertook a group project that has come to shape my understanding of Belfast as a city.  Our group conducted a sustainability appraisal of The Crumlin Road Gaol Masterplan, the area I found myself in on that first walk around Belfast, in which we looked at all aspects of the plan and evaluated its overall sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social aspects.  The plan, which is still in discussion with the community and the city, would build mixed used development including improvements to the nearest health facility and school around the Crumlin Road Gaol, a popular tourist attraction in Belfast.  Currently the Gaol is surrounded by an abandoned army barracks and an incredibly amount of unused land. The proposal seeks to feature the Gaol and museum as a focal point and surround it with housing, green space, shops, leisure facilities, and so on.  Our evaluation showed that the developers had included lots of green planning such as garden space, renewable energy, green building material and water conservation measures and the development would have positive social aspects for the area in terms of construction and retail jobs as well as improved access to services.

The only problem with this plan is that it lies smack in the middle of a highly contested space, flanked on one side by a Protestant community in decline and on the other a growing Catholic community, desperate for more housing and space.  It essentially comes down to a turf battle.  The Protestants don’t want to lose the space which they view as theirs and they see the development, which is being pushed as non-sectarian, as providing Catholic housing and many believe the entire development will be co-opted by those who live closest. The situation gets even more complicated when considering the services the development would offer such as health facilities and leisure centers, who will those belong to?  Security issues are also a factor, not if violence will occur, but will people using the space will feel secure and welcome?  The Crumlin project as a contested space is a case study in the dilemmas planning faces in Belfast.

Traditionally Belfast planners have approached issues of contested space as a neutral authority.  Not challenging territoriality but remaining impartial. One of my professors writes persuasively on the need for a new kind of planning in Belfast.  One that challenges communities to air difficult concerns, discuss problems that will probably make people uncomfortable, but with the issues on the table communities will be able to make cross-community decisions that need to be made.  It is this kind of difficult dialogue that will ultimately bridge divides, bringing down emotional and social walls not just the physical symbols of division.

While I’m still not sure the exact methods by which planning and management can positively affect communities and bridge old divides, I feel deeply that planning and planners have a role to play in making social change in regions.  In recent weeks we’ve seen the role planning in Israel has had in pushing a government agenda and creating further divides and perhaps blocks to the peace process.  Planning can act as an agent for political and social agendas, both positive and negative. More optimistically, divided cities such as Johannesburg, South Africa have created a new model of development planning in which planners also act as community organizers, helping identify and meet the short-term needs of communities.

Looking towards my dissertation in the coming weeks, processing my course material as well as my undergraduate work, I am interested in considering what culturally divided communities in the US can learn from the planning exercises of divided cities such as Belfast.  I think a more systematic, thoughtful approach towards bridging divides in the US will be ultimately more affective than just hoping towns and counties will have cross-community dialogue and air difficult concerns.  I’m not sure where this inquiry will lead- check back with me in 5 months or so.

I am a bit obsessed with NPR radio personality and host of All Songs Considered Bob Boilen.  But honestly, what’s not to love? He has a smooth, attentive voice.  He listens to all the best music, goes to all the best shows. He has a laugh that forces me to stifle a foolish grin as I listen to his show walking through the park.  I’m sure passersby wonder what the hell is so funny, but it is only because they aren’t hearing the sweet charm and infectious laughter of DC’s most talented music personality. Most importantly, Bob constantly challenges me to find the best (defined as whatever is interesting and appealing to me at the moment) music in whatever city I am visiting or inhabiting.  And Belfast would definitely not disappoint Mr. Boilen.

I started realizing Belfast was a great place for music when I began making the open mic night rounds with my housemate.  Unlike my American experience with such events, which are usually 90% guys wailing some Nirvana cover forcing me to hit the bar more than usual, the open mic nights in Belfast weren’t bad at all.  In fact, some nights I found myself in disbelief that I hadn’t paid for such a great show.  My favorite open mic spot in Belfast is the John Hewitt where on any Monday night you can experience the upcoming singer/songwriter trying out some new material as well as old favorites like Dylan and Guthrie.

My most current bit of music madness has been the Empire‘s blues night where every Thursday, free of charge, Rab McCullough and his band play a show that could only be better and more bluesy if the bar was serving hurricanes and throwing out beads.  The Empire’s blues night even has a dancer in residence, Jumpin’ Jack, a thrilling older gentleman who bursts onto the dance floor with a cartwheel and attracts ever female in the bar to shimmy up next to him.  Jack alone is worth the trip.

