Craigavon: 'The changes are quite remarkable, it's not perfect here, but then nowhere is'
Craigavon has endured mixed fortunes since it became Northern Ireland's original 'new city' in the 1960s. In the week that it was voted the province's most desirable place to live, Ivan Little found a community finally on the up
Standing amid the wasteland of a desolate Craigavon housing estate, it's easy to see why the cynics have dismissed the survey which found that this unlikely spot is in the most desirable place to live in Northern Ireland as a joke. For, at first glance, it really does seem that someone, somewhere is having a laugh.
Not far away, a once-exclusive, but now run-down, block of apartments is hanging onto life by a thread. Half of the complex has been demolished and across the road what was another densely populated housing estate is now a wilderness of weeds.
The houses there were among the hundreds of dream homes that became centre-stage in the nightmare of Craigavon as the fantasy of a new city in the 1960s started to crumble in the 70s.
That's when reality kicked in and a potent cocktail of problems, including finance and the Troubles, sounded the death-knell for Craigavon as it was at first conceived in the more hopeful spirit of a more peaceful age.
But, in spite of the odds and the bad Press, Craigavon has prevailed. Albeit a very different Craigavon from the idyllic, futuristic city that the idealistic planners had envisaged, with its high-speed monorail, its cycle paths and its 200,000 starry-eyed residents. But a Craigavon, nonetheless.
And the surprise about going to Craigavon with preconceived negative notions about the Royal Mail postcode survey which grabbed the headlines this week is that so much positivity abounds among so many people who didn't find the results remotely humorous or unexpected.
Yes, there are derelict and bricked-up houses in what's left of tired and depressing estates. But there are also smart-looking private developments, which have sprung up where the social housing once stood.
And in the ever-expanding centre of Craigavon this week, workmen have been putting the finishing touches to a new multiplex cinema complex and major leisure facilities are also on the way in a place which has for long been the butt of put-downs and cracks about its dizzying merry-go-round of ... roundabouts.
But one undeniable problem with Craigavon is that it is still suffering from an identity crisis. And though Portadown and Lurgan, which were supposedly incorporated into the original new city of the 1960s, are included under the Craigavon banner for local government, there's still a touch of schizophrenia in the ether.
Most people who live in Portadown still say they live in Portadown. And the majority of people who reside in Lurgan still insist they reside in Lurgan.
Even the Royal Mail survey, which said that Craigavon's postcode - BT64 - was the most popular place to live in Northern Ireland, was itself confusing to the uninitiated.
For, in fourth place, it listed Lurgan, BT64, which is supposed to be part of Craigavon. Along with Portadown.
The local UUP mayor, Colin McCusker, said that, as far as he's concerned, Portadown, Lurgan and Craigavon are one and the same.
But there's still a sense that never the twain shall meet between two towns, which have a fierce rivalry which manifests itself most clearly when their football teams, Glenavon and Portadown, lock horns.
But the townsfolk of Lurgan and Portadown are largely united in the commonly shared conviction that Craigavon is the sprawling conurbation that lies between them, especially the busy and successful Rushmere and Highfield commercial centres, which sit off those anything-but-magical roundabouts.
Arriving at the Rushmere centre to do her shopping this week was Patricia Graham, who has lived in Portadown for more than 40 years, but scoffs at the very thought of calling herself a Craigavon woman.
"To me, Craigavon is where the shopping centre is. And besides I think Portadown is the best place to live - not Craigavon," she says.
Ingrid Grimley, however, sees things exactly the same, but in reverse, if you catch my drift. For she's a Lurgan woman who also eschews the notion that she's from Craigavon.
"We don't say we live in Craigavon. We live in Lurgan. And we don't call our most famous building Brownlow House. We call it Lurgan Castle."
Thirteen-year-old Leah McCabrey says: "I always tell people when I meet them that I am from Lurgan, not Craigavon."
Joe Matchett was sceptical about the postcode survey. "But I'm biased. I'm from Banbridge," he says.
"However, I was surprised - to say the least - that Craigavon was number one. I know that, at the start, Craigavon was a place no one wanted to live. And the people who came left in their droves, too."
One woman, who didn't want to distance herself from the Craigavon branding, was Lorna Creighton, from Lurgan, who says: "I thought that the survey's findings were great. Craigavon is coming on well and the housing is lovely now. And people here aren't fighting the way they used to do."
However, she was also critical of the fact that a lot of the 6,000 acres of land which were vested from farmers at £6 an acre in the 1960s were never developed as Craigavon lost its way.
Businessman Lorne Greene - named after the famous 1960s TV actor - welcomed the survey's results and, though he stopped short of calling them a bonanza, he did say they reflected the new feelgood factor in Craigavon.
Mr Greene and his father, Tom, run a convenience store and post office in their Legahory shopping centre, where all but five of the 25 units are occupied.
Lorne says: "I've been here since 1999 and the changes are quite remarkable. It's totally different. It's not perfect, but nowhere is.
"A lot of the old public housing has been knocked down and replaced by good-quality private developments, where there are a lot of professional people moving in, though we definitely need more social housing, too.
"We have all the big shops at Rushmere, but we have the neighbourhood stores like ours as well. We have good schools, libraries and recreational facilities and we also have a leisure centre and a new 50m swimming pool going in down at the Lakes, where there are also great walks and plans for hotels, apparently.
