North Street Arcade neglect highlights Tribeca failure and memories of a forgotten Belfast - Anne Hailes

North Street Arcade has been in ruin since 2004, but was once a bustling gem

The former of North Street Arcade. Picture by Hugh Russell.
North Street Arcade has been left derelict since 2004 (Hugh Russell)

They promised a new destination for Belfast, bringing together a new way of working, living and shopping in the heart of the city centre. The all-singing, all-dancing ads proclaimed: “Tribeca Belfast is a new area focused on bringing together the old, the young, the brave and the curious.”

Now we hear the total debt accrued by the owner of the Tribeca properties reached almost £110 million last year, accounts published by Companies House suggest.

North Street Arcade is in the centre of the plan, which reimagines the elegant thoroughfare which robbed so many of their livelihood when it burnt down in 2004. Five years beforehand I’d taken a walk down the Arcade. Here’s how I recorded this gem of Belfast’s history...

Looking Back

This is a pre-war Art Deco arcade in the shape of a dog’s hind leg, linking Donegall Street with North Street. It was fascinating for anyone who cared to wander through. People avoided the arcade because there was limited shopping but since the security gates were removed it has begun to pick up the pieces. “We were killed by the gates,” is the common cry, “but now we’re a happening place.”

High, wide and handsome, it’s bright by day with tall walls and glass ceiling, a sweep of old style shops with big square windows and narrow doorways, green marble and bronze trimmings. In one shop window sit a row of young women all waiting for the tattooist.

According to Skull, who runs Belfast City Skinworks, when one woman reporter came to interview him she had a little body decoration applied as they talked. No-one would tell me who it was - or where the tattoo was added...

Even as we chatted, a young man came in asking to be taken on as an apprentice: “Such is the interest I’ve an artist from Australia and one from America working in the studio today.”

Like tattooing, shoemaking is an art form which goes back many years: “We’ve been making shoes since 1910 and I remember being pushed in my pram to the shop when it was round the corner at Lord Donegall’s 18th century townhouse before it was pulled down to make the park round the College of Art,” says Patrick McKernan.

“This is my family,” he says, indicating portraits which adorn the wall. “My great grandfather, my grandfather, he made shoes for the Duchess of York in 1925 she’s now the Queen Mother, my father and that’s me.”

The North Street Arcade remains in a derelict condition after a fire in 2004. Picture by Mal McCann
The North Street Arcade remains in a derelict condition after a fire in 2004 (Mal McCann)
Reflecting The Past

There’s a huge mirror, the original office desk and a banquette for taking the weight off your feet if you’re waiting for a repair. Behind the counter is the wonderful clutter of the cobbler, the benches and machines, the long-armed patching Singer sewing machine for riding boots and the short armed machine for shoes.

“We’re exclusively gents,” Patrick tells me with pride, “and no two are the same because they are exclusive, made to measure, all leather and costing about £160 a pair.”

The Arcade houses some very interesting people. Hoffman’s wig studio has helped many face life after serious illness when their hair has thinned and I know one personality who can live a private life thanks to a beautiful wig which changed her hair from raven’s wing to baby blonde most successfully.

Next door is Alma McClean in Studio 16, a hairdresser who has worked in the Arcade for the last 28 years. Across the way is Anita Greg who left the Greenwich craft market in London to come and see Northern Ireland for herself.

“I was cutting through from North Street to Donegall Street in my hiking boots and rucksack when I came on this empty shop and I felt the hairs on my arms stand up in excitement. I just knew I would open a shop right there - and I did.”

Anita is small and dark and vivacious and seems entirely happy with her corner shop which is a little craft village all on its own: “There was an uncanny feeling of energy although I didn’t know soul.”

Now she’s the centrepiece, sitting on the floor painting plaster fruits and animals, surrounded by rich velvet cloaks and cloche hats to match, colourful scarves, jewellery, Buddhas, a veritable Aladdin’s cave and she’s as happy as the day is long.

She’s full of talk about the poetry reading the night before in Arcadia, Mark and Debbie Madden’s bright and busy cafe. There are clothes shops and galleries and a mystical shop called Labyrinth where you can have a tarot card reading or buy a book on things spiritual. It’s run by Robert who held a major management job at the shipyard before he listened to the still small voice which urged a time for change.

Where are they all in 2024? The Arcade lies in ruins, just a memory these days, but what a beautiful memory to share.