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<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

Newcastle Harbour at dawn.

Psst, On The Qt, Newie’s A Must-See

When Newcastle made it to the The Lonely Planet Guide’s must-see top 10 global destination list last year, many were shocked. Not in Newcastle, however, where they wondered why it hadn’t happened sooner.

At the Civic Theatre in downtown Newcastle, north of Sydney, several weeks ago, legendary British wit John Cleese was describing the seaside town of his birth to a packed house. So dull and inconsiderable was Weston-super-Mare, according to the Monty Python elder, that when German bombs rained down one night during World War II, a bemused population wondered which building in town could possibly have been worth more than a single German bomb.

There's a certain parallel in this harsh appraisal with Newcastle's own reputation for seaside stultification. Long a byword for industrial pollution, spirit-numbing working-class urban blight and, how could we forget, a pugilistic pub life, the city was an industrial wasteland of exhausted coal pits and filthy factories, besieging a forlorn harbour and straddling a Pacific coastline vandalised by open-cut mining. Man set amok on nature. In June 1942, as bombs were shredding Cleese's home town, a Japanese sub surfaced offshore and loosed off a salvo at the giant BHP steelworks that had been vomiting clouds of food-chain-lacing metals into Newcastle's biosphere since 1915.

A byword for industrial pollution, spirit-numbing working-class urban blight and, how could we forget, a pugilistic pub life.

As Cleese might see it, had the Japanese bombs struck home, they could have saved Newcastle something of her already shabby reputation. But like so much about the town, they missed their target. The only strike of any consequence was the Art Deco baths, a glancing blow that fortunately saved the most beautifully appointed sea baths on Australia's coastline. According to Michael Ostwald, a Novocastrian and head of Newcastle University's department of architecture, Newcastle is a town of "hit-and-miss," a tale of two cities, much loved by her inhabitants, much misunderstood by everyone else, now re-invigorated as Australia's primary coal feed to China and, according to Lonely Planet, edgy, and brimful of "X Factor". Number Nine indeed.

THE CHAMPS-Élysées of Newcastle is Hunter Street, made notorious by the sardonic 1970s Bob Hudson hitThe Newcastle Song which mocked the rev-head mating rites of locals. In 1895, insulted by the insistence of a sniffy provincial club that he should wear a tie during his lecture, the American humourist Mark Twain responded with a poisoned-quill description of the town. It was "a very long street with, at one end, a cemetery with no bodies in it and, at the other, a gentlemen's club with no gentlemen in it." Twain's cutting pen portrait also caught a whiff of the inherent extremes of a town of wealthy mining magnates, and stoic working-class families.

Newcastle today is a much more bourgeois affair, very different from even a decade ago. At the art deco Bank Corner cafe on Hunter Street, a refreshing procession of nouveau Novocastrians hog the outdoor bistro tables, and gobble the Viennese pastries. They're enjoying coffee made by Tony Gluck, an Austrian who re-invigorated coffee-kulcha in Newcastle with the 1992 opening of Goldberg's cafe. Highly paid soccer players, apprentice entrepreneurs, digital artists, Ecuadorian sailors, jazz musicians, and toughened miners are a refreshing pastiche of modern Newcastle life moving beyond old fierce pride in its working-class roots.

<p>Ralph Snowball photograph courtesy of the Norm Barney Collection,<br />University of Newcastle (Australia).</p>

Ralph Snowball photograph courtesy of the Norm Barney Collection,
University of Newcastle (Australia).

Dockside, Hunter Valley coal, 1906

"Newie," as the locals call it, is Australia's second-oldest settlement. From 1797, particularly incorrigible convicts were sent to Newcastle as punishment, where they began chipping away at the visible coal seams than ran along the cliff tops like strokes of black tar. It was hard work done by stubborn men. Today, the shifting beach tides reveal rusted mine truck carriages and rails poking from the sands like mammalian skeletons. World War I saw Newcastle's conversion from coal city to Steel City, a reputation that lingers despite the closure of the steelworks in 1999. When the smog lifted two decades ago, people noticed again a beautiful coastline of white sands and pristine rock pools. The harbour is now so clean that small wooden prawning boats trawl between coal ships and pods of feasting dolphins and seals.

The Bank Corner's proprietor says that he disliked Newcastle when he first arrived in 1989, for all the right reasons. "It was filthy," says Gluck. "It was the place you planned to avoid as you headed north from Sydney. Depending on how the wind blew, you got different shades of grime covering your windows. It stank of beer. But I love this place now." So he continues to invest in Newcastle, and he eulogizes the "huge potential" in a port town where coal exports from the Hunter Valley are set to double in the next two years from today's approximately 100 million tonnes annual output. "Art studios, young designers, musos… there's so much potential here," says Gluck again with a sigh.

The Champs-Élysées of Newcastle is Hunter Street, made notorious by the sardonic 1970s Bob Hudson hit The Newcastle Song which mocked the rev-head mating rites of locals.

