‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ TS Eliot
There are three answers to the question (often asked) ‘yes, but what do is your actual job?’ The first, the most honest, is that I’m a social artist. The second, for people who wear suits, is that I’m a consultant. The third, the most secret, is that I’m an explorer.
I’ve been to dozens of towns and cities across Great Britain, discovering insane buildings in Leeds and unusual history in Coventry; I have spent a few short days in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, places that let DIY culture get under the paving slabs; I’ve wandered through an Italian village that was like Portmeirion without the rain. The furthest I’ve been in my exploring, though, was my recent visit to Newcastle in New South Wales to take part in the Creating Spaces conference.
It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out about Renew Newcastle and the work of Marcus Westbury and his team.
Newcastle is a post-industrial town, that just a few years ago had a seriously hollowed-out city centre. Hunter Street was full of empty shops, and other buildings were emptying out too. But that changed, and by 2011, Newcastle was on the Lonely Planet Guide’s top ten list. And 106 Renew Newcastle projects later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a problem that needed fixing.
Newcastle’s city centre (the Central Business District or CBD) is long and thin, a familiar enough layout for anyone from an English seaside town. This city centre is of course off-centre, the geography skewed by the harbourside to the north and the beaches to the south. Hunter Street is the spine, stretching parallel to the harbour.
At Newcastle East is the headland of the harbour, stunning beaches, magnificent sunrises, old warehouses turned into holiday apartments and an Art Deco sea bathing pool. Near this end of town is the Hunter Mall, the main shopping area of Hunter Street. This is where Renew Newcastle has had the biggest impact.
It’s an area of beautiful heritage buildings, glorious Art Deco facades against deep green trees and impossibly blue skies. Buildings are grand, and proud, and show that Newcastle was a rich, industrial city. Think Leeds or Manchester, but with brighter skies and clearer air. The ghosts of old businesses are everywhere; plaques mark banks that have traded for 100 years, shop names are found in ghost signs, and there are more significant enterprises who carved their name in stone. There are ghosts too, of the failure of salvation by brick; the skeletal remains of an ambitious, million-dollar scheme to encourage a street market to appear.
There’s also an impressive amount of street art. Vibrant murals, quirky quotes like Facebook inspirational memes gone real world, and creative flyposters are sprinkled along the Hunter Street spine. The best are the works curated by Street Art Walking’s Simone Sheridan, and they add colour and draw you up side streets as you walk.
But Hunter Mall doesn’t have many empty shops, though. Not now. These have been replaced, first with temporary projects brought in by Renew Newcastle, but then by other businesses.
Projects like Make Space, a collective of female makers who fit the shop around family, and vintage photobooth hire company Strip of a Lifetime, and roller derby stickermaker NataLickIt are finding new uses for old spaces. They’re pioneers, opening up the city for the entrepreneurs that always follow.
And follow they have, here like anywhere else in the world. Newcastle is starting to get its share of cool cafes and hipster coffee shops. A national chain tried to move in, piggybacking on the creativity, but was ignored. People stuck to the independents and the chain closed and left town.
And perhaps more importantly – Renew Newcastle graduates, having tried and tested in temporary premises, are now going full-time and filling spaces.
Renew Newcastle has a good track record of encouraging start-ups, with workspaces like The Bank of Ideas and Studio Melt, studios like Shannon Hartigan Images, and beautiful, quirky shops like Alie Jane as living testament, but that’s not its aim. Renew Newcastle set out to achieve the activation of empty buildings, maintaining them and improving the look of the city centre while that post-industrial future is worked out.
The real achievement though is discovering that post-industrial future as part of the process. Newcastle is now a vibrant, creative city, where artist-makers, graphic designers, illustrators and software developers alike are making new products for export to a global market. And at the same time, improving the place where they live and make it an attractive destination for a worldwide audience who like architecture, and heritage, and creativity, and culture, and good cafes. And the great beaches don’t hurt, either.