- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

BELFAST The cities of Europe abound in cultural riches: the magic of Paris, the glory of Rome, the glitter of London. But the wonder of Belfast?
Northern Ireland's capital is most often associated with the long sectarian strife of this British province, but city leaders think the time is ripe for people to learn about Belfast's cultural life.
It is bidding to become European Capital of Culture, an annual honor previously bestowed on such continental gems as Paris, Florence and Amsterdam.
In 2008 the title will go to a city in the United Kingdom and Belfast ranks high in the betting among a dozen contenders that include the port of Liverpool, the ancient university town of Oxford and the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
Belfast's bid (see it on the Internet at Belfast City of Culture: www.imaginebelfast2008.com) reflects a renewed civic pride and a desire to forge an identity beyond Northern Ireland's "Troubles," which have killed more than 3,000 people in the last three decades.
Critics say it will take more than an arts festival or two to heal a scarred city still rent by deep divisions.
"No one's saying the bid will wipe the slate clean or wave a magic wand," said Sarah Hughes, spokeswoman for the City Council-backed bid. "We're not being naive. We're looking at the bad as well as the good."
But, she added: "We're trying to challenge preconceived ideas about Belfast."
There is an air of renewal in downtown Belfast, buoyed by the 1998 Good Friday peace accord and the Irish Republican Army cease-fire that lifted the threat of bomb attacks and eased the tight security in the city core.
Decaying Victorian buildings are being converted into spiffy cafes, and new developments are reviving the rundown docklands. Along the River Lagan are the Waterfront Hall arts venue and the $140 million Odyssey complex, which boasts a 7,000-seat sports arena, a children's science center and an IMAX cinema.
Residents say Belfast has changed, become more like a normal city.
"A lot of international bands now include Belfast in their tours," said Tanya Mellotte, a concert promoter and member of the band Go Commando. "And there are a lot more people here who want to have a career in music, who think it is possible. There has always been a scene, but it used to be more insular."
The Capital of Culture city, which will be announced in March 2003, would attract investment for new projects, along with media attention and tourists.
Belfast officials take inspiration from previous title holders. Their city may not have the medieval streets of Bruges, Belgium, or the stunning setting of Stockholm, but it does have a lot in common with the Scottish city of Glasgow, Europe's 1990 city of culture.
Before its year of glory, Glasgow was a declining industrial city known for grim Victorian slums and Catholic-Protestant tension. The Capital of Culture year allowed visitors and Glaswegians to rediscover the city's artistic and architectural heritage, stimulated new businesses and gave the city cachet as a hip travel destination.
Belfast's backers admit they have a long way to go in raising the profile of a city that, apart from the Troubles, is best known as the birthplace of the ill-fated Titanic.
Belfast boasts a rich artistic heritage that includes writer C.S. Lewis and singer Van Morrison among its natives.
But past artists have tended either to move away like Lewis and Morrison or to create work steeped in the pain and turmoil of the Troubles.
A vein of anger and regret runs through work by figures as diverse as the poet Seamus Heaney, a Nobel literature laureate who taught at Queen's University in the city and grappled with its Troubles in his book "North," and the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, which sang about wanting an "Alternative Ulster."
Most of the city's neighborhoods remain divided along religious lines. "Peace walls" are still being constructed to keep warring neighbors apart, and riots are common in the divided north of the city.
"The city center is a much more relaxed place now," said Pauline Hadaway, manager of a photography gallery, Belfast Exposed. "It's a modern city, full of cafes and European-looking bars. But what happens when that neutral center meets the still segregated increasingly segregated neighborhoods?
"Belfast has very specific problems, fundamental problems. Can it use international models to regenerate? I think the city of culture bid is an attempt to do it. I certainly wish them well."
The team behind the city of culture bid says the "passions, paradoxes and creative tensions" between Belfast's Catholic and Protestant communities give the city a unique creative edge.
Commentators say the city's sectarian divide shouldn't be an impediment.
"New York is a violent city, too," wrote Malachi O'Doherty, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph. "Just because you have murder in the streets doesn't mean you can't have soul searching and creativity."


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