- What Does an Architect Do?
- Find an Architect
- Check the Register
- Top Tips from Architects
- Useful Questions Before you Start
- Working with an Older Building
- Working with your Town and Neighbourhood
- Ask a Question
- Work with an Architect: Commercial
- Work with an Architect: Your Home
- Why your Architect must be Registered
- Raising a Concern
- Professional Conduct Committee
- Misuse of Title
(Re)imagining the women-centred streets of Sailortown
Mrs Grey and Mrs Coogan in the 1970s. Source: Sailortown Belfast (2020) [Facebook] 9 June 2012. [Accessed 2 February 2020]Mrs Grey and Mrs Coogan in the 1970s. Source: Sailortown Belfast (2020) [Facebook] 9 June 2012. [Accessed 2 February 2020]
Belfast’s Sailortown was decimated by the building of the Belfast Urban Motorway in 1967. Residents were displaced and rehoused across Greater Belfast, rendering the once lively neighbourhood a barren stretch of land in the shadows of a concrete highway. Old photographs and stories from locals remain to be some of the only ways in which the vibrant street life of Sailortown can be appreciated and re-imagined.
There is a real community desire that Sailortown’s unique history be remembered under the pressure of increased redevelopment. Images of the past can tell the stories of everyday life beyond accepted history, evoking memories that would otherwise be lost. Analysing photographs from an urbanist and ethnographic view develops a deeper appreciation of the value of these images in preserving precise moments of time, what they mean to those who took them, those who are in them, and those who reflect on them in the future.
In the nineteenth century, Belfast’s waterfront was home to a thriving maritime and manufacturing economy which led to the building of housing for workers in the areas around the docks, which became home to generations of families. In Sailortown there were contrasting roles between men and women and the parts they played in society. Belfast’s maritime history is widely celebrated, with numerous murals and memorials honouring the two-thousand men who worked in the shipyard and contributed so greatly to the city’s social and economic development. This however is notwithstanding that fact that while fathers were at sea, working in the docks or drinking in the pubs, it was the mothers who stayed at home and raised the children. Consequently, during the day the cobbled streets became ‘woman-centered’ (Moran, 2012, p. 167) and filled with children playing.
The streets of Sailortown were aligned with distinctive rows of overcrowded brick terraces ‘tightly pressed together’ (McAughtry, 1974) within the urban fabric of warehouses, factories, and mills which employed many Sailortown women. With work and home within close proximity, much life took place in, around, and between the streets which were both ‘a place of diversion, and also the playground of the poor’ (McKibbin, 1998, p. 186).
A female gaze
Old photographs from the time tell the forgotten stories of the women and children who called Sailortown home. When studying photographs taken in a portrait style, Rose (2010) writes that some feminist critics have negative opinions on the concept of domestic photography, viewing traditional family photographs as being oppressive to women. From the introduction of the ‘point and click’ camera, women were the targeted consumers, becoming the composers and keepers of family albums, with the camera used as a ‘means of expression and creativity’ (Hanna, 2014, p. 104). In this way, historical domestic photographs give an insight into the unspoken experience of women at the time, framing moments of their life and illustrating what life was like through their gaze. This is important as the stories of the women of Sailortown are not widely valued, despite the role they had in establishing the vibrant community which came to define Sailortown’s character.
Community street life
While considering the fact that family photographs tend to capture scripted, happy times, street photography provides another view, showing what life was like beyond the front door of the home. Many of these photographs of the streets focus more on ‘children at play than deprivation or slum housing’ (Moran, 2012, p. 168) which tend to be captured concurrently. These moments give indications of the daily life of the people in them, showing characters in their place, akin to Jane Jacob’s explanation of the ‘intricate side-walk ballet’ (1961, p. 50).
Jacobs’ theory that the presence of ‘eyes upon the street’ (1961, p. 35) through a system of natural community surveillance allows the street to become a safe place is relevant in the case of Sailortown. Private life spilled into the street with ‘housewives "donkey-stoning" their front steps’ while children played on the pavement. These ‘silent, visual rituals’ (Moran, 2012, p. 167) lead to the frequent presence of people on the street. Sailortown was a safe area with ‘households where the doors were never closed, and one was always made welcome’ (Smyth, 1990, p. 2). Ravetz (2001), Kynaston (2009) and Moran (2012) also argue that working-class streets acted as ‘a model of neighbourliness and community’ (Moran, 2012, p. 167) across post-war Britain. Photographs of the street become a visual spectacle of “the humour and the fatalism of those trapped possibly by choice, in the small tribal liaisons of the back and side streets’ (Henderson, 1978, p. 55) around which the family-orientated community grew.
The Belfast Urban Motorway (BUM)
In the 1960s, as plans for the motorway were developed, industry in Sailortown went into decline. Arguably the standard of working-class housing had deteriorated over time, but Sailortown residents maintained their fight to save their neighbourhood. Many women who worked tirelessly in the mills lead the protests. Amin and Thrift (2002) defined this as the ‘tyranny of the address’, where ‘you become where you live’ (2002, p. 45). Despite continued protest, the campaigns opposing the motorway were ineffective against the powers of the local authority.
The value of re-imagining the street
The importance of the past in Sailortown is emphasised with historical photographs displayed across the district, examples of ‘perceptual memories that mediate the present moment’ (Degen and Rose, 2012, p. 1). With little built environment remaining, photographs are some of the only visual reminders of Sailortown’s history. Currently, it is of significance to re-imagine Sailortown as a place that after forty years will yet again become blighted by further motorway infrastructure with the planned York Street Interchange. Comparable to the incentive which propelled past residents to protest the motorway, today local groups campaign to retain memories of the past and conserve what is left of Sailortown’s history.
Appreciating and preserving the stories and memories of Sailortown is critical to prevent the loss of this lesser-known part of Belfast’s history. What was lost cannot be recreated, but analysing photographs while considering the memories and stories from the past can provide an understanding of the richness of Sailortown’s community street life which was ultimately formed by the women who called the streets home. When stories can be forgotten, photographs remain as frozen moments in time. Displaying informal histories, these photographs frame the street life of the past and can feed the imagination of the street of the future.
Juliette Moore is a postgraduate architecture student at Queen’s University Belfast, currently in the final semester of her M.Arch. Juliette is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Graduate Research Assistant at the school.