With a community of artists, retailers, and restaurateurs helping to shed its industrial image, this former Australian steel town is gritty no more
By Carrie Hutchinson
Photographs by Chris Chen
Thursday lunchtime. It’s a sunny day, and the crisp white linens covering the sidewalk tables at Restaurant Mason flutter in the breeze. Smartly dressed businesswomen are sipping glasses of white wine —Sémillon from the nearby Hunter Valley, no doubt—and enjoying the last days of the Australian summer. People fill the benches at neighboring cafés, some wearing board shorts, their hair still damp from a swim at the beach.
“This is a new thing,” says freelance copywriter Siobhan Curran, who moved to Newcastle from Sydney with her locally born husband a little over two years ago. Her blog, The Novocastrian Files, chronicles all things “Newie.” “You’d never see people walking along Hunter Street a couple of years back. A lunchtime peak-hour crowd here might have been a dozen people if you were lucky.”
Which is surprising, really, considering that Hunter Street is the main drag of New South Wales’ second-largest metropolitan area, just a two-hour drive north of Sydney. Back in 1975, it even featured in Bob Hudson’s “The Newcastle Song,” a novelty hit with which most Australians of a certain age are well acquainted. But recent history hasn’t been particularly kind to Newcastle. In 1989, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake rocked the city, causing several billion dollars in damage. Natural disaster was closely followed by economic recession, a crushing blow to a community reliant on heavy industry. Steel giant BHP, the area’s biggest employer, closed its doors in 1999. Inner-city businesses shuttered or moved to suburban malls, and Hunter Street became a veritable ghost town.
It took one brilliant idea to turn things around. In 2008, local writer and broadcaster Marcus Westbury launched a nonprofit program called Renew Newcastle, with the aim of bringing life back to the deserted city center. The approach was simple: Renew Newcastle would “borrow” storefront spaces from vacant buildings—anything disused or awaiting redevelopment—and fill them, rent free, with artists’ studios, creative businesses, and community projects. The new occupants would maintain the property until such a time as the owners could find paying tenants to move in. Everyone benefited, and the program has flourished. At the moment, there are spaces on loan to outfits like Little Papercup, a shop that sells paper goods and illustrations; Make Space, which stocks pieces by local fashion designers and jewelers; and the aptly named Odditorium, a basement emporium and gallery where photographer Naomi Saunders showcases her taste for unusual collectibles. The increased foot traffic from both people working downtown and those visiting the new shops has meant other businesses have moved in. Slowly but surely, the pulse along Hunter Street and its surrounds has grown stronger.