‘Banana Block’ at Portview to bear fruit for tourism in East Belfast
THIS weekend (Saturday October 23) will see the opening of ‘Banana Block’, a new living museum and events space in East Belfast designed to boost tourism in the area and restore a part of Belfast’s heritage that dates back more than 100 years.
As far back as 1911, William Richardson, head gardener to former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Otto Jaffe, successfully cultivated ripe bananas in East Belfast.
Jaffe was also the owner of Strand Spinning Mill on the Newtownards Road, once the largest flax tow spinning mill in the world, and now better known as Portview Trade Centre – home of ‘Banana Block’.
‘Banana Block’ is the first step in transforming Portview into a tourism oasis and a unique hub for innovation, creativity and culture in the heart of East Belfast.
As well as bringing the ‘Belfast Banana’ back to life in its on-site garden display, the building will also act as a museum, events and commercial space and this Saturday (Oct 23), between 10am and 6pm, visitors will, for the first time, be given a unique behind-the-scenes peek inside – with Portview tenants putting on displays of mushroom growing, cheese making and record collecting.
“We can’t wait to finally peel back the doors of ‘Banana Block’ and give visitors a first look inside,” said Portview Trade Centre Chairman Brendan Mackin.
“Foodies should visit the folks at the Lunch Box Café who are experienced in everything from butchering to baking and growing to grilling – while history buffs should explore the What’s The Story gallery space which is filled with displays of artwork, stories and soundscapes, expressing unique perspectives on the past, present and future.”
The Portview concept development, including ‘Banana Block’, is being taken forward by Belfast-based Urban Scale Interventions (USI) and a team of local and international consultants, including existing on-site tenants.
Ralf Alwani, Partner at USI, is looking forward to sampling a home-grown banana beer.
“A must-see is the tropical banana plant-filled greenhouse, which includes an agri-tech living museum and an archive of mill stories,” said Ralf.
“The bananas grown here will provide the key ingredient to a banana beer developed by Portview tenant Boundary Brewing, a co-operative brewery owned by its members and just one of the growing number of artisan producers and creative entrepreneurs who now call Portview their home,” he added.
The ‘Banana Block’ opening celebrations will continue over the Hallowe’en weekend with the Hallowe’en Weekender, which includes an East Bloc Bazaar on Saturday October 30 from 9am to 5pm, a Big Hallowe’en Party for adults on Saturday evening from 10pm to 2am, and a ‘Top Banana’ fancy dress parade on Sunday October 31 from 9am to 5pm.
“We are delighted to announce the opening of the ‘Banana Block’ and help breathe new life into this part of East Belfast,” said USI Head of Programming, Claire Hall.
“We hope everyone comes along to ‘Banana Block’ over the next two weekends and says hello to us – we’re a great bunch!”
‘Banana Block’ has been supported by a development grant from Tourism Northern Ireland and a partnership with National Museums Northern Ireland who have supported heritage interpretation and engagement.
The history of the Portview Trade Centre site dates back to the early 1900s when Sir Otto Jaffe, a prominent Belfast businessman and brickworks owner, was persuaded by local textile machinery manufacturers James Mackie & Sons Ltd to build a Mill on the Newtownards Road. The Mackie family subsequently bought the Mill from him and by the 1930s, Strand Spinning Mill was the largest flax tow spinning mill in the world and a centre of innovation for manufacturing and new technology.
The Mill manufactured bobbins which were later woven into linen in the mills across Belfast, until the outbreak of World War 2 when the loss of European flax supplies led to the Mackies starting to experiment with the processing of viscose fibres which were synthetic.
Working with London-based manufacturer Courtaulds, the Mill pioneered the processing of synthetic fibres in Northern Ireland. In April 1941, the northern end of the building was damaged in the German Blitz bombing of Belfast and never rebuilt leaving an 18-bay block. However, under the continued ownership of the Mackie family, the Mill continued to operate as a successful mill for many years.
The steady decline of the UK textile industry forced the mill to close at the end of 1983. A small group of innovative individuals then sought to reutilise the Mill as a centre for revitalisation and social investment in the people and the communities across Belfast whose story is embedded in the fabric and history of the mill.
As a result, Strand Spinning Mill evolved into Portview Trade Centre with a focus of providing useable workspaces for small businesses. Current tenants include Root & Branch, Boundary Brewing, Thought Collective, Derek Wilson Ceramics, Creative Exchange Artist Studios, Hall McKnight, Lightsource and Lines & Current.
For over 30 years, Portview Trade Centre has sought to conserve and maintain the B2-listed property with all financial gain reinvested into the preservation and operation of the current buildings and site, which consists of four separate blocks dating back to 1911 and still retaining much of their original character and materials.
However, there are some significant structural issues and substantial investment is needed to upkeep the buildings and address how to bring the vacant spaces into use to provide a sustainable future for the whole complex.
Portview has commissioned Urban Scale interventions to develop plans to create an education and industry environment that would ‘simulate curiosity, encourage risk and identify new talent’. The resulting proposals will breathe much-needed new life into the East Belfast community, enabling young people to create their own opportunities and small businesses to grow and flourish – whilst also preserving and celebrating the history, heritage and social ethos of the original mill.
Tourism potential will also be maximised against a backdrop that has, over the past few years, seen developments such as the CS Lewis Square act as a catalyst for regeneration on the Newtownards Road.
The Connswater Greenway route leading through the rear of the Portview site has also strengthened ties to the Titanic Quarter and City Centre and further allows opportunities for Portview’s development.
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