For the classical music enthusiast, Belfast won’t disappoint.  After two grand performances I can say with some authority that the Ulster Orchestra is worth a night on the town.  At Christmas, Adam and I went to see their performance of Handel’s Messiah at Waterfront Hall, which is a great venue beside the Lagan.  Last week Larry and I saw the orchestra perform Britten at Ulster Hall with its romantic muralled walls.  The best part about the orchestra is their incredibly cheap 3gbp student tickets. The second best part about the orchestra is their close proximity (in both venues) to Nando’s.

Belfast is also home to the Odyssey complex, where usually one can catch a Giant’s hockey game, go bowling, or dance in one of the many clubs, but ever so often the Odyssey is transformed for headline shows.  In the fall Beyonce and Toby Keith came through.  Neither of which I could afford to see, but I did see Gaga there two-weeks ago, and like any good arena, it was packed.

Just across the street from my flat is Mandela Hall, a great venue in the Queen’s Student union.  In the fall, Ben and Adam and I went to see Dublin born Imelda May and her rocker-billy fans tear it up.  Thinking of Dublin born artists, back at Thanksgiving Trina was sweet enough to get all the Mitchell’s tickets to Irish soul songstress Laura Izibor who I had unknowingly been listening to in movie soundtracks such as P.S. I Love You and Tyler Perry films.  Her show was great, though I think she might be more appreciated back at home, and her album ‘Let the Truth be Told’ is equally good.

Belfast also hosts some pretty good music festivals.  Almost every month there is some festival that fills the pubs with free and cheap shows. The end of February saw the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.  I was on retreat most of the week but I did catch a decent show at Stormont. At the end of this month is the Moving on Music Festival and I’m hoping to catch a few shows.

When I’m not out listening to great music in Belfast I’m listening to great UK and Irish music at home, walking through the park, in the gym, on the way to class, in the library, basically everywhere.  I’d listen to music in my sleep if I could.  My good friend Larry is busy exposing me to as much ‘local’ music as he can. So far he has led me to UK based Laura Marling whose melodies have brought some of my favorite musicians to their knees and Cara Dillion, from Derry, whose clear, pure tone utterly transports you.  Both ladies will be in or near Belfast in the next few weeks and I’m definitely going to be there.

So all of this is to say that Bob should come be with me in Belfast so I can listen to even more quality music and get that commentary only public radio can provide.

After a long hiatus . . .

. . . (all resolutions need a little breaking) I’m finally blogging a bit more about life here in sunny Ireland. In the last month I’ve had a few great adventures, but I won’t bore with the details. I’ll let the accompanying pictures tell most of the stories, but I will hit a few highlights.

Scotland: I went searching for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and all I came back with were these ridiculous pictures.

The Bike Ride from Hell: Snow is the enemy of any bicyclist, for obvious reasons.  I especially hate snow when I’m utterly exhausted, but decide nonetheless to set off with my bike from Portrush to Bushmills and beyond. It started out a brilliant idea.  I’d meet the Mitchell scholars, who were up visiting Northern Ireland, at Bushmills and then spend the night with them in their rented cottage.  But it turned out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had.  First, I didn’t realize how incredible hilly the path was, made worse by the snow and ice that covered the winding farm roads that make up the cycle route.  I went between cursing while pushing my bike up an icy bank to praying and screaming while sliding down the other side.  After I finally made it to Bushmills I got lost on the journey to the cottage and ended up at the Giant’s Causeway, a great place to get stranded.  Eventually the other scholars came and stuffed a very muddy, wet and grumpy Bre and her bike into their tiny rental car and carried me to the warmth of their cottage and Alec’s fresh made bagels.  While the ride was miserable, it was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.  I’d be just cycling along and bam, there’s another castle.  I will defiantly go back- when it’s warm and pleasant, and next time I’ll be in a car. *Note* Since this experience I haven’t touched my bike, even with the sunny weather of this week.  I think I am slightly traumatized.

Gaga in Belfast: Months ago, 6 of us Mitchells bought tickets to Lady Gaga.  Though I appreciate Gaga in the club I wouldn’t say that I’m a passionate Little Monster.  If anything, I figured a Gaga concert was an awesome way to kick off my birthday week.  I was completely right.  It was incredible.  Gaga was amazing, but more than anything it was a visually stunning production.  And I mean production.  The stage was circular with a runway jutting out into the middle of the arena (we stood near the end).  Periodically a circular curtain would drop, allowing for set and, of course, costume changes, and these incredibly artistic projections would play.  Most of them were Gaga in outrageous outfits, but a few were crazy like Gaga eating a heart.  But it was a spectacular performance and I was so glad to be there with good friends.

