It's funny (and slightly sad) how much we crave the approval of foreign journalists.
The New York Times runs a slightly hyperbolic article on poverty in Dublin – a lone voice in the middle of many glowing travel articles – and there's a chorus of condemnation on this side of the Atlantic. Vanity Fair publishes a lengthy piece on the depth of the recession and we're all nervous about what it will do to tourism figures. And all it took last week was a short paragraph in The Huffington Post in which Temple Bar was called "one of the most disappointing tourist destinations in the world" for us to devote anxious airtime to analysis of our capital's so-called Cultural Quarter.
In this instance, however, most of the response was uniformly in agreement. Residents of the area were drafted in to describe the dystopian nightmare that Temple Bar has become and boy did they ever regret believing Charlie Haughey that this was going to be Ireland's West Bank. With packs of marauding teenagers and bewildered tourists slipping on vomit set against a soundtrack of eardrum-perforating diddly-eye music, the area is indeed an urban hell hole, we were told. Quaint old cafes have been subsumed into chain restaurants. The ESB showroom (a bastion of the old Dublin, apparently) has been replaced with a Tesco. And to top it all off anything with a roof is in danger of being turned into yet another super pub. Commercial concerns have ruled the day and robbed us of a cobblestoned utopia.
Three years ago Owen Hickey, former property director of Temple Bar Properties, told the Irish Times, "The 'mini-bohemia' everyone recognised as worth saving – colourful, edgy, rough-grained and utterly benign – was destroyed by the initiative because grittiness wasn't part of the agenda."
As a result, it was a "total failure".
It's ironic that the same criticisms are routinely made of New York City, where The Huffington Post has its HQ (and indeed Liberty Island in the Big Apple was just a little further down on HuffPo's list of monumental tourist disappointments). The beatnik Manhattan of the Eighties destroyed as mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg turned Times Square and its surrounds into a tacky theme park. The old fleapit cinemas were replaced with M&M Stores, and the whores and junkies made way for walking tours. The city became a playground for millionaires and tourists. Today if you gather around the groups of long-haired hippies playing guitar in Washington Square Park, an armed cop will watch you all quite closely. To some this is progress – you are certainly less likely to get mugged – but others look back, like Lot's wife at Sodom, at the old Manhattan. Like Hickey they wish that grittiness had been on the agenda too.
The problem with Temple Bar is that there are several competing concerns and, as with Manhattan, none of them is really a bulwark against the tide of commerce. From a resident's perspective "rough grained and edgy" is something considered desirable generally only in hindsight. In the here and now they want the graffiti painted over and the drug pushers and beggars moved on. They complain that it's too loud, that it's become a hub for stag and hen parties. But many people will wonder, what did they expect in the heart of the
city? Dublin is renowned as one of the truly raucous party capitals of the world.
Many of those who complain about Temple Bar would like to see it discreetly sanitised of most of its boisterousness. But then it would be too suburban for the artists and too boring for the tourists.
There's a suggestion that the area is not sophisticated enough for some tastes, and the solution would be more artists living and working there. Has anywhere else managed this? In London, Paris, New York, the real artistic hubs are far away from the city centres, where rent prices are too high for most artists. You would expect the same problem in Temple Bar – and indeed several of the flagship arts projects in the quarter didn't last long. But there are still pockets which have survived. The Ark children's theatre is a great resource, as are Smock Alley, the IFI, the live music venues, and the Gallery of Photography. There is art aplenty for those who know where to find it.
And those people are probably not the tourists, who might be the most delicate animals of all in Temple Bar's human ecosystem. They have come to sample the atmosphere – a difficult task, with so many competing agendas – and spend their money. But, like the residents who long for edginess (as long as its clean and silent), they may have ruined it for themselves.
Around 50 per cent of the footfall in Temple Bar comes from overseas visitors. Moving amongst so many other tourists it's little wonder that they complain about lack of authenticity, but the publicans and gift shop owners are hardly to blame. Like some of our formerly quaint towns in the West, Temple Bar has been a victim of its own success.
It could be that it is also a victim of expectations. We want Temple Bar to be all things to all people. Instead perhaps we should just accept it for what it is: the perfect spot for people watching; a grimy, incoherent chameleon that forms the true heart of our capital.