marcus westbury

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Renew Newcastle : from rant to reality

February 9th, 2009 by marcus

It is very rare in your life that you have the opportunity to see something you truly believe in come to fruition. I’m full of ideas, daydreams, and all manner of things that i am prone to crapping on about loudly after a few too many drinks. It is very rare to witness them actually happen.

Right now in my home town of Newcastle seven groups of people have the keys to what would otherwise be seven empty buildings. They are in there cleaning them out, fixing them up and are preparing to open them to the public at the launch of Renew Newcastle on Saturday week.

Soon Newcastle will have a new photography gallery, a sound and media gallery, an animation studio/production house, a shopfront for children’s art and craft classes, an architecture based installation exhibition, an online magazine and design hub, and a shop that will be home to artworks, origami and custom made creatures.

It’s taken quite some time to get here an it is truly one of the most satisfying things that i have ever been involved in. In some ways it has been far easier than i would ever have expected and in others it has involved a level of commitment that i would never have consciously signed up for if i’d stopped to think it through.

Anyone who knows me well knows how much i love Newcastle. It’s not fashionable to come from Newcastle to places like Sydney and Melbourne (i have lived in one or the other for most of the past 10 years) and still express enthusiasm or affection for the place. I think you’re meant to “escape” to the trendy bars and cafes with a certain kind of “thank god i got out of there” cred but i’ve never really been able to do it. It’s not me. I love the place, i love the people and i even still follow the Newcastle Knights with a passion. When given the chance to make a TV series I somehow even managed to construct the entire first episode using the Opera House and Federation Square as little more than a convenient set up to get me back to Newcastle.

Yet for all i love about Newcastle there’s something truly devastating about going back. Returning to Hunter and King streets every few months is like witnessing a time lapse tragedy. Building after building, block after block, street after street are falling empty and slipping into a state of decay. By my count there’s something just short of 150 buildings on the main streets that are sitting in various states between vacated, empty, boarded up, abandoned, and ruined.

It breaks my heart. The timelapse effect that makes it more acute for me. Living locally, it is easy to become desensitised to a slow process of decline. Each day is not different enough from the day before to really notice it gradually falling apart. But when you step away and come back after breaks of a few months the changes are truly confronting.

Yet, in every crisis there is an opportunity. I’m not sure exactly how it happened but somewhere in the middle of last year things started to crystalise. It came less from any grand vision or personal attempt to take on the problem than the fact that a collection of amazing, talented and skilled people started coming to me.

Putting the issue on camera in Not Quite Art and wrting about some of the deeper issues in places such as Griffith REVIEW began to attract and stimulate conversations. It attracted the attention of architects, lawyers, urban planners and business people with the skills and contacts to actually do something about it.

Conversations, discussions and observations gradually untangled some of the specific problems of Newcastle from the obvious generic ones. They revealed specific and local solutions. They clarifyied where some of the opportunities might be found. Ranting after a few too many drinks evolved into serious meetings with serious people. In turn that evolved into actual strategies and plans, tasks and agendas, and ultimately the projects and places and that will open in the next few weeks.

At each step i found myself getting deeper and deeper into it. Before i realised it I was travelling back and forth to Newcastle regularly. I’ve been commuting almost every fortnight – it’s great for my frequent flyer points but lousy for my bank balance. Each time I come back a little more enthused than deflated. Each time feeling that cracking the problem is a little more tangible and that turning Newcastle’s eyesores into opportunities is a little more possible.

Our public meetings filled their venues to capacity. Our Facebook group quickly swelled from a few of my friends to over two thousand people – mostly young Novocastrians. The local media in Newcastle began to follow and promote the project with enthusiasm – for the first time in my life I found myself trying to slow the publicity machine down rather than speed it up. Even those who i had assumed would be the most skeptical: businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, and property owners gradually shifted from wary dialogue to support and ultimately active participation. When the creative community were asked to participate they did so in the hundreds proposing projects, seeking spaces and volunteering to get involved.

Unexpectedlly, the GPT group (one of the largest property owners in the Newcastle CBD) contacted us to ask if we could find people interested in doing projects in any of their temporarily vacant spaces. They have bought much of the land around the Newcastle Mall for a major redevelopment – planned for 2010 – leaving them with a range of buildings that are underutilised while waiting for construction to go ahead. The sheer number of spaces and the timeline they were available allowed us to kick off Renew Newcastle on a scale and at a pace well that i would never have thought possible.

Renew Newcastle – the not for profit company that came from these machinations – has been fortunate. We have been able to cobble together enthusiasm and the bare minimum of resources necessary to stumble to this far. We’ve done it on momentum rather than money. We’ve still got no paid staff and we are yet to receive a cent of funding – although we have good reason to believe it’s on the way.