23 on the 23rd: I love the number 23.  It’s my birthday. It appears in almost every number identification I’m ever given.  It is my lucky number, winning me the occasional small lottery pool.  It’s always the locker I chose at the gym.  I just love the number.  So you can imagine my excitement at turning 23 on the 23rd!  I’m just going to say it was a night to remember.  *For pictures see Adam.

Castle Leslie: Last weekend, the Mitchell scholars, including myself, got to finish our retreat at Castle Leslie in Monaghan.  [Check out their site!] It was an absolutely spectacular estate with a sparking river and lush garden. But the best part was Sir John Leslie, the 94 year old Baronet and cousin to Winston Churchill, who took up clubbing in his 70’s.  Sir John took us to his favorite clubs where he schooled us all on the dance floor and kept us out until about 3am.

The coming weeks have a few more adventures in store.  St. Patrick’s day is approaching, as is a Mitchell excursion to Brussels.  I will try my best to be better about documenting the details.

Next up- The Belfast music scene.  I’ve been waiting to write about that for a while.  Next week. Promise.

Mmmm. . .food

So the second most often question I am asked, after the quality of the pubs in Belfast, is about the food in Ireland.  Usually my questioner has already assumed that the food is terrible, I’m barely subsisting on scaly potatoes and leeks and I can’t wait to get back to America where the horn of plenty overflows with our supreme diversity of crops.  And almost always they are surprised, shocked even, to discover that the food, in Belfast at least, is great in terms of both market produce and quality restaurants.

I’ll begin with market produce.  I have an admission to make . . .I am a foodie. What is a foodie you might ask? Well Wikipedia (oh I’m feeling scholarly today) gives the following description.

Foodies= Amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food. For this reason, foodies are sometimes viewed as obsessively interested in all things culinary.

I love and, yes, live for good quality food, carefully and lovingly cultivated and crafted into great meals.  I try to eat as close to the earth as possible, which means I am always searching for the best farmers market I can find. This is also the first year in a long while that I haven’t had my own garden, so I am depending entirely on the market, which, in Belfast, is no loss at all.  Belfast’s St. George’s market provides an abundance of everything from local root crops and fish catches to stalls filled with exotic spices and seaweed.  Though not everything is local and organic, it is all reasonably priced and very fresh.  For less than 20 pounds I can buy and abundance of food (and even drink!) for the week as well as snag a fabulous seafood chowder lunch and desert crepe for the way home.  Some lazy Saturdays I stretch my market visit to a whole half-day, two meal experience.  I start with juice, coffee and waffles, wander through the crafts for a while listening to whatever this week’s live band happens to be, then I grab lunch followed something terrible for me like a snicker milk shake.  And I always buy more groceries for the week than I can carry. My favorite weekly purchase is almost always from the fishmongers that line the stalls along the back of the market.  This week it was fresh mussels, last week was whiting. The vendors, like most Irish, are friendly and helpful with any questions I have about their products and even welcome my probing questions about water quality and harvesting methods.  So no, my market produce shopping is not suffering at all.

But I must admit there are a few things I do miss from the states when I am cooking.  Namely things that I always took advantage of like canned pumpkin, apple butter, a variety of cream cheeses and so on.  There are even things that am SO embarrassed to admit but I miss none-the-less, like peanut butter.  There is a big difference between American peanut butter and peanut butter over here.  Our peanut butter is smooth and creamy but here, even ‘creamy’ peanut butter is grainy, sandy tasting almost.  What’s missing?  High-fructose corn-syrup.  My mother would be so ashamed after all the trouble she has spent keeping me off the gooey stuff but I had to bring back copious amounts of JIF.  King Corn and I have a very complicated relationship, but I’ll give him this one, peanut butter needs him.

As a foodie I take cooking veryMussels and kale from St. George's Market seriously.  I don’t worry too much about getting things perfect, but I do love to play with new produce and flavors. I especially love cooking with and for people.  When I first got to Belfast I started cooking with my English housemate Ben. Sometimes we would cook together and other times one of us would cook and one of us would consume.  But after a few weeks I noticed Ben was a glowing example of everyone at home’s assumptions about food in Ireland.  Ben is perfectly happy with potatoes and tuna and almost never seasons his food.  One day, after a week of fresh, complicated meals, Ben wanted to reciprocate for the cooking I had been doing.  His meal choice, Heinz tomato soup.  My jaw hit the table. For a girl who has been known to spend 4 hours making her own pasta sauce I was a little stunned.  But for Ben it was just as delicious and satisfying as the 2 hour meal I had prepared the night before. This however is not typical of what one would find in Belfast restaurants.

