29 May 2011

Poetry reading and gentrification

A few days ago I went to a poetry and prose reading hosted by The Hunter Writer’s Centre and Newcastle University.

The reading was part of the launch of This Country Anytime Anywhere, an anthology of new Indigenous writing from the Northern Territory, a book I think is definitely worth reading, particularly the poems by Kevin Dixon.

The event took place at The Lock-Up Cultural Centre, which, I’ve read, was the Newcastle Police Station from 1861 until its closure in 1982.

I had a chance to have a quick look through some of the old cells, which are open to visitors. I think I hadn’t been anywhere like it before. The closest approximation was the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, which connects the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Duke's Castle. However those old cells haven’t been used for centuries and present quite a neutral appearance whereas the ones in the lock-up still show the words that their occupants carved in the walls, which made me feel a bit uneasy.

I like it when a building that was used for a somewhat gloomy purpose is transformed into a place where diametrically opposed activities take place.

I also like it when historic buildings are incorporated into the day-to-day life of cities, not just left to be observed and visited on specific dates. According to the information leaflet about the centre, this is believed to be the only example in NSW that includes the work of three of the state’s important early architects, which makes it a particularly relevant piece of heritage.

Where I grew up we used this 15th century palace as local library:

Although years later the duke that owned it decided he wanted to use part of it for his own private accommodation and the library had to move somewhere else, I’ll always cherish the memories of the times spent there.

It seems that Newcastle Council is doing quite a bit of work to ensure a number of other historic sites, like the Victoria Theatre and the former General Post Office, are brought to life.  Interestingly, it’s putting a fair bit of effort into ensuring Hunter Street, where the Lock-Up is located, and a very central street of the city, gets reinvigorated. It is working with property owners there so that empty front shop areas get used by local artists and community groups until they become commercially viable or are developed.

Walking up Hunter Street when I had just arrived in Newcastle, I was happy and impressed to notice there were a significant number of art galleries in it and this seems to be the reason why.

The council is doing this work as part of a project called Renew Newcastle. The project, they say, was founded to help solve the problem of Newcastle’s empty CBD (Central Business District.) The council’s website goes on to explain that, “while the long term prospects for the redevelopment of Newcastle’s CBD are good, in the meantime many sites are boarded up, falling apart, vandalised or decaying because they are is no short term use for them and no one taking responsibility for them.”
As someone who likes to walk around rather than drive, I think this is a great initiative that can make people feel safer to wander around some areas they may have avoided before.

I wondered if this option of using a central venue of the city with help of the local government would be a privilege of a few but I have managed to find information about how to get involved fairly easily.

The Renew Newcastle project has its own website and this explains that any artist, creative type or community group can propose a project that will bring life and activity back to the Newcastle CBD. I like how they include “creative types” into this, as it may encourage people that are creative but don’t dare call themselves artists to participate.

I think this is a fantastic initiative, at least in principle. A lot of people in Spain and England may find themselves living in areas with few basic services such as post offices or medical centres. This ends up causing some of the same problems that are trying to be avoided here, such as safety concerns and a deterioration of “streetscape” as the council information refers to it.  The council based the Renew Newcastle initiative on a consultation with local people, so this doesn’t seem to be a case of focusing energies on a city centre to please shoppers and tourists while forgetting about other less flashy areas of the city.

The reading at the Lock-Up was very well-attended. Let’s see what happens when businesses want their shops back... but for the moment, this project seems like a good way to support more cultural events and community participation. It also improves the feeling of safety and prevents a deterioration of the city that would later cost a lot of money to repair. Not bad at all.