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Belfast's wasteland begins to bloom

IN one sense, the mood in today's Belfast resembles London in early 1941. Although World War II was far from over, the German blitz on the British capital had stopped. Scattered bombing raids continued, but Londoners had emerged from air-raid shelters and subway stations. The government put a war insurance plan in place, and the city began to rebuild itself. Likewise, the `troubles' still rack Northern Ireland. The terrorist war keeps churning out a grisly sequence of bomb blasts and murders. But the war has become less widespread and more selective. The economic and architectural landscape of Belfast looks less desolate. City-center business has bounced back, night life is again thriving, and people are slowly rebuilding this tough city.

THE story is told of a court case in the Irish Republic in which a man is given the choice of paying a stiff fine or serving six months in jail. ``Have you no family to help?'' asks the judge. ``No, sir'' replies the hapless man. ``I had three brothers, but two of them are dead and the other one lives in Belfast.''

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The image of Belfast as a place synonymous with death is a reflection of international news headlines from this tough, violent city. But there is another side to Belfast - a mixture of warmth, vitality, ingenuity, and enjoyment. An internationally distinguished Dublin actor, the late Michael MacLiammoir, once recalled that ``the people of Belfast are not by any means invariably harsh, pragmatical, cold, bigoted, or rude; nor are the majority of the people of Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, or any of the other of the Northern counties I know.'' American writer Paul Ther-oux noted on his first visit to Northern Ireland, ``I knew at once that Belfast was an awful city. It had a bad face - mouldering buildings, tough-looking people, a visible smell, too many fences. ... It was so awful I wanted to stay.''

That was several years ago. The Belfast of today is brighter and more businesslike. Despite the horrific headlines about the murder of two British soldiers by a funeral mob in March, or the murder of Roman Catholic mourners by a lone bomb-lobbing gunman at the funeral of members of the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army,there is a great deal of normality in the everyday lives of ordinary people here.

``The city is alive and well, despite all we have suffered,'' asserts Belfast's Lord Mayor, Dixie Gilmore, a Protestant businessman and councillor who sees his job as representing all the people of Belfast, Protestants and Catholics. Alderman Gilmore notes that Belfast ``has taken a battering which would have left the people of most other cities on their knees. But the people of Belfast have tremendous resilience and great dedication. I am proud of them.''

Belfast then ... and now IN the early 1970s when the latest spate of ``troubles'' were at their height, Belfast suffered greatly. Terrorist explosions ripped the fabric of buildings and streets. Night life ground toward a halt as fear kept people away from the city center. An aura of doom hung in the air.

Today this has changed. The heart of the city has been refurbished, and night life has been revitalized. Large audiences crowd into cinemas, theaters, and concert halls. There are now queues, street buskers, and a plenitude of good restaurants. In the past five years alone, 184 new restaurants have opened in the city.

Other statistics are equally impressive.

``Take housing,'' says Bill Pinkerton, a senior civil servant with the Belfast Development Office, which handles city redevelopment and promotion. ``Belfast used to have some of the worst housing, which was a legacy from nearly a century ago. A survey in 1979 showed that 25 percent of the housing was in need of major improvement, and 15 percent was unfit for human habitation. In response to this the government provided massive funds for housing.''

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Just under half of the 2.5 billion gross expenditure by the public sector on housing in Northern Ireland since 1981 has been spent in this city. Out of a total of 160 million of public expenditure in Belfast itself on capital projects in 1985-6, 120 million was spent on housing.

As a result, a redevelopment program for 30,000 dwellings - started 20 years ago - is all but complete. Since 1974, the number of unfit houses has been halved. Belfast still has significant numbers of poor houses, and waiting lists are long. But the city now has some of the best examples of urban housing anywhere in Britain.

City-center traders have contributed significantly to the regeneraton of Belfast. During the worst of the troubles, shoppers flocked to suburban stores. But city-center businessmen fought back with imaginative schemes such as the late-night opening of stores and a marketing campaign based on the theme ``Belfast is Buzzing.''

Putting their money where their mouth is BRYAN WALLIKER is campaign director of the Belfast City Centre Partnership, a group comprised of interests from the public and private sectors that have set out to promote the city. ``The Partnership was formed to sell the city as Northern Ireland's shopping and entertainment center. We wished to create a new image of a vibrant city, a good place in which to live and work, relax, shop, be entertained and above all, an excellent place in which to invest for the future.''

Mr. Walliker has put his money - and his life - where his public-relations mouth is. He and his family recently returned to Northern Ireland after 16 years in West Africa.

``I had no reservations about coming back,'' he says. ``The quality of life here is unparalleled compared to the rest of the British Isles, in terms of children's education, housing costs, leisure facilities, and entertainment. I feel safer living here, as a family man, compared to what I read about big American cities like New York. ... I feel much more confident that my children will not be molested and that I will not be mugged.''

Walliker, a soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, says his British expatriate friends in Nigeria ribbed him about returning to his native Northern Ireland: ``They said it was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But that is the usual English attitude to Northern Ireland. ...''

Walliker has the statistics on his side.

In a national survey, published three years ago, Northern Ireland emerged surprisingly as the least criminal area of the United Kingdom. It had only 4,151 recorded crimes per 100,000 population compared with 8,994 in Scotland, 7,317 in England, and 6,279 in Wales.

Pockets of despair ... or challenges? SUCH statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Many crimes committed in impoverished west Belfast go unreported, since many of its Catholic residents feel uneasy about reporting crimes to the local police. The unemployment and deprivation in this part of the city make it a major recruiting ground for Irish Republican paramilitaries.

