It’s a journey that could have come out of the lyric book of famous east Belfast son Van Morrison and one that has been made possible thanks to the joined-up thinking of Eastside Partnership.
The people of east Belfast, myself included, can’t fail to have noticed a change in the area during the past 25 years, particularly the past 10 years thanks to the effect of the Connswater Community Greenway, which was officially opened in September 2017.
The £40 million project made possible via a National Lottery Fund Living Landmark Grant created a nine kilometre (5.6 mile) route for walkers and cyclists from the Castlereagh Hills down to Belfast Lough.
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Eastside Partnership chief executive Michele Bryans said: “Our original aim and focus was about improving inequality, disadvantage and deprivation in communities.
“We’ve always tried to do that around social, economic and environmental impact.
“The story of the greenway came much later, the driver of the greenway and C S Lewis Square was about trying to make life better for people in east Belfast, and being a catalyst for further regeneration.
“It was about making this area cleaner, greener, a nicer place to live and encourage people to come and live here, to invest, to open up new shops. I think the project quite quickly has achieved that.”
She added: “People might see the work we do and say, sure what difference does that make. It’s all part of transforming east Belfast in a positive way.
“People are very proud of what we have here, especially older people who have seen the transformation. Younger people not so much because it’s what they grew up with.”
I met Michele in the Jack cafe at C S Lewis Square, and looking out at the well-kept outdoor space dotted with sculptures of the author’s most famous creations, I asked what this particular area used to look like.
She said: “It was a green space but it was extremely under-used, it was a hub for anti-social behaviour. It was seen really as a shortcut.”
Brian, a gentleman who grew up in Hyndford Street close to global music icon Van Morrison, had a knowledge of the area going back further than us both.
He overheard our conversation and helpfully intervened to explain what C S Lewis Square was like many moons ago.
He pointed out that the Connswater River ran in front of the Jack cafe: “Whenever the ropeworks was there and they discharged out of that river it was rotten.
“I can remember the black path which ran where the square is now. Over there (behind the square) was the Gallahers factory – they’re building houses there now. It’s unbelievable the change.”
Discussing the greenway project, Michele said: “Twenty-five years ago the river was just a dumping ground full of debris. As someone from east Belfast the river wasn’t something I really acknowledged.
“When we got the funding to make the project a reality it became much more ambitious, not just about cleaning up the river but putting in a path network to connect communities. It’s brought east Belfast to life, it’s made it a destination.
“It joined up all the places that we want people to visit and explore – Orangefield Park, Victoria Park, C S Lewis Square and all of the new play parks along the way.
“People can cycle to work, kids can go on their scooters to school, older people can use it on their mobility scooters.
“We would describe it as an outdoor community centre or an outdoor youth club.”
Michele continued: “The greenway been a real catalyst for health and wellbeing. There’s an environmental impact as well. What the greenway has done is allowed people to live their life through a greener lens without realising it.”
In terms of health and fitness east Belfast is also reaping the benefits of new leisure facilities at Lisnasharragh and Avoniel.
Michele said: “I think Belfast City Council through GLL made a really good decision in terms of leisure development in Belfast, that each new leisure facility is thematic to encourage people to move across the city. For example Andersonstown has aqua play, Avoniel is a soccer school of excellence.”
Focus on telling stories of local people
“It’s fair to say that while there’s been a real focus on the physical change, we’re a very people-centric organisation,” said Michele Bryans.
The bridges along the Connswater Community Greenway were named following public consultation.
One of the bridges is named after Sam Thompson, who aptly wrote a play called ‘Over The Bridge’ about sectarian division in the shipyards.
James Ellis, who staged Thompson’s controversial play, also has a bridge named after him.
The ‘Z-Cars’ actor was the subject of ‘This Is Your Life’ in 2001.
Michele said: “Storytelling is a big part of what we try to do, bringing the areas to life by telling local stories.
“We want to recognise the inspirational people who came from this area – whether that’s in the recent past or currently.
“C S Lewis Square is a good example of how you can tell a story.
“The work of C S Lewis has been brought to life here and you’ve also got the famous faces mural here celebrating well-known people from the area.