Despite portents of ruin, Newcastle barely noticed the final belch from the big Australian's smokestack. Newcastle University, opened in 1965, with its world-class medical faculty, and the John Hunter Hospital, were already well on their way to their current roles as the city's most important employers. The 1989 earthquake, either cushioned or worsened by the honeycomb of abandoned mines below, had ruined parts of the town. A building boom followed, and land prices tripled in the new millennium. The old girl was being made over, despite the working man's heart beating in her breast and the seam of citizens stranded in narcotic despair by rapid change. Debutante Newcastle is now a fixture on the cruise ship circuit. The neighbouring Hunter Valley has boomed as wine lovers heaven, positioning Newcastle as a gateway to the grapes.

From the eastern promontory of this peninsula town, Hunter Street runs about three and a half kilometres inland, following the contours of the harbour, a drive that is a kind of tour of the city's transition. Like a set of carelessly maintained teeth, Newcastle is both a town of startling decay and glowing, gummy health. At Nobby's beach, tucked between Fort Scratchley and a Victorian-era lighthouse, surfers and water sports enthusiasts cavort where pods of dolphins regularly break the sea surface against a backdrop of sometime four dozen China-bound coal ships strung along the horizon. Surfing is intrinsic to Newie life - former world surfing champion Mark Richards keeps a surf shop on Hunter - and citizens set their work rhythms around the swell. Newcastle has become a pin-up city for the Aussie lifestyle.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

Newcastle Harbour at dawn.

The middle of Hunter Street, where Cleese played at the Civic Theatre, is a patchwork of small businesses. But a failed attempt to attract big corporate investment a few years back has left the city centre somewhat adrift. Empty department stores loom over artisanal coffee shops, and haute cuisine eateries share alleys with tastefully tasteless tattoo parlours. In 1979, in a drunken protest against the closure of the notorious Star Hotel (referenced in a famous song by Cold Chisel) a crowd of 4,000 patrons - seamen, transsexuals, and citizenry - pelted police with beer cans and barbequeued police cars. The blackened and boarded-up hulk of the Star now sits forgotten opposite a brothel catering to Oriental tastes. An elegant boutique on a hillside street sells funky Vespas and chic leathers that might have draped Audrey Hepburn, a nod to the city's tension between starlet yearnings for sophistication set against a history of tough love.

At the western end, where Gluck's cafe sits like a grotto mined from the side of an Art Deco bank building, Hunter comes hard up against a confusion of modern harbourside apartment blocks, tattered warehouses, railway crossings, car yards, drug-addict clinics - and, oh, yes, more brothels. The promisingly named West End is humming, but nobody is quite sure of the tune. The artist Matthew Percival, son and stepson respectively of famous Australian painters John Perceval and Sidney Nolan, hogs a corner of the cafe. He grimaces when asked about Newcastle, and talks wistfully of his Paris studio, but Perceval has been painting here for 30 years, a reluctant Novocastrian perhaps, but a convert and loyal "blow-in" nevertheless, an aged totem of a surging young art scene, a grassroots urban renewal movement , and a thriving musical culture.

The harbour is now so clean that small wooden prawning boats trawl between coal ships and pods of feasting dolphins and seals.

Ask any local, and Newcastle is all about "potential", but according to Michael Ostwald, "if Lonely Planet comes back here in 10 years' time, I guarantee people will still be talking about potential." He points to the recent addition of the "Palais de KFC", reputedly the southern hemisphere's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, to the West End streetscape as, "not a good sign". Perhaps its garish facade seems a little slap-dash in a city serious about civic pride. But pub talk about potential has much to do with Newcastle's bite-sized location, its laissez-faire ethos, and the fact that whether in good times or bad, azure skies or smog, pragmatic Novocastrians have always adored a Newie that might be anything one aspired to.

WHEN THE 75,000 metric-tonne Pasha Bulker coal ship slammed onto Newcastle's Nobby's Beach five years ago - an event that most other towns might regard as an environmental catastrophe - delighted Novocastrians flocked to savour the sight.

Newcastle seems vaguely beached, stuck between an obsolete reputation for squalor built on the backs of a stoic working class, and a beckoning future promised by Australia’s coal-fired addiction to Chinese prosperity.

Photographers created portraits of the beautiful, beached hulk. Songs were written and recorded (Pasha Bulker:Where Did I Go Wrong?). There was a minor tourist boom for the three weeks that the ship remained grounded. A street was officially re-named Pasha Bulker Way. The fate of the Pasha says much about today's Newcastle. Stripped of its steelworks, Newcastle seems vaguely beached, stuck between an obsolete reputation for squalor and a beckoning future promised by Australia's coal-fired addiction to Chinese prosperity.

