Northern Ireland

After the Fire: North Street Arcade ten years on

North Street Arcade prior to the 2004 fire Image copyright Paul Beattie
Image caption North Street Arcade before the 2004 fire

Eagle-eyed observers might have noticed a new mural on a wall in North Street on the edge of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.

A large phoenix, itself a composite of Belfast landmarks, hints at a city being brought back to life.

The bird adorns the façade of the North Street Arcade - a 1930s art deco covered mall that was destroyed by fire a decade ago.

Image copyright Robert JE Simpson
Image caption Phoenix from the flames: A new mural in North Street, Belfast

Whether that revival will integrate any of the former inhabitants of the arcade, an eclectic mix of businesses and arts organisations, is unknown.

On the evening of 17 April 2004 arsonists targeted the arcade, planting a number of incendiary devices within the mall and turning the interior into an inferno.

A number of individuals were questioned, but there has never been any prosecution.

The North Street Arcade lies at the heart of developer Ewart's Royal Exchange Development, an ambitious £360m proposal including new shops, apartments, hotels, cafes and bars in a rundown 11 acre area of Belfast.

Belfast City Council has recently invested almost £250,000 in cosmetic improvements in the area, including financing the new frontage on both ends of the arcade and removing graffiti.

Belfast Jewel

Originally built in 1936 the mall was introduced into a socially deprived area.

A chic space with individual units over three floors, a tiled walkway and glass roof, the arcade was built along a distinctive curving alignment with a central circular space off which ran two arms at near right angles.

The 2004 fire destroyed the floor and glass roof, but the basic structure of the units remains intact.

Deborah Madden ran the Arcadia café in the arcade from 1997 to 2004.

"It was absolutely famous in the 1930s. Almost everyone in Belfast bought their wedding rings from the arcade - my parents bought theirs there," she said.

Image copyright Terri Hooley
Image caption The Godfather of Ulster punk: Terri Hooley

DJ and 'Godfather of Ulster punk' Terri Hooley recalled frequenting the arcade in his childhood.

"There was a health shop in it, and Roley's Art Shop, with it being so near the Art College and Marley's ties, and the shoe menders. I loved going through that arcade, to me it was like Santa's grotto," he said.

"North Street was absolutely fabulous. It looked very bright, very inviting, very busy. When you look at it now, North Street is an absolute disgrace, it looks like a shanty town. That area was alive, it was a great trading area."

On 13 January 1976 an IRA bomb went off prematurely inside the arcade killing two civilians and the two bombers. The arcade fell into some decay. It wasn't until the 1990s that the fortunes began to change as groups of artisans made the space their professional home.

Creative emergence

The Cathedral Quarter had grown rather run-down, and the arcade provided units to let for a very low-cost. Groups of artists started to congregate within the arcade.

Deborah Madden and her husband Mark opened their Arcadia café in 1997 after moving from Canada.

Image copyright Deborah and Mark Madden
Image caption A performance organised by Arcadia café in the central space of the arcade, c 2000

"The arcade always felt like a gateway and I think that's what it really became for a lot of people. It was a gateway to what could be possible in Belfast in terms of developing something as a really interesting cultural quarter," Deborah said.

"There was nowhere for anyone who had an alternative viewpoint on the world to really congregate in. We didn't realise what a haven the café would eventually become."

Arcadia's poetry and live music evenings were augmented with the arrival of Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations record store (under the name Cathedral Records), the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival offices and the experimental Factotum.

The enclosed nature and unique architecture of the space allowed a mixing of diverse groups. It wasn't unusual to walk through the mall and find a musical performance organised by Hooley or the Maddens, a new art exhibition, or film screening (Dawn of the Dead played out in the space once).

A period of mourning

Twenty three businesses were directly affected by the 2004 fire, including arts and film festivals and a variety of small shops.

Image caption An urban explorer captures the abandoned North Street Arcade in 2009

The loss from the fire could have been bigger. The Factotum team was upstairs playing Goldeneye until an hour or so before the fire broke out. Stephen 'Biggy' Bigmore had a band recording in his studio. It wasn't unheard of for staff to work late or even sleep over in the arcade.

Terri Hooley's entire attitude has changed. He says he's less materialistic since the fire destroyed his shop: "We've never really recovered. I had lost master tapes of records (from the Good Vibrations label) that we hadn't put out, we've lost artwork, the history of the label, paintings."

Most of the businesses have resurfaced in one guise or another, with many of the proprietors now based around North Street or Smithfield areas. But many suggest that without the arcade, community development in the area has stalled, with artists and small businesses being priced out of the area.

"There are still pockets of spaces available above the main shop units in the City Centre if you look hard enough. But ground floor units such as those in the arcade are in short supply," Stephen Hackett of Factotum said.

The Cathedral Quarter is a hub of activity and development. At its heart remains the scorched husk of the North Street Arcade. Belfast's arts community may have been burnt out, but they're circling, awaiting a return to the cultural quarter they helped make a success.

The Arts Show takes a look at the history of arts in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. Broadcast 15 May 2014, 10pm, BBC Two NI.

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