As for restaurants, well just around our neighborhood, off Botanic Avenue, there is a bounty of ethnic cuisine.  Around the corner is Café Renoir, famous for their 5gbp wood-fired pizza special.  Beside it sets the new French Village who serves a great Panini and a decent attempt at pancakes, though I haven’t found a great American pancake place yet.  Adam and I may have to open a Cracker Barrel-like establishment to feed our need for buttermilk pancakes and chicken and dumplings.  On the opposite corner is Boojums, our Chipotle approximation as well as Clements, my favorite coffee house.  The whole of Belfast has a lot to offer to the hungry traveler.  Adam and I should get VIP seating for the amount of time we spend in Nando’s, a Portuguese-Mozambique chain famous for their Peri-Peri chicken, and Ravenous, a great local sandwich shop. Throughout the city you can also find great meal deals where you can get 2 or 3 courses plus a bottle of wine for two people for about 20gbp.  Fabulous.

So if you find yourself traveling to Northern Ireland don’t worry about subsisting on potatoes and parsnips, there is a bounty of food options waiting for you!

Biking in Belfast

Me and my Bike

Hard-core biking Bre

When I first arrived in Belfast, with the help of my dear friend and bike aficionada Christina, I bought a gorgeous creamy silver-blue hybrid bicycle.  It has proved to be the best big purchase I have ever made.  I’ve never been a huge biker.  I had a bike at Elon, but only really rode the mile to and from school, and that was only when the weather was nice and gas was expensive (I know I’m a terrible environmentalist).  But I never explored on my bike- it was just transport, but this beautiful blue bike is my chariot to adventure.  Anytime I feel restless or tired of city sounds I can whizz through the botanic gardens, past the gym, straight for the Stranmillis towards my favorite part of Belfast, the Lagan towpath.

The Towpath is a 9-mile greenway, devoid of cars and city sounds, that runs along the River Lagan between Belfast and Lisburn.  Most of the path clings right up next to the river, but every now and then it cuts through a lovely wooded park or a parking lots and passes some great spots.  One of my favorites is the Lock Keeper’s Inn, a café style restaurant leisurely nestled next to the towpath between the red and gray bridges.  Next to the café is the actual Lock Keepers residence, which you can tour some days, as well as a charming little nature museum.  The café has recently received a lot of press as it is the business development of Iris Robinson’s former teenage lover (Click here to read all about it-it’s big news up here).  But regardless, it is a great place to stop for some tea and a scone on a sunny day.  I prefer the picnic tables outside where I can do a bit of people watching.

Laganpath Bridge

The Lagan Towpath

A few miles from the café the path get very rural.  Grazing cows lazily watch me cycle past and I have to resist the urge to stop at the occasional farm and offer my services just for the chance to examine their amazing topsoil (I’m such a nerd-I know).  Further down is where I always see a shy pair of wild swans.  They never let me get their picture, ducking into the grassy bank when they see my camera.  After 7 or 8 miles I usually turn back, though once in a while I go into the City of Lisburn, but I find it shocks me out of the natural dis-reality of the path.  I like maintaining the green, winding river dream world for as many miles as I can.

I find that I’m not a terrible biker.  In most things I’m pretty uncoordinated, despite all those years of dance lessons, but I can make sharp turns on busy streets, weave past little running children on the path and stop centimeters before squishing yippy dogs that dart into the trail.  I remember the freedom of first learning navigate a training wheel-less bicycle.  My bike was pink and white then, aptly named the “Breezy,” which I loved because it was what my Grandma Nana called me.  I remember learning to keep balance in the driveway of International House with my dad. Our driveway at home was too steep and treacherous with the busy road at the end, but IH was perfect, flat, with only a few potholes.  Dad would hold onto my seat giving me just the momentum I needed to go gliding in front of the flagpole.  Of course with my success I got a fist pump and an “Alright!” Later, I would circle the parking lot attempting daredevil feats such as riding side-saddle, cruising with both legs swung to my left.  Or riding while standing going down the hill to the nursery.  I loved whooshing past the waterfall, hugging the curb, dodging the potholes until I reached the nursery pond where I could watch the baby swans and geese find their own footing.

All that hard work paid off and now look at me!  Christina and I are planning a ride around Northern Ireland, which boasts the most extensive cycling network in the UK.  Up here you can ride for hundreds of miles on greenways, coastal paths, and safe in bike lanes.  I think it will be a great way to get a feel of the countryside.  Who knows, maybe I can show off with some side-saddle riding.

