Monday, June 08, 2009

Newcastle's Heritage Problems

It is now several years since my last proper visit to Newcastle. I have been there twice in the last few years, but I was running workshops and just went from the airport to the venue. This means that I am not in a position to properly comment on a story by Debra Jopson in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

For those who do not know Newcastle, the old central city has always been Newcastle's jewel. This is an area of historic buildings, including buildings dating from the City's past as a penal settlement. Now it appears tNewcastle POhat this is under threat.

The photo shows the historic, now vacant and apparently vandalised, Newcastle post office.   

According to the story, Newcastle's centuries-old inner city has about 150 empty buildings. Hunter Street, the main street, presents a parade of boarded shopfronts and vandalised buildings once considered architectural gems. Nearby, the city's shopping mall is in deep decline.

I said that I could not comment properly, but if true the story suggests an unfolding tragedy.

The last time I spent a few full days in Newcastle, I was struck by the apartments along the river, blocking out the water. I was also struck by the decline in the CBD. Things seem to have got worse.

Poor Newcastle. In 1967 we lost the New England New State plebiscite on your vote when you obeyed the directives of the then Sydney ALP Government and voted no. I understand the deep tribal and class loyalties within Newcastle, the reasons why you followed orders even though it was against your own economic interests.

I take absolutely no pleasure in your problems. Newcastle is New England's big city, one of the keys to the history of Northern New South Wales. I was very young when I first visited Newcastle, and I loved it. It was so different.

Since then I have watched Newcastle's growing emasculation.

It's not all bad. In pure life-style terms, Newcastle still offers one of, if not the greatest, combinations in the country. Dare I say it?, possibly even better than Armidale! I stand to be corrected, South Australians might challenge me, but to my mind there is no other place in Australia that offers such a combination of city and country. Newcastle also has a vibrant cultural life.

So, as I said, its not all bad. Still, if Debra Jopson's story is in any way correct, there is a fair bit of work involved in re-building central Newcastle.


Greg said...

It is nearly one year since this blog was posted so this reply is hardly timely. Yet in the months since, the decline of the CBD of Newcastle is showing no sign of being reversed.

Newcastle is indeed one of the great jewels. It has a stunning mix of architecture from convict to early colonial through Edwardian, art deco to modern - all nestled in between a stunning coast line and a busy working port. Newcastle people are fiercely proud and parochial about their town.

Sadly neglect has been the case for some years. The 1989 earthquake, the 2007 Pasha storm, a cash strapped council and an indifferent state government which has systematically bled the Hunter of mining royalties while returning little, have all played their part. It is hard to believe that the CBD of a metropolis of 540,000 people could come to this while being at the centre of a mining and export boom.

Newcastle has very little in common with Sydney and has a very distinct character and identity of it's own. Yet even though it is the natural gateway to New England, the city has rarely looked too far past it's Hunter hinterland.

Perhaps the time has come at last to change this perspective. The city was duped into voting NO to New England secession in 1967 and consequently a great opportunity was missed.

It is vital not only for Newcastle but also for New England that the decline of the Newcastle CBD be reversed and that the city take it's place as the jewel of the New England crown. It is hard to see where the required leadership will come from under NSW which has become even more Sydney centric, if that is possible.

The issue of northern secession is being talked about again and this time it may be Newcastle which leads the push.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, I love Newcastle's distinct character and have written about it. It is indeed one of New England's jewels. Newcastle and the Hunter more broadly needs it's own strategy to sell the place. Part of New England, yet distinct, a place in its own right.

Greg said...

Jim, there is resentment in Newcastle that it has come to this. It has driven a large wedge between Sydney and the Hunter. Newcastle always felt different from Sydney, now it feels estranged as well as, dare I say, "dudded".

If this is how the state's second city and economic powerhouse is treated by the capital then I can only assume that the other cities and towns of the north fare little better. I have heard that there is a school of thought in the Northern Rivers that they would be better off campaigning to be included with Queensland instead.

All this confirms the depth of feeling that is running throughout the north against the Sydney centric government in Macquarie Street. The challenge will be to harness that and create a genuine sense of "New England" as more than just some vague, ill defined region in the north of the state, but rather a community of regions with shared history and common purpose.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi again Greg. I think that your idea of a community of regions is a very good one. I will use it in a post that also picks up your other points.

Greg said...

Good news on this story about the Newcastle Post Office. The state has bought it so this magnificent building is now again in public hands.

Now the debate is what the state should do with it. Some suggestions are a court house, an emporium, or simply government offices. Personally I think that it would make a fine parliament building for the New England 7th state. Might be a tad cosy - but it certainly looks the part.