Books, Cultural Policy
Melbourne: Niche Press, 2015. 192 pp. Paperback
Reviewed by Shane Homan, March 3rd, 2016
The story of Australia’s most famous urban ‘intervention’ that provides a different model and scale of state-cultural industry relationships.
The literature on the ‘creative’ or ‘cultural’ city is now substantial, driven by scholarly interest in how artistic creativity becomes embedded (or not) within cityscapes; and city administrators looking to cultural practices for urban regeneration, competitive advantage, or both. The central theme of this book is “rethinking that balance between professionalisation and participation, between enthusiasm and control, between risk and regulation” (p.11) in how cities and cultural practitioners come to co-exist in mutually beneficial forms. The point of difference from the drier economic/urban studies texts here are the experiences of the author, and his case study.
Two hours north of the foundational capital, and the sixth largest city in Australia, Marcus Westbury concerns himself with how Newcastle can undergo some aspects of transformation from “undernourished sibling” (21) to reveal itself as the quirky intellectual sister of the “supermodel” that is Sydney. While the Cinderella metaphor is stretched to almost breaking point, Westbury realises he has plenty to work with upon returning to Newcastle, with its array of textbook circumstances: the flight of industrial capital and jobs in the 1980s and 90s; the emptying out of Central Business District retail as developers moved with the population out into the satellite suburbs; and a decaying local and state government mindset in keeping with inner city landscapes.
In formulating Renew Newcastle, Westbury is concerned not just with cultural and entertainment activities and sites, but more broadly with any creative endeavour where “they must make what they do” (129). Within this definition, arts and craft makers are as important as local festival organisers; a dress making enterprise as useful as a new local bar. In seeking to introduce a formalised structure where empty shops and other sites could be contracted to such activity, it is a model that hankers for the nostalgia of the post-war manufacturing boom, where your curtains, watch or radio was sourced and sold locally. In my time living in Newcastle in the early 2000s, the David Jones store, situated within the emptying CBD pedestrian mall, was always threatening to close for good. When it did, Renew Newcastle turned the space over to a collection of fashion shops (‘The Emporium’). The major difference with the older model of the high street manufacturer is how Westbury reveals the benefits of online retail – “peertailing” (134) – in finding national and global customers. This is micro-manufacturing with a difference, where social media networks can provide wider opportunities for the boutique artist/entrepreneur. This may be overstated – Westbury doesn’t provide hard data about the levels of churn for different businesses – but it is a crucial point of difference.
Indeed, the book is an interesting counterpoint to governments’ predispositions towards the Grand Statement in the form of cultural precincts or developer-led, large-scale retail. It is a practical answer to the prevailing (Richard) Florida theories so beloved of city leaders in the 1990s and early 2000s, that transformation of the ‘downtown’ depended heavily upon the state luring the ‘creatives’ back to the centre in ways that were less about creativity, and more about the (upward) adjustment of real estate values. Instead, Westbury tells a fascinating tale of the many ways in which state and industry ensured that redevelopment was not on the agenda.
This secondary narrative of the book is equally compelling. The Renew scheme entailed a different kind of lease program that sidestepped the normal obligations of owner-lessee relationships: “it was actually easier to borrow an empty building than it was to cheaply rent one” (109). In convincing the local council and venue owners to turn over properties to the scheme, Westbury and co-founder Marnie Jackson became immersed in governmental inertia. “Understanding the codes” (36) – building, fire, licensing, noise – is often more important than deciphering governments’ broader cultural plans. The Newcastle story fits with other cities’ attempts to provide more flexible licensing and building codes for cultural events (e.g. Edinburgh Council’s revised codes for landmark events such as the Fringe Festival). Sydney City Council’s Creative Spaces and the Built Environment 2015 forum was also an encouraging investigation of the challenges facing small cultural businesses, with compelling evidence that the current approval processes were time-consuming, contradictory and costly. In this sense, the Newcastle story is an old one, where the Building Code of Australia remains hopelessly outdated in literally accommodating contemporary cultural activities. It’s interesting that Renew Newcastle tended to avoid the more complex combinations of culture and site (such as music venues). Westbury does not canvass the other regulatory history for which Newcastle has been recently famous – its problems and solutions in taming late night trading and alcohol consumption – as an important corollary to reshaping the inner city.
This book stands out as one that deals with the daily practicalities of city planning and its cultural forms. Westbury provides a good illustration of someone who saw the myriad of problems and decided that his perceptions of “scale and risk” (38) were very different to longstanding city practice. We have to be careful that the “miracle on Hunter Street” (124) is not overly theorised. While it can’t be read as a primer for all cities (I would argue that city heritage, geographies, histories and politics are all too variable), it is a valuable example of how “people with ideas” (30) drive capital (and not the other way around); and where (sub)cultures of connectivity take priority over glossy branding strategies.