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After decades of decay, a movement in Newcastle brought the town back to life. Now developers and the council have killed it again.
So here I am, in my car at the ungodly hour of 4.30am to drive to Newcastle. I’ve got an overnight bag in the back, because this is going to be good. As you know, I’m a sucker for a positive story these days, and Newcastle is apparently up there. After an earthquake in 1989 and the closing down of its biggest employer, steelworker BHP, the city seemed on its knees at the beginning of the 2000s.
Unemployment was rife, there was no more money and half the town stood derelict and empty. The place was crumbling; vandalism, crime, destruction. Then Marcus Westbury, writer, festival director, television presenter, came up with a plan. It was brilliant in its simplicity, like most good ideas are. This is how the logic went: empty shops and buildings are bad for a city. They are also bad for their owners, who lose money on them. There are people who need space to work in, but can’t afford something cheap enough. Most of them are artists and other makers and creatives. They bring excitement to a town and usually don’t mind doing up a space themselves. What if we tie all those truisms together? We will get the owners of property to “lend” their spaces to people who need them. They will make them look good. As a result, tourists will be attracted to the city once more. That will bring an end to vandalism, minimise crime and inspire others to rent the buildings for proper money. The words win-win came to mind. And that is how Renew Newcastle was born.
And it worked. Westbury’s organisation went to talk to owners of buildings. It offered temporary leases, with 30 days’ notice. Renew would take care of insurance, clean up, do the maintenance. They would be the “custodians” of the space and find the right community groups and creative enterprises to let the place blossom. Within a year, at the end of 2009, there were 40 projects. At the end of 2015 there were 260. 67 commercial leases had been taken on properties that had been “activated” by Renew Newcastle. There was a 26.5% decrease in commercial property crime. The mall had gone from 50% to 90% occupation. Tourism had grown by 25%. Dozens of other places in Australia and the world had adopted at least part of Renew’s strategy. Adelaide got one of its own. And last year, the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle calculated that every dollar invested had brought $14.40 to the town, and that $3 million had been added. So why, do I ask myself when I drive into the city at 9am, does the place look so sad and abandoned? Why is there garbage on the streets? Why are there so many “for lease” signs, and what is it with all those cranes?
“The future is here!” Christopher Saunders tells me, with a lovely dose of anger and sarcasm. Christopher is the new Marcus Westbury, who moved on a few years ago. Saunders set up the shiny exhibition about Renew Newcastle at the library, which is where we are meeting now. It is what you could call incongruous: the story of success against the reality of what is more and more beginning to look like, if not exactly failure, then at least a big temporary setback. Because this is what happened: “The future is here” means that “money’s come to town,” Saunders says. At the end of 2015, Renew was doing so well that the city was buzzing. There was stuff happening everywhere and tourists came in droves. Everybody was happy, especially Newcastle Council and the big property developers, who had done almost nothing to deserve this triumph, but were determined to exploit it anyway. Now the city was attractive again, they smelt money. Why leave the town to all these arty farty hipsters (my words, Christopher is much too polite to be this annoyed) if they could make some real cash? So the property developers started throwing the creative enterprises out and then proceeded to build new, expensive apartments. 700 of them. What could possibly go wrong? Now Newcastle was hip again, people would surely come, right? So now, two years later, occupation at the mall has fallen back to a little over 50%. Renew only administers ten properties at the moment, and 20 projects. Even last year it was 15 properties and 44 projects.
“There is going to be a makers-space that will sell locally-made products. Then the events: comedy nights, concerts, festivals other art projects; rehearsal for bands or theatre groups, and a place where they can work together.”
“People are stargazing,” Saunders thinks. “They look at the cranes and think cash will fall out of the sky soon. Capitalism has taken over once again. Where Renew has failed is to prove that there is value in the creative industries. That they are, in fact, industries, where money can be made. Australia, as we know, hates the arts. It doesn’t understand it, it doesn’t want to understand it, it is scared by it. Our culture revolves around wealth and land. Everything else is a bit suspect. We have tried to turn that idea around and for a while we believed we had succeeded. But now corporate greed reigns again, and local and state governments don’t seem to be able or willing to turn that around. They think the city will rejuvenate by itself now, as long as they keep building and throw out the creatives. To me that is crystal ball thinking. It might or might not work, who knows. In the mean time, we have a city that looks horrible and a whole lot of creative people who have moved out. Council calls Newcastle a ‘destination’, a ‘smart city’. Don’t make me laugh.
“Anyway,” he continues. “Our focus at the moment is on a massive new project. As a part of the council’s own regeneration process, it closed the rail line. Not so smart, we thought, but there you go. Since then, the big terminus station has been standing empty. At the end of last year we submitted a tender to become the custodians of that building and activate it for a period of 18 months. The good news is that we’ve won that tender and that we are now very busy renovating the place. Or at least the ground floor, because we don’t have any money to do all of it up. Council, who in its wisdom has been supporting us with $30,000 a year so far, has chosen this moment to stop doing that. Nevertheless, we are determined to make the building a hub of creativity, education, culture and all manner of other things. We’re creating four platforms: hospitality, mostly temporary pop-ups, because it is a heritage building and fit-outs of restaurants are too expensive for an 18-month period. But it is important, because that gives us an income stream and we now have to be self-sufficient. Secondly, there is going to be a makers-space that will sell locally-made products, and maybe even produce. Then there are the events. Regular, probably weekly, comedy nights, concerts, festivals and other art projects. We will also be able to offer rehearsal space for bands or theatre groups, and a place where they can work together. Number four: there will be an education/innovation component. The University of Newcastle is in the process of moving into town and there are a lot of start-ups that need entry-level offices. Lastly, we’ve got the people’s space, where people can do what they want to do.”
“I want the arts to be a catalyst for change. I want it to challenge people, give them new ideas, excite them. So for me, it is crucial that all of Renew’s projects are outward facing, that they are about the community, not necessarily the individual artist, maker or business. It is about engagement. That is where change comes from. But in the end, of course, it is up to the consumers, to the people themselves. Do they want to buy an apartment in a city where all the shops are either empty or generic? Do they demand makers’ spaces around them, artists, creative industries? Do they turn against made-in-China and opt for something more bespoke and unusual? Time will tell. But if the station fails as well, that will be the end of us. Then we will have to close the doors. That is fine too. It has never been about empire building. We are a temporary solution to a problem. We are a grassroots organisation, driven by the sweat-equity of some individuals and hopefully carried by the community. If that doesn’t work anymore, then so be it. But until that time, we’ll be fighting. This town and its people are worth it. For now.”
For today, though, this is me getting back in my car and driving home. Newcastle at the moment: not the place to be.