A Community Lived Here
There are rules for putting up blue plaques in Belfast: ‘the people they commemorate must have been born over 100 years ago, or must have died 20 years ago. This is in line with the policy of English Heritage, which erects blue plaques in England.’ The plaque put up by the Blackstaff Community Association to ‘commemorate’ the community of Blackstaff and Richview flaunts the rules. It’s not an official plaque, it doesn’t note the place of birth, nor the life of a notable person. Instead it remembers the existence of a community. And sitting at the right-hand end of a simple proclamation from somewhere inside this community, ‘U.D.A.’, it may look like a big blue full stop, but is really more of a question mark.
Billy Dixon of the Community Association is the man behind the idea, and the general small-scale improvement of the local environment – puddles are taken away by levelled and properly drained concrete , the sides of an electricity transformer become the site of a mural. And the mural is on the railway theme which Billy has championed. Billy wants people in the local area to appreciate their ‘community’, to understand that it’s been ‘around for a long time’. In naming the area ‘Blackstaff & Richview’ he’s making his own pitch for a particular time to be remembered – 1863 as the plaque says, when Richview was a big house surrounded by farm land. The concrete, pebble-dashed trees under the plaque suggest that this form of community history is made up of a hankering back to a rural idyll, but one that is compromised already by the urban. The enthusiasm for trains means the same thing; it places this community’s identity at the very moment of transformation from country to city, as the city grows through industrialisation and farmland is swallowed. The notion of the urban ‘village’ is the shadow thrown by Billy Dixon’s dedication to the place where he lives, and the layers of history he sees when noting that the site of Richview House became the Windsor Cinema, which became a warehouse for equipment for the disabled, which is now derelict – a palimpsest of the community which is commemorated here.
This unofficial blue plaque could only ever be unofficial because it records the ordinary, the collective, the everyday; not the individual with a remarkable life or talent. C.S. Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Chaim Herzog (Prime Minster of Israel) and Henry Joy McCraken, amongst others, have their plaques. Communities don’t qualify for remarkable lives. But do they qualify as having ‘died 20 years ago’? A community lived here, may it Rest in Peace. This blue plaque, which might be the gravestone of civic pride, is trying to create memories for the civic future. It functions like a seal of authenticity on the present ‘community’ whose almost forgotten past it commemorates, and so this project is an attempt to read the past in keeping with a current desire to construct a particular Belfast for the future. A future which will be ensured by caressing its past into the shape of today’s post-Peace Process sense of community. Where previously the Troubles were pushed towards an ending by the sternness of political paternalism, or military intervention, or the salve of unsustainable economic development, this kind of cultural localism more subtly reads away the signs of conflict and sectarianism as a kind of surface blemish. The Community Association which put up the plaque do their community a real service. However their act of civic-mindedness is part of a larger process, one which began in the eighties, but reached a moment of revelation when the Downing Street Declaration made a subtle linguistic shift from referring to the North as made up of two ‘traditions’ to a province made up of two ‘communities’.
Since then ‘community’ has become contemporary Northern Ireland’s unimpeachable, unquestionable political unit. Like the family group who appeared silhouetted on the cover of the Good Friday Agreement, the valorisation of community means that it is acceptable to give up on looking outside the organic units which supposedly organise Belfast society – the old orange and green army map of the hostile city becomes a map of the ‘communities’. A community is local. Because it is local it is particular; its identity belongs only to itself and is understood only by itself (while being, it is hoped, respected by others). The state legislates, maybe even occasionally provides for the individual communities within it, but not in their particularity. Such local knowledge is beyond the state’s reach. Communities are ‘respected’ as such, but, as far the state is concerned, what they do is largely their own business. This plaque is then partly borne out of a recognition in the ‘community’ of the strangeness of its own populous to the larger state framework; it is meant, quite rightly, to allow the people in this community to find a place for their alienation and distance from the state. As much as this is an assertion of community self-knowledge and historical pride, this plaque is also a call to bring out your dead community and encourage it to raise itself from the dead.
The subtlety of the political use of communities as a concept in contemporary Northern Ireland is in the idea’s very unarguability, and in the fact that the state cannot know a community within it, while the state is partly made up of communities. Communities may imply a plurality of such self-knowing nodes of interaction, where real people live. There is, though, also an underlying class patronization and nostalgia to the idea – communities are where what used to be called working-class people live, and the implication is that ‘they’ live in ‘tight-knit’ communities (as the querulous phrase goes) – again the urban village. The irony is that in identifying these places as ‘communities’ they become exactly what the plaque tells us; communities that are simultaneously given, from above, the untouchable right to exist, while feeling within themselves that there is a need to be ‘reminded’ of their own right to an existence. So they feel the need to make themselves anew in the face of the state, which is intent on moulding them to its own ideas. The fact that officialdom tells a community of its existence reminds it not of its past but of its near-death and potential non-existence. The blue plaque for ‘Blackstaff & Richview’ is a revolt against the very idea of a blue plaque, a shout that this community did not die, in the horribly significant phrase, ‘20 years ago’ or more. And what’s more, it’ll define itself. Billy Dixon notes how the people of Blackstaff, in the nineteenth century, petitioned for the road over the Blackstaff culvert to be called the Donegall Road rather than Blackstaff Road, because the Blackstaff river had become so putrid and polluted that it was a by-word for filth. In looking back to the cusp of its past, between farmland and railway, the Blackstaff Community Association capture the very uncertainty, the changingness of urban life, the possibility that people may care about their locality and act together without outside instruction, and they set this against a static and essentially nostalgic notion of community which has become the lazy language of state bodies.
The prime usefulness of the notion of ‘community’ to the state after the early nineties was of course the apparent benignity written into the idea, one which means that, if communities accept themselves as communities, they will be self-policing; they’ll do the work the state once found so difficult and expensive, regulating themselves internally, expelling those who were once called anti-social and are now anti-community. And we are left unable to imagine our city’s places as anything other than communities. What other concept could replace ‘community’ now? As the Blackstaff & Richview blue plaque shows, we’re bound into a choice between the big letters and the misplaced blue full stop.