“Can we…get through here?”
There’s a lot more to Belfast’s division than the Peace Walls. In addition to the snaking lines of brick, fence and concrete, physical division comes in the form of dual resources that allow people to shop and exercise without leaving the neighborhood, murals and flags that mark territory, and the urban geography itself, which has developed and conformed to the tune of polarization.
Today I did an experiment. I walked out of the city center with a very simple premise. Start in the Falls, take every right turn. If you cross to the Shankill, take every left turn. See where you end up. See if this movement is possible. This map shows the lay of the land, and where photos were taken.
I started my walk on Divis Street. My first right turn took me into Finn Square, a quiet collection of houses on a dead-end cul-de-sac. There were brick walls between the houses, and a full-fledged, 50-foot-high Peace Wall behind that. Strike one.
The second turn took me into the Ardmoulin neighborhood. Same story. The wall ran behind houses and crossed the street in the form of a fence that doesn’t open easily. This fence sits perpendicular to a huge Flour Mill complex. This barrier is just as effective. I had to turn around.
I walked next to the ‘International Wall’ on Divis Street, painted with colorful Republican murals frequently alluding to human rights struggles around the world. (Note the reference to Palestinian hunger striker Khadner Adnan in this photo.) It surrounds the rest of the industrial complex.
Finally, I took a right turn that got me somewhere. I followed Northumberland Street through the gates of a Peace Wall that are open by day. I was surrounded by industrial buildings, and the New Life City Church that straddles the no-man’s land. They were holding a vigil when I passed. I took a left on North Howard Link, and quickly came to a sort of horrifying, fenced-off wasteland between the Protestant neighborhood and the Cupar Way Peace Wall. The Catholic community could really use land like this for housing, but it’s on the wrong side of the wall and Protestants won’t hear of it. So it remains a dump, a buffer zone between the neighborhoods. Broken glass jingled at my feet.
I turned right onto Cupar Way. Tourists came and went.
I turned left on Lanark Way and again passed through massive, heavy gates in a Peace Wall. Back on the Catholic Springfield Road, I continued west.
The next opportunity to turn was at the pedestrian gate on Workman Avenue. I crossed into a small neighborhood and, to my dismay, found there was no way to keep moving west. I was being shuffled sideways, back east through the quiet streets. The way is shut. I could not pass.
Back where I started on Lanark Way, the severity of my discovery hit me. Within the distance I covered, there is no way to pass between the Shankill and Falls neighborhoods that is not through a Peace Wall. Every street access point is cut off, whether it be by “Peace Walls,” industrial zones, the layout of neighborhoods, or a combination of all three. The physical division here is much worse than I realized before doing this walk.
Another observation from today’s walk: whose movement do the Peace Walls restrict? Sure, you can get around this massive interface, as I’ve pointed out before, but you have to go to the city center, or farther into the suburban area, tacking on two miles or more to your trip. No problem in a car, but on foot, skateboard, or by bike, this has a significant impact. The interface here restricts pedestrians, people without a car. People who are too poor to own a car. It’s no secret that interface areas also have higher unemployment rates, incidences of violence, and are overall more resource-deprived than almost anywhere else in Northern Ireland. Dare I suggest an element of class discrimination in this scheme?
And so how do we define “Peace Wall?” If the walls around a Flour Mill have the same dividing function as the official walls, should we count it as a barrier? If there are two “Leisure Centers” within half a mile of each other (as there are in Shankill and Falls), I believe that counts as a structural means of separation, too. Division runs deeper than these walls, it oozes out of every aspect of the urban landscape.