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“nothing short of outstanding” – Renew Newcastle 12 months on

January 21st, 2010 by marcus

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While i was off in Japan honeymooning in December there was a flurry of articles in the Newcastle press celebrating the 12 month anniversary of the Renew Newcastle scheme.

This one actually brought a little tear to my eye, from Amy Delore in the Newcastle Herald:

THIS is a column I was going to write this time last year.

What prompted me then to think about putting words to paper was an incident that occurred about 10am one weekday just before Christmas.

I had ducked out of work for 20 minutes to see my daughter’s kindergarten class have their photograph taken with Santa at David Jones in town. There was, as you can imagine, much squealing and frivolity as the children relayed their Christmas lists to a very patient Mr Claus, smiled and pulled faces at the camera and waved to parents.

Leaving this jolly scene to head back to work, my thoughts were consumed by the deterioration of the Hunter Street Mall. Someone had told me a few days earlier they had counted 20 empty shops and this seemed so unlikely I decided I’d count them myself as I walked to The Herald’s Bolton Street building.

I think I was about three-quarters of the way up the mall and up to about 12 or 13 in my count before an animated discussion about 15 metres ahead diverted my attention. A small group of people were speaking loudly and waving their arms around. At first I thought it was a bit of tomfoolery, until I heard the sickeningly unmistakable thud of a clenched fist meeting a cheekbone.

Alarmed, I looked up to see that a nasty fight had begun between two deadbeats in singlets and bare feet who, despite their rather pathetic physical presence, were throwing fists around with frightening force. To one side, a heavily tattooed woman connected to one or the other of them or perhaps both wailed, although whether it was in protest or encouragement I’m not sure.

There were no security guards in sight and no bystander seemed willing or able to break up the melee. So intimidated was I, that I decided to take refuge inside one of the few open shops.

It was then I remembered the kindergartens were soon to be heading this way after their Santa visit and I was horrified that a group of five- and six-year-olds might encounter this ugly scene.

Fortunately the fight dispersed before they arrived, but the whole incident well and truly ruined my mood for the morning.

I walked back to work fuming. Was it not enough that those who lived and worked around the mall had to put up daily with its parlous decay the depressingly empty shopfronts, the graffiti, the broken windows, the awful buskers and hawkers, the trouble-making loiterers without also having to be confronted by fistfights at 10 in the morning?

It was this new low in the mall’s escalating downward spiral that made me think then about writing a column beseeching somebody to do something about the blight and embarrassment the city’s CBD had become. Could there, I wondered, be a higher priority on the civic agenda than sorting out this mess?

I was going to point out that when I had started working at the top of town in the mid-1980s, it had been a privilege to work in the centre of the city’s bustling business and retail precinct, when there were too many shops to browse in even a week of lunch hours and the mall was abuzz with smartly dressed office workers and day shoppers. I intended to write about how I’d all but stopped going down the mall to buy lunch because walking through it made me feel like an extra in some B-grade movie about the Apocalypse.

I can’t remember why I didn’t get to writing that column but I’m glad now that I didn’t. Glad, because just one year later, there is a much more encouraging column to be written.

Around the same time those two neanderthals were slugging it out in the mall that morning, Marcus Westbury was taking delivery of keys to empty shopfronts in the mall, having convinced property owners in his quiet but purposeful way that leasing their spaces out to artists at peppercorn rents was better for all concerned than having a mall full of shops displaying nothing more than “For Lease” signs in their windows.

I walked down the mall again this week and the change in it since December 2008 is nothing short of outstanding. Some of the small galleries have evolved into viable retail shops, there’s a new tea room, and, in what must be the most encouraging sign of newfound confidence yet, mainstream retailers seem to be rediscovering the precinct. Three new shops all chain stores found in the suburban malls have opened in the past month or so and several existing tenants have shifted to larger premises and updated their shops.

It’s a small step in what is going to be a long haul to bring a semblance of Hunter Street’s past retail glory back to the area, but it’s important to see the slide has not only been arrested but turned around.

So thanks Marcus Westbury and your dedicated team at Renew Newcastle for having a crack, for acting without the motivation of financial or political gain and actually making a difference.

The original story is here.

There was also a fairly indulgent profile piece on me and “the miracle on Hunter street” around the same time.

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