marcus westbury

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Broken Newcastle Map

April 8th, 2008 by marcus

Following on from previous frustrations, I returned to Newcastle on the weekend.

Returning to Newcastle after any length of time away, the startling thing is just how badly shattered the CBD has actually become. When you live in Newcastle it is easy to become almost blind to the fact that the majority of the two main streets are broken, boarded up, vandalised, empty, derelict and abandoned. You assume that it is normal and inevitable until occasionally some one with fresh eyes sees it and reminds you to look again. Decades of continuing decline has meant that people have become almost oblivious to it.

I spent the weekend doing a little bit of footwork for some future projects that I’m thinking about (more about that below). I walked a loop of the main streets of Newcastle (Hunter and King Streets) and took notes and photos of the buildings that were empty at street level.

The results marked up using Google Maps below paint a devastating picture of the true state of one of Australia’s largest cities.

View Larger Map

The map is best viewed in a larger format (click through and you can view it in google earth or switch to see it as an aerial overlay). The pink line is the route followed and the red buildings are ones that are empty or mostly empty at ground level. Orange buildings are ones where the ground floor may be used but there are significant vacancies on upper floors, green buildings are ones that appear active from street level and unmarked ones are ones where my notes aren’t too clear or i couldn’t quite figure it out. The map should be roughly accurate (hey you get what you pay for and i am sure someone has done a study at some stage that produced a lot less and cost a lot more!).

It paints a picture of a city gone to seed.

Try as i might to be generous to all concerned, i can’t see it as anything less than a perfect storm of economic decline, political paralysis and incompetence, unconscionable commercial self interest, insane over-regulation and decades of widely distributed neglect.

Anyone who saw the first episode of Not Quite Art (which is still available to download from the ABC TV web site) may have twigged that i am fairly passionate and frustrated about the untapped potential to bring some life back to Newcastle’s broken CBD through the use of low-cost creative strategies. In the series I went to Glasgow – a comparable industrial city – to find and show some examples of how cities can be a catalyst for quality cultural activities by growing them rather than building them.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JimmyDanger Apr 8, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    All the retail attention – and growing outer population – is being drawn to the shopping centres outside of town. They have some truly massive “Westfields” and “MegaMarts”.

    Hopefully the growing inner-city accommodation developments bring some much needed “density” to the inner-city population – and contribute to the cultural life of the city. More cool boutiques, bars, and venues – more people within walking distance to enjoy them. Well that’s the plan I guess.

    Marcus – if there’s someone to implement a successful cultural rejuvenation into (what will hopefully become) the resident driven rebirth of the centre of Newcastle – that’d be you.

    As someone else who loves this city – I’m touched by your passion for Newcastle and continued interest in arresting its’ urban decline.

    Have you considered a “side” career in Urban planning?

  • 2 admin Apr 9, 2008 at 7:35 am


    I am not convinced that the density thing as is currently being practised is proving a hugely successful solution. In part because the density isn’t so much IN the city as ON the city. The new apartment buildings are essentially vertical gated communities full of people who drive in and drive out and look down on the empty street scape below. For me the challenge is trying to make something of that street scape – to generate activity.

    As for the side career, a lot of my gigs seem to be going way. I am doing a lot of speaking and writing on urban planning and culture issues so it is turning into about as much as a career as anything else i’ve got going on.

  • 3 Nicholas Roberts Apr 9, 2008 at 9:58 am

    you might be insterested in this New York City Streets Renaissance project. They also have an interesting and useful, project-oriented open social software system.

  • 4 jacinta Apr 9, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I remember traipsing around the top of town in the late 90s with you one night doing a whole lot of stuff in closed up shop windows for some art project you had got up off the floor. Always hoped you’d come back and do more. I’m so keen to move back to Newcastle however there are no jobs up there which makes it hard to keep anyone but those on the dole.

  • 5 Richard De Martin Apr 9, 2008 at 11:19 am

    Hello children of the coal!!!!!!!!

    As someone who has observed our beloved post-industrial urban scrap-heap for too many years without taking a leading hand in proceedings I now find myself shackled to our only remaining semblance of community cultural engagement and it “ain’t getting any prettier on the ground” let me tell ya. Despite my best efforts to drag this thing up again by trying to get key organizations on side, for the most part they offer plenty and then retreat back into protecting their patch of corn from the vultures.