The current resurgence hardly blinds the people of Belfast to the problems they face, including their historical differences, high unemployment, apparent political deadlock, and intermittent violence on a small - but serious - scale.

The urgent need for redevelopment in west Belfast is underlined by Joe Hendron, a hard-working family physician with a large number of patients in the area. Dr. Hendron, a member of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), also represents west Belfast on the local city council.

A blunt champion of the underdog, Hendron lists some of the factors contributing to the deprivation in west Belfast: ``In some areas, the unemployment is 75 percent. In my opinion, the place is poorer than any other part of the United Kingdom. There are more people in prison than in any other comparable area, more people have died through violence than anywhere else in these islands, and the area has one of the highest coronary death rates in the world. It is almost impossible to obtain precise figures on these matters. But no one has even challenged me about the degree of deprivation, ill-health and stress in the area. ... West Belfast is fast becoming the Soweto of these islands.''

West Belfast includes a minority of Protestants. ``Many outsiders do not realize that Protestants are deprived as well,'' says councillor Hugh Smith, a Protestant from the Progressive Unionist Party. ``A recent survey has shown that unemployment among Protestants is 40-60 percent, that 75 percent of the people [receive] some form of state benefit, and that 60 percent of those who are working are on low incomes.''

But despite these problems, the city has begun to reclaim its sense of community pride. Bill Pinkerton, born and bred in Belfast and proud of it, is not just a dedicated civil servant trying to promote his city. He really believes in Belfast.

``We have our distinct problems,'' he concedes. ``But I have been to cities which have problems we do not face. We have proved that we can make things happen in housing and in the regeneration of the city center.''

Pinkerton admits that there are ``pockets of people and whole areas'' where recent improvements have had little impact. But he see this as a challenge - not a cause for despair.

``The challenge we have is to pull these people in,'' he says. ``Our massive investment in housing and our regeneration of the city center have been important turning points. We now have to try to turn the tide in the deprived areas.''

To this end, a Belfast Action Team has been formed. The team homes in on areas of some 10,000 people. In such areas, it helps young people prepare for job interviews, helps some of them overcome innumeracy and illiteracy, and does what it can to improve their environment.

``All of a sudden we are discovering that `small is beautiful.' There are ... community groups in various parts of the city which are already doing excellent work,'' says Pinkerton.

Hendron concedes that the teams ``are very good.'' But he says they ``are tinkering with the problem. The authorities have had no informed strategy to deal with the problems of west Belfast. But I detect a new will on the part of the British government to do something.''

There is now the possibility of a further and massive injection of funds into west Belfast. Cathal Daly, the local Catholic bishop, recently advocated a ``new deal'' for west Belfast. ``A concerted redevelopment plan for this area will do far more for the ending of violence than any security policy - important though this may be.''

Such talk of development, regeneration, and of community resourcefulness is a long way from the more familiar headlines about bombs and bullets in Belfast.

A pleasant surprise for tourists VISITORS to Belfast are often pleasantly surprised. Most visitors never set foot in west Belfast - just as most tourists in London never venture into Brixton. There is much to attract the tourist in Belfast - from the city's beautiful physical setting in a three-quarter saucer of hills that dips down to the sea, to its abundant artistic and night life centered around the so-called ``Golden Mile.'' This stretches from Queen's University - an elegant early Victorian building with mullioned windows (modeled on Magdalen College in Oxford) - to the Grand Opera House, which is widely regarded in Britain as a masterpiece of late Victorian music-hall design. The Opera House has welcomed many top international artists. At time of writing, it was attracting capacity audiences with a major British theater company's production of ``Evita.''

The city enjoys a vibrant artistic life. Its lively theater offers opportunities to young local playwrights who have something significant to say about the troubles and other contemporary issues. Northern-born international flautist James Galway describes the Ulster Orchestra as one of Britain's best. And each November the Belfast Festival at Queen's University offers a range of artists and events that make it second only to the Edinburgh Festival.

Belfast has also won the hearts of a small, but loyal, group of immigrants.

Take San Wong, for instance. He's a Chinese-born entrepreneur who runs an award-winning restaurant, several take-away food bars, a travel agency, a food market, and a trading company in Belfast's tree-lined southern suburbs. Mr. Wong came to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and has stayed on through all the troubles, even though the Chinese community here dwindled to some 300 people in the '70s.

Wong estimates that the numbers have since climbed back up to 4,000 or 5,000. ``The people here are terrific'' he says. ``They treat colored people better than anywhere else in the British Isles. The food business here is competitive, the standards are high, and people know how to enjoy themsmelves. They work hard, and they are very sharp. This is not flattery, or what the Irish call `blarney.' I have lived here for nearly 20 years and I know these people. In business terms alone, this city has a great future.''

Perhaps the ultimate vote of confidence in the regeneration of Belfast comes from hardheaded businessmen. The rental of a prime store site increased by nearly 500 percent between 1975 and 1987. Prime retail rental values are now broadly comparable to other British cities, such as Cardiff or Norwich. Four of the major British chain-store companies report that their Belfast premises are among the top-ten performers in the whole United Kingdom; three of them are in the top five. Other major national and multinational firms are on the waiting list for store space. A 350,000 square-foot development scheduled for the early 1990s has already achieved a 60 percent lease rate. Another project aims to redevelop the River Lagan, which flows through the city, with up-market housing, a maritime museum, and a business park.

All of this may seem too good to be true. Critics are quick to note that much of the consumer spending is financed by massive subsidies to the province from the British taxpayer. But money alone does not explain the Northern Irishman's drive to make the best of his city.

Second of three articles. Next: the search for a political solution.

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