"Everything anyone needs is here. It's all very handy and it's a very good place to live, but one thing which could be improved is public transport."
He adds that many myths and stereotypes about Craigavon are "completely skewed".
"People from outside say Craigavon is a dangerous place to live, but on the ground, it's not like that at all. I think it is fantastic that Craigavon has come so well in the survey," he says.
"It's not a shock for me, but who would have thought that 12 or 13 years ago?"
Another businessman, who didn't want to be named, says: "Things definitely have improved. Craigavon used to have a really bad reputation, when there were a lot of hoods and drug gangs around here, and though there are still shady characters, most of them seem to have moved somewhere else.
"Not so long ago, you wouldn't have dared to walk about the estates, or left your car open."
The businessman said, however, that the closure of the PSNI station in Brownlow had led to uncertainty in the area.
He said business had slowed down in Brownlow over the past couple of years, but he didn't know why.
An Englishman, who also wouldn't give his name, said he had lived in Craigavon since 1983 and he agreed that the climate of fear had largely disappeared.
Lorne Greene's father, Tom, who in the 1970s opened a shop in the once-thriving Tullygally area of Brownlow, says, after the decline of the "old" new city in the 1960s, the latest transformation into the "newer" Craigavon is unbelievable.
He says the demolition of thousands of homes which had been built by Craigavon Development Commission in the early, optimistic days of the so-called "new city" had been a "disaster" - not only for the communities, but also for the shops in the area.
Thousands of people had been lured to Craigavon from all over Northern Ireland, but particularly Belfast by the prospects of a less-troubled lifestyle, the offer of lucrative relocation grants and by well-paid jobs from the major industrial player, the Goodyear Tyre Company, which opened in 1967 and closed completely 16 years later.
Long before that, however, the Development Commission had been wound up in 1973 and direct rule did Craigavon no favours. And neither did design faults with many of the houses. Tom says: "It was the right time to build new homes, but they built the wrong houses."
Widowed pensioner Adeline McMullan, who was born and raised in Lurgan, has lived in Brownlow in the heart of Craigavon for 38 years. And she is happy there, though she initially thought about going back to Lurgan, but her family wouldn't hear tell of the move.
"So we stayed and I'm glad. Where I live is very quiet. The area is very family-oriented and I have six families around me. There are plenty of things for me to do, like pensioners' clubs and I wouldn't miss them," she says.
Mrs McMullan, whose late husband Samuel played a huge role in community development in Craigavon, said the conclusions of the postcode survey were spot-on. "It is a wonderful place to live," she says.
Over recent years, Brownlow has seen more and more foreign families setting up home, underlined by the presence of a mosque in the heart of the district, where there is also a Traveller camp.
The Royal Mail survey was carried out by the Centre for Economic and Business Research and their announcement that Craigavon was the most desirable postcode in Northern Ireland raised eyebrows - particularly in the leafy avenues and parks in south Belfast, including the huge houses in Malone Park which sell for millions.
But sources close to the survey team insisted that size wasn't everything. The calculations for the survey were based on access to good schools, green spaces, employment prospects, affordable housing and average commuting times to work.
Which is where Craigavon apparently scored highly - especially as a number of major companies, including Ulster Carpets, Almac, Irwin's Bakery and Moy Park, were said to have impressive employment opportunities on offer.
The main attractions listed for the area include the Craigavon Lakes, a golf course, Oxford Island reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh and an outdoor artificial ski slope, all of which are located in the central parts of Craigavon between Lurgan and Portadown.
The Mayor of Craigavon said that the two towns have plenty to offer visitors as well, including the historic Brownlow House, Lurgan Park, which is the largest in Ireland after Phoenix Park, and rowing on the River Bann.
Back at the Rushmere shopping centre, Banbridge man Adam Matchett tried to put the whole debate over the Craigavon postcode into perspective, questioning the whole validity of surveys.
"I can remember reading a poll which said that Banbridge was the seventh-happiest place in the UK," he says.
With a smile.
Asylum seekers who made area their home
Thirty-six years ago this month, a humanitarian crisis on the other side of the world led an influx of new residents to Craigavon.
At the centre of this crisis were what became known as the Vietnamese boat people. Crammed into tiny fishing boats, they risked their lives to escape the tyrannical communist regime in their own country.
And some of them ended up seeking asylum in Northern Ireland — and, in particular, Craigavon.
Two of the first to arrive were sisters-in-law Saychan Lau and Amui Lay. Along with nearly 300 others, they had fled Vietnam in a 15-metre-long fishing boat.
They were picked up by a British ship and given refuge in the UK. However, they were advised that there was a shortage of jobs in London so they should head to Northern Ireland, where there was also good housing.
The largest group of Vietnamese people — around 19 families — came to Craigavon.
But, as a recently-opened file in the Public Record Office shows, it was not always easy for them to adapt to their new home.
The Vietnamese also found it very cold here and the food they were used to was hard to find.
But things were soon to take a more sinister turn, as some found themselves the target of attacks.
Amui remembers people breaking into their home and taking their possessions.
It got so bad, that the families felt they had no choice but to go to England.
Many of the families were never to return to Northern Ireland, but Amui and Saychan came back a number of years later and say they are now settled for good. They have even got used to the weather.