    Should I give in is the question! I feel like I’m startin’ to sweat blood and I don’t have frequent flyers at the blood bank.

    Don’t get me wrong, the winds of change are upon us, as long as the old hacks lie down in their graves sooner rather than later.
    I turned up to the 20/20 conference at the Uni and the panel on Arts and Urban Renewal contained a heady mix of the problem and the solution, including Steffan Lehman who is a world renowned planning expert who calls Newie home these days and the new head of the Conservatorium who wants to put the musos back on the streets where they can breathe life into the old girl.

    There is a future people, but what it calls for in essence is the return of you shadowy figures in exile to man the barricades and lead the revolution.

    I don’t want to turn out to be just another Joycean figure in the “Great Newie Brain Drain” or is that the “Black Gold Diaspora”, condemned to expressing strange longings for my homeland in every syllable and echo of my days.



  • 6 Nicholas Roberts Apr 9, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Richard, I here you. I’ve spent 20+ years in Newcastle, and I’ve never been so poor, so happy, so creative, so stoned and so un or under employed in my life. A creative industries renaissance in Newcastle has to compete for resources against a semi-retired super annuated super-class, negative gearing landlords, foreshore -based x-Sydney telecommuting corporate campus, rich fee-paying Australian and international students and sea changing x-Sydney folks looking for a Newcastle lifestyle. Even many of the new apartment complexes lack tenants. And those that do move in often leave pretty quickly because of the schizoid inner-city life. Dangerous drunken and crazed nighlife, dead weekend day street life, a business district drifting to to the foreshore or the suburbs, and an elderly landowning elite that want the place to become the biggest, best value, retirement village on the east coast. Anyone who’s been to Clifton in Bristol could see the same patterns. Post industrial contradictions. In my view, bars and galleries are not enough, you need real jobs with real pay to simply afford to live in town. Social, worker and producer cooperatives anyone ? Not grant taking associations, but money making worker, producer, housing and marketing cooperatives. its the only way to organise and compete against a disfunctional system that privatises profits and socialises costs. Btw, buy a T-Shirt !

  • 7 Nicholas Roberts Apr 9, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    fixed links

  • 8 John McCann Apr 29, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Marcus – I’ve started to map out some of Newcastle’s Empty Buildings here:

    If you have any photos you want to add, or any other places of interest then please do so!

    I think in general, every empty building should be bought and demolished, to make it easier for redevelopment (you could even leave a bit of space for parks). The only thing that will bring life to the middle of the city, and Hunter street is an abundance of mixed residential / commercial buildings – i.e. flats on top of shops. Think Zetland (Victoria Park in Sydney).

    Most other solutions, will take too long, are too expensive.

    Below, Nick says; many of the new apartment complexes lack tenants. – These are mostly apartments for sale. Not for lease. There’s a rental crisis in Newcastle, which is predicted by many to get worse.

    For buildings that can’t be demolished – for example, those that are heritage listed, or in the mall – the council/state government should buy them, recondition them, improve security, provide free internet services and lease them out to emerging businesses as 5 year business grants. Subsidised rent could help local businesses (which would include galleries, and bars) get off the ground, and it wouldn’t cost a great deal. Would be worth doing as a trial anyway….

  • 9 brendan May 5, 2008 at 12:09 am

    Every time a venture of some cultural merit attempts to rehabilitate a space it goes to shit. because all of a sudden someone realises that they’re not making money The Arthouse, the Palais, the Railway Shed (a case where an indefinite caretaker’s lease had been approved and was then mysteriously ‘vanished’).

    How can one address blind stubborness and greed?

    I love Newcastle but the place shits me. Incredibly gifted and driven people I know have been so demoralised by their valiant but vain efforts to change the culture there I wonder if its even worth it – whether the best answer is to let the place rot, then move in later and snap up what we can where we can and try and own the damn thing ourselves.

    A little bitter, maybe, and no real solution offered, but vested interest rules my home town with an iron fist and the little guys still end up squabbling amongst themselves over scraps.