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Rebuilding Belfast

In central Belfast heaps of brick line the street, slabs of concrete rise from the ground, and gaping pits belch clouds of dust. The effect is unsettling, as if at any moment the pavement might give way. But the disorder, in a city made famous by decades of IRA bombings, speaks of a very different—and welcome—sort of explosion. The steel skeletons looming over Adelaide Street merely suggest what the signs at ground level proclaim: the arrival of luxury housing such as MARGARITA PLAZA—PRESTIGIOUS APARTMENTS IN THE HEART OF BELFAST.

"Ten years ago, nobody wanted to live here," says Eric Nonacs. Nonacs currently works in New York for Cooperation Ireland, a nonprofit organization that promotes exchange between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He has been involved with the peace process in one capacity or another since 1994 and has agreed to show me around. This is only my second trip here, but the progress made in little more than a year is remarkable. Everywhere we go, walls are being painted, tiles replaced, wood buffed to a high gloss.

EVEN SIX YEARS AGO, THE CENTER OF BELFAST WAS A GHOST TOWN AFTER-HOURS. Buildings sat unused, pubs were largely empty, and shops closed down in the afternoon. But now, even though the occasional military-style Royal Ulster Constabulary vehicle trolls the street, Belfast feels like any other city with a normal, thriving street life. (Avoid the height of Marching Season in July, when Protestants parade through Catholic neighborhoods in commemoration of their victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Predictably, there are often confrontations.) In the wake of the cease-fires that began in '94, an increase in international private investment and government funding has made Belfast something of a boomtown—no pun intended.

"In 1994, after the IRA and Loyalist cease-fires, people were still quite wary," Nonacs tells me. "But the political progress during the intervening period—despite the current impasse—has created a palpable sense of renewal and even tentative hope. You can see that in the scores of new bars and shops, restaurants and hotels."

Belfast is such a small city (about 450,000) that just a single new place—a juice bar, a hip body-care emporium, a foodie restaurant can spark a transformation. Most of these are clustered in three neighborhoods: the city center, which radiates from Donegall Square, with its Edwardian city hall; the University area; and the Laganside waterfront. But in a way, much of what is new in Belfast is still old, since renovation is an architectural specialty. The Spires Mall, for instance, is built in the shell of an old Gothic church and houses a Diesel outpost, a home-design store called Coppermoon, and a small bookshop. Just down the block is the Europa, the most frequently bombed hotel in Europe, which despite various efforts at rebuilding or perhaps because of them is something of an eyesore, with a concrete rotunda slapped on the front of a Soviet-style gray-and-teal tower.

Deane's, with a Michelin star, is probably the best restaurant in Belfast, and one of the anchors of this area's revitalization. Here, chef-owner Michael Deane, who doesn't like to be called a fusion chef, serves dishes that nonetheless fuse Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors with Irish cuisine.

YET THE NEW BELFAST RESTS UNEASILY IN THE SHADOW OF THE OLD, most dramatically at the waterfront, five years ago the jagged edge of a divided city and now a testament to a cautious optimism. On one side of the Lagan River are restaurants and home improvement stores and a Hilton; just across, the yellow cranes of Harland & Wolff, which built the Titanic, punch up toward the sky. The two inverted L's are hulking reminders of an industry that is now itself something of a sinking ship.

Peter McKittrick, in his late twenties, is an earnest, upwardly mobile sort who spent time abroad before returning home to work first at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and now at the American Consulate. He predicts that, if the peace holds, within the next 10 years this area will rival Temple Bar, Dublin's cluster of stylish restaurants, bars, and hotels. "People feel safe going out," McKittrick says. "When I was eighteen, a pub was either Protestant or Catholic, but now people are going to pubs and socializing together."

One example of the type of place McKittrick is talking about is McHugh's. Carved out of an old brothel and an even older pub, it's one of several establishments owned by Jas Mooney, who, at 36, has become a kind of one-man urban-renewal juggernaut. Raised a Catholic on the Malone Road—"probably the more salubrious end of Belfast," he says, meaning one that didn't see much violence—Mooney is typical of the new entrepreneurs, and among the most successful. Well-traveled from an early age, he seems determined to help Belfast pull itself into a more cosmopolitan, secular, and decidedly European future. Beginning with the Botanic Inn, a pub that had been in his family for years, Mooney bought and renovated a succession of bars and hotels, including the Fly, Madison's Hotel, and the Rotterdam, in the University area and the Laganside, and he has two more in the works.

All of Mooney's bars are ragingly popular; come Saturday night, there are throngs of the young, affluent, and thirsty outside McHugh's vying to get in. But his first pub is still, in some ways, the best. Like a glowing, decadent temple, the Botanic Inn stands high on a crest of the Malone Road near Queen's University. Our friend Mark says the Bot, as it is fondly called, is his favorite bar because he always runs into people he knows. But it's also a good place to go if you want to feel instantly intimate with 200 strangers.

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