A New Year- A New Blog

So besides my typical New Years resolutions of practicing more yoga, eating well, and reading more this New Year I promised myself I would make a new resolution to keep a weekly blog in case someone, like you perhaps, wanted to read about my life in Belfast, school and my travels.

So to start off I’m going to back track a little with an entry I wrote for my Mitchell blog about my first few months in Ireland.  Included are some pictures of my travels so far. Enjoy!

November 2009: You know you are acclimating to Belfast culture when you find yourself in Primark trying to decide which shade of “denim” leggings go best with your new plaid shirt. This is the beginning of a love affair. I often tell people my roots are in the mountains of Virginia and my soul is in the dust of Ghana, and now I think Belfast has stolen my heart. I love this city. I love turning a street corner at night and catching the lit profile of a spire. I am enamored with the scenic Lagan towpath for long runs and bike rides with its wild swans and meandering couples. I race to St. Georges Market on Saturdays, gorging myself on fajitas, milkshakes and all the fresh fruit I can carry home. Every Monday I am seated with a local brew at the John Hewitt, tapping my foot to every good (ex. my friend Ben) and bad (ex. the guy who screams a lot) open mic act. I could spend all afternoon sitting in the cool gray CS Lewis reading room overlooking the knobby tree that guards the entrance of the Botanic Gardens. And I could spend every evening studying at Clements at 10pm, with the brightly lit rainbow panels and blaring Canadian rock cheering me through my regression analysis. Have I said enough? I love Belfast.

It is somewhat strange that I find myself loving this city so much when I often find myself feeling so uncomfortable in it. My program in Environmental Management is wonderful, but being the only American in a sustainable planning course discussing international environmental legislation is nothing if not awkward. Often I feel that I am expected to apologize for our current environmental policy or lack thereof, but examining EU policy has given me new perspective; I am finding myself defending my complicated federal system and the theory of private land ownership in the US, which is new for me.

My most obvious source of discomfort is my brownness. First, I should explain brownness. I say brown because as a multiracial child I feel awkward saying black or African American, that doesn’t adequately describe my heritage. I feel even stranger saying “mixed,” the preferred check box on employment forms, which makes me feel like a cocktail or something. So I go with brown, because I am. Being brown has never been particularly hard for me. In fact, through most of my childhood and adolescence I never really thought about it. I grew up in a loving home in a nurturing community that never evaluated me based on my skin tone. My skin color really only appeared on standardized tests and when I started buying foundation. I have always had mostly white friends and usually have difficulty identifying with aspects of young black culture. But in Belfast I am constantly reminded of my brownness. It’s subtle, like a look at a bar or an unnecessarily awkward exchange. Occasionally I get a strange comment, as in the case of one classmate who asked if I was “a gypsy.” I am by no means saying that people are rude, in fact, most people I interface with are perfectly lovely. I just feel a little culturally lost at times, and find that I am listening to more Jay-Z and Dead Prez than ever before.

There are some serious benefits to being brown in Belfast. Kebab. One night, upon my 2am entrance into our favorite late night kebab shop, the man behind the counter exclaimed I was brown like him, holding my arm to his. He has now proclaimed me his “Brown Queen,” a comment I am totally comfortable with as it usually accompanies a discount off my amazing kebab.

Despite the occasional discomforts, Belfast has been nothing but welcoming and each day I feel more and more at home here. I find myself returning from travel grateful to be in such a nice, familiar place. This is usually a feeling I reminded of every weekend with the massive amount of traveling I have been doing. Almost as soon as we arrived Adam, Rebekah and I ferried over to Scotland for a day of cliff hiking and castle exploration. This was followed by a very lovely Mitchell orientation in Dublin where the 12 of us were able to begin our mutual infatuation that has extended to a theatrical weekend in Belfast, a jazz festival in Cork, a spooky Halloween in Derry, and a massive amount of group e-mails filled with boy band videos and punching jokes. I’ve just returned from a chilly weekend in Poland where I ate a massive amount of perogies and potato cakes. In the coming weeks I’m off to London, Scotland (Again! I can’t get enough of it!) and then home for Christmas. My flatmates were shocked when I was seen walking about the house last weekend since I am rarely in town Friday through Sunday.

My mom and grandma say they are living through me this year as I travel and study abroad, something they have always wanted to do. I am happy to be their ambassador and I am so very grateful to everyone at the US Ireland Alliance for this amazing opportunity.

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