From government we’ve always had a welcome ear if not much in the way of timely support. We’ve moved too fast. Everyone from elected officials down to junior staff have been supportive but momentum and beuracracy don’t get on very well. Annual deadlines, rigid structures and time consuming processes don’t lend themselves to the kind of nimble, grab the fleeting opportunities approach that Renew Newcastle has followed thus far but the signs are there that the medium term will reward our efforts.

On saturday week 7 empty buildings in Newcastle come back to life again. Over the next few weeks i’ll be back and forth another 3 times (squeezed precariously around my life and my various day jobs) to join the rest of the growing and unlikely Renew Newcastle team with holding information sessions, fixing up spaces, building a free wi-fi network, and searching for ten or twenty more projects for spaces we hope to soon bring back to life.

Two, five or ten years from now Renew Newcastle may or may not prove to be something significant. It may be the start of a renaissance or it may simply be an aside. It may be a turning point or simply a fleeting experment that will hopefully at least fail fruitfully.

Whatever happens from here this personal journey from rant to reality will be pretty hard to beat.

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14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 feargus Feb 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Marcus there are not enough congratualtions that can be given to everyone involved in getting something like this up and running. Enjoy the opening.

    ….perhaps Wollongong could be next???? If u guys come up with a how-to manual, i know some people i could pass it on to.

  • 2 Rachel Hills Feb 9, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    This is awesome, Marcus. Congratulations on making something that will much such a difference a reality.

  • 3 Nicholas Roberts Feb 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    the Transition Towns movement might be a useful model in terms of creating a portable how-to, a teachable group process

    the Transition movement is responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change and grew out of the UK permaculture and peak oil movements

  • 4 Zac Feb 9, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I really like the title of this post: from rant to reality.

    There are tons of interesting people out there, and millions of great ideas. What separates the ordinary from the extraordinary is the ability to actually implement something of this scale.

    The idea is an awesome one. The execution has been very nicely done. But what blows me away is that it’s actually been implemented. It’s live.

    Well done Marcus – a great achievement.

  • 5 alex Feb 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    it’s just bloody great! and bloody inspiring. go you and go everyone involved. can’t wait to hear home it evolves.

  • 6 Katherine Giles Feb 9, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Great news. Congratulations!

  • 7 Rebecca Rushbrook Feb 10, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Those of us who love Newcastle love you Marcus. I can’t wait til the next time I’m home (as it still is to me even though I’ve been gone 7 years) to see what you’ve done.

  • 8 lisa Feb 15, 2009 at 10:44 am

    This is a fantastic project. Hopefully I’ll be able to see some of the outcomes still running when I head up to TINA again in October…

  • 9 Sandy Walsh Feb 20, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    marcus how amazing that an idea and a passion can punctuate and turn around somewhat the stagnant result of “progress and development.”You are to be congratulated to have the courage of your convictions.
    Being a more senior person than yourself,I am so elated that a young person can still make a difference in their world and with wit and enthusiasm.To have courage to change things is so important.
    For the older generation, to have the courage to listen and make way for the new is wise.
    I look forward to seeing you in Gosford .

  • 10 Richard De Martin Feb 24, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Good work on getting the project going Marcus.

    Any ideas on why people are so keen to have a shopfront for their ideas and projects but seemingly reluctant to bring that creative energy into a park for one day of the year?

  • 11 Heidi Douglas Mar 24, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Bloody AWESOME work Marcus. I share you heartache whenever I return to Newcastle… where once the Mall was a bussling, family friendly, beach front social centre, now it is derelict and depressing, some tell me even dangerous. Little Hobart town where I now live is the opposite – the city is always thriving and lively. I have always blamed the rise of the Uber shopping centres in Newcastle for slowly strangling the city.
    Your vision and determination to heal and breathe life back into my old hometown is very much appreciated and respected. Not sure what I can do to help from this southern island…. ?

  • 12 dasher Apr 2, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    11 responses – how many from people live in newcastle region?

    when ever was the mall a “busling family BEACHFRONTsocial centre”?

    you might like to supply some dates to back that up.

    did somebody move the shoreline?

  • 13 Christian Wallace Nov 26, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Newcastle has improved a lot though. I recall back in the early 80s a coal mound on the foreshore park. The place may have been busy but it was dirty and unsophisticated. So much has changed. Sure we have a real problem with empty shops, but there are more people working in down town Newcastle now then there were 10 years ago. Modern office space is in demand as are apartments. Newcastle has so much going for it but we really need a helping hand from the state government. And I think Newcastle has paid her dues.

    Well done guys, keep up the good work.

  • […] Do read Marcus’s account, written a few months ago now, and this update, which outlines the story. It’s chock-full of potential insight for urban projects elsewhere. […]