Another facet in this tale of two cities is well-illustrated by a local burglary last year. In the dead of night, a ne'er-do-well 17-year-old (Newcastle sustains its fair share of them) crept into the house of a parvenu billionaire mining magnate. In the course of nicking a few electronic trinkets, the feckless teen judged the black Ferrari parked in the driveway promising too. Happily, the keys were lying around. After a self-described "rally-bash,"  the half-million dollar bling-mobile was reduced via a box of matches to a lump of charred goo, and left in nearby Medowie State Forest. Mere bog-ordinary delinquency, or inarticulate statement of resentment at stratospheric wealth?

Once the locus for a serious state separatist movement that sought to hive off New England from New South Wales, Newcastle is now content to bask in its emergent prosperity.

Whatever, the fact that the juvenile could slip into the big man's house says a lot about the easy-going living that characterises today's town. But beyond that, the car belonged to Nathan Tinkler, Australia's youngest Ozigarch, owner of the town's two great soccer and rugby league clubs, a fledgling mogul hatched by the China coal boom, with a mansion nesting on a cliff top overlooking a gorgeous stretch of downtown coastline. It's not for nothing that Novocastrians refer to their city as Tinkle Town. There's a lot of hope invested in a young "blow-in" - Tinkler was born in Inverell, in northwest NSW - who has adopted bite-sized Newie as his own.

Patrick Troy, an ANU professor of urban planning who has written on Newcastle, says that whether Tinkler will stick to sporting baubles, or make a lasting impression on Newcastle, remains to be seen. "The 19th century gold barons made huge civic contributions, and Victorian towns are full of those legacies in the form of beautiful buildings," says Troy. "But Newcastle's mining magnates don't have the same visionary record. Tinkler's young, so unlike [Clive] Palmer or [Gina] Reinhart, he may evolve."

But Nathan's the kind of guy Novocastrians approve of, even if he is - like me - an unfortunate blow-in. An electrician before he became ridiculously rich, Tinkler's "done a lot for this town," says Chris Visscher, the skipper of the tugboat Wickham. In the dawn light over the harbour, the rest of his crew nod and cite the billionaire's investment in sporting clubs and racehorses. "He also does a lot for the town on the quiet, I'm told," Visscher whispers, as he nudges a coal ship down the harbour channel.

His shipmates Andy and Wes, who spend their days herding coal ships from the horizon queue to dock and back, are emblems of Newcastle's good life, earning big money within the confines of small town life. While the skipper Chris globe-trots in his down time, engineer Andy climbs the hill that dominates the town to Christ Cathedral, once temple for town toffs alone, and listens to the rarified delights of his private school educated daughter playing Bach on the church's pipe organ. X Factor all around.

WHILE Sydneysiders with long memories still determinedly plan their vacations to skirt the carbuncle they remember as Steel City, many are now stopping to buy in to a lifestyle no longer so readily available in the expensive and congested metropolis 130 kilometres to the south. A swim at Merewether's sea pool - the largest in the southern hemisphere and a slice of Bondi Beach in better days - turns up a suite of Sydneysiders who have relocated here "for the lifestyle". Great coffee, perfect swell, kindly locals (I will not forget the headmaster of the Merewether beach primary school and his four strapping sons who helped me move in), affordable real estate, no traffic and, like a true decorator's delight, lots of potential. What's not to like?

So, do Novocastrians look covetously the other way at the bright lights and bare-breasted flash of Sydney? No way. Not only did Lonely Planet finally cotton on, and recognise Newcastle as one of the world's great travel destinations, but last year Newcastle jettisoned its barnacled loyalty to the state Australian Labor Party for just the second time in 84 years and voted Liberal. Things are changing. Once a locus for a serious state separatist movement that sought to hive off New England from New South Wales, Newcastle is content to bask in its emergent prosperity. Ask your average Novocastrian about the town's ninth place on Lonely Planet's global rankings, they'll wink conspiratorially, lower their voices, and ask you to, "keep it to yourself". Too many blow-ins already.

5 comments on this story
by Adam

It looks like the US spellchecker needs to be turned off on your sub-editor's machine.

This story is 'vandalized' by the EN-US grammar :)

Otherwise, I love what you're all doing. Keep it up

March 20, 2012 @ 7:59pm
by Trevor

As an ex-pat Kiwi I have lived in the Newie region for the last 25yrs and it is the simple egalitarian attitude of the locals that make this place what it is. I LOVE IT!. And as you said in your last sentence, "don't tell anyone".

As for this website. Top marks!!. Keep up the great work . Cheers

March 22, 2012 @ 4:38pm
Show previous 2 comments
by Matthew Perceval

Good story on Newcastle- just for your records it's not Michael Perceval
but Matthew Perceval
Kind regards -might see you at the
Bank Corner Cafe

March 23, 2012 @ 7:51pm
by skepdad

A tremendous, if somewhat rosy-eyed, article about a wonderful city.

Having left Newie over twenty years ago, the underlying character of the place has changed little since. On each of my regular visits home, Hunter Street is a little more derelict, the suburbs are a little more vibrant, but the coastal strip retains every bit of the small beach town vibe it had in the '80s; when we would walk en masse to the beach for school sport. It's the same vibe that attracts people to Caloundra over Surfers, