By Jack Holland
There are many ways of introducing a city to a stranger, but introducing it to a native of the place is another matter altogether. The question arises as to why or for what purpose one would want to introduce a city to someone who was born and raised in the place. The paradox, in fact, is not so surprising.
There are things that natives take for granted that appear odd or unusual to the rest of the world. Belfast is replete with those. I’m not talking about the obvious oddities — the product of the Troubles. The army patrols, the sealed-off streets, the constant whirr of helicopters in the sky, the eerie sense of menace in the air. For the most part, those are long gone. Any visitor to the city now would not lay eyes on a British army patrol or hear a helicopter hovering overhead.
What struck this native as he returned to the city of his upbringing after an absence of almost a year were the seagulls. Flocks of them, everywhere you went, great black-backed gulls, squawking, perched on the tops of the old warehouses down by the quays, or gathering in the narrow allies (or entries as they are known in Belfast) around High Street in the city center. If you closed your eyes for a moment you could easily imagine you were on a boat at sea.
Perhaps it was merely because I was staying near the docks, at McCausland’s Hotel on Victoria Street, once the heart of downtown Belfast before the Troubles began and with them the drift away from the city center to the suburbs and the southern area around Queen’s University.
The gulls were a reminder of the obvious — that Belfast is first and foremost a port, a sea-faring city. It was a port long before it became an industrial boom town of the British empire. The industrial Belfast that furnished the ships and ropes and linen that helped arm and clothe an empire turns out to have been a mere phase, one that lasted for slightly more than a century, and that has now past into history. So have the industrial chimney stacks, the smog, the grime, the swarms of cloth-capped working men going home along the gas-lit streets in the evening to the harsh signal of the factory horn that would wake them 12 hours hence. Gone too is the old gasworks, the huge gray cylinder that donminated the cityscape, helping to generate the sulphurous reek of coal fumes that was everywhere. Now the site is being developed, converted into a business "park" that will employ 7,000 people, with a hotel, restaurants, and all the commodities of the new consumer culture that has finally engulfed the "black" North.
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Only the shipyards remain as a reminder of what once was — and they are a mere shadow of the yards that built the Titanic. But now that the Victorian industrial Belfast no longer dominates the landscape, the port that was there from the beginning is suddenly more obvious. It’s here with its gulls to bring you back to the days when, like Dublin, the city was all about trade, buying, selling, shipping.
As the old city center revives, it draws the visitor closer to the Lagan River, along which Belfast grew. The Lagan does not dominate Belfast the way the Liffey does Dublin. The Liffey flows right through the center, its sights and sounds are part of the character of the city. Not so the Lagan. It loops around to the southeast. It divides (like so much else here). Over there, where the shipyards stand, is East Belfast, almost a separate city. The rest is here on the west bank — the main commercial area, south, west and north Belfast. Growing up on this side, one almost never had an occasion to cross the bridge into East Belfast. Its streets are as strange to me as those of an unvisited town in another country.
Now that is changing too. The river is being rediscovered as a Belfast feature and a thoroughfare. As the Victoria Street area is being redeveloped along have come new hotels (like McCausland’s), the Concert Hall, which sits on the east bank, and the Odyssey project, a development that will include a large arena and an ice rink. There is now even a river tour. For £3 sterling — about $4.50 — you can spend an hour on the Lagan. The little boat, called the Joyce (a name more appropriate for the Liffey, one would have thought) leaves Donegall Quay on the hour between 1-4 p.m. It chugs upriver, under all the bridges, passed the old Sirocco manufacturing works, the gasworks, the Ormeau Park, all the way to the Annadale Embankment and Cutter’s Wharf bar and restaurant, before turning.
On the way, thanks to the tour guide, you learn about the continuing demise of industrial Belfast and its transformation into a city of bistros, hotels, and entertainment complexes. The gasworks site redevelopment is well under way. The Sirocco Works is the next to go, he explained, the site on which ventilating systems were manufactured has been sold and instead will host — guess? Yes, hotels, restaurants, apartments.
The River Lagan is not the Grand Canal. But it has proved appealing enough to many people who want to live near it. On the river’s other bank stands several new apartment complexes. The tour guide informs us that a one-bedroom apartment on St. John’s Wharf will cost you £140,000 (about $210,000).
We chug up to the Ormeau Park and the district of small homes called the Holy Land. (Its streets carry names such as Jerusalem Street and Jericho Street.) Less than 10 years ago, you could have bought one of these modest two-bedroom homes for about £20,000 (approximately $30,000). Now they cost over £80,000 pounds (about $120,000).
On we go, under the Ormeau Bridge, scene of the yearly confrontation between Lower Ormeau resdents and the local Orange Order. "The world-renowned Ormeau Bridge," the guide calls it. "Renowned for all the wrong reasons," he adds quickly. However, our attention is caught by a heron taking off from the bank. It soars around the boat. The Lagan, the guide tells us, is making a comeback. So it would seem is the old port of Belfast.