“We’re lucky that we’ve got such a good variety of stories to tell about people in the area – C S Lewis, Van Morrison, George Best. Then you’ve got Eastside Lives telling the less obvious stories.”
Michele said the partnership doesn’t always have to take the lead in transforming the area: “We can be influencing others to get involved, to do good things. The recent George Best mural in Cregagh Estate is a good example.”
The mural at C S Lewis Square and the George Best artwork aren’t the only paintings on gable walls in east Belfast, loyalist murals are also on display in some parts.
Eastside Partnership recognise that people from many different backgrounds live in the area and it is important to be inclusive when trying to introduce changes.
Michele said: “If we involve people that’s where the success comes from. C S Lewis Square is a good example of how we’ve attempted to involve as many people as possible. One of the first events we did there was with a local flute band, it was one of the best things I feel we’ve done.
“It sent a signal that even though we’re transforming this area, it’s for everybody, especially the people that live locally. It is not for us to come into an area and say who can and can’t use it.”
Eastside recently facilitated a concert in the MAC involving Gertrude Star Flute Band, their women’s choir and contemporary musicians including Duke Special.
“It shows how we can give local people a platform to be creative,” said Michele.
‘Some of best parks in city’
Michele, who joined Eastside Partnership as community engagement manager for Connswater Community Greenway seven years ago, has spent most of her career in youth and community development in east Belfast.
Describing her favourite things about her ‘neck of the woods’ she said: “For me east Belfast is home to some of the best parks in the city, it’s great that you can now hop on a Belfast bike and tour them all.
“I love getting outside, during Covid it was great having all these outdoor spaces.
“I like going on the bike down the greenway to the Titanic Quarter. I love the vibe down there, being so close to the water.”
She went on: “We’ve got some really good coffee shops – The Jack, the Cafe at the Museum, Lazy Claire’s, City East. I love meeting up with friends for a coffee.
“There’s great new hospitality venues popping up. There’s a new jazz club at Ballyhackamore – Scott’s Jazz Bar and the Banana Block has newly opened down at Portview.
“There’s some brilliant play parks for the children at Flora Street, Orangefield, Loopland, Stormont.”
Innovation spanning quarter of a century
Over the past 25 years Eastside Partnership has developed and delivered a range of innovative regeneration projects in east Belfast across arts, education, greenways, health, community, heritage and tourism.
The establishment of the annual EastSide Arts Festival, the development of the Connswater Community Greenway and the building of a new GP surgery at Bridges Family Practice are just some of the projects that have made a positive impact on the lives of people in the local community.
With a quarter of a century foundation in place, EastSide Partnership is looking forward to the future and building on key successes through a wide variety of projects.
Chief Executive Michele Bryans acknowledged the roles played by key players like Maurice Kinkaid, Maggie Andrews and Wendy Langham.
She said: “The culture of Eastside Partnership in the past and currently is real commitment for change and a real commitment to people, and being innovative, trying to do things in different ways.”
The partnership is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, and has board members from local council, statutory sector agencies, private sector businesses, and community sector organisations.
Michele said: “We’re really lucky to have a big, strong volunteer team. People are out nearly every day litter picking on the greenway.
“It’s theirs, it’s like people’s gardens almost, an extension of their home.”
She added: “I think the contribution the Eastside Partnership has had in building and developing a creative community is really significant.
“Through the arts festival and other parts of the partnership like Eastside Learning people want to give back.
“We’re always looking at capacity building, and supporting young people, getting them involved.”
Lord Mayor of Belfast, councillor Kate Nicholl, thanked Eastside Partnership for “their commitment and vision in enhancing the east of the city through such significant regeneration projects down the years”.
She added: “All around the EastSide, you can see the mark of this great work from transforming public spaces to providing better services for our community. We look forward to celebrating future projects with them and hope that they continue with their wonderful work for years to come.”
Gavin Robinson, MP for East Belfast, said: “For 10 years as an elected representative, I have been proud to work alongside the partnership as a supporter and director. There is much still to do, and as we embark on our next chapter, I’ve no doubt the partnership’s professionalism and reputation will see it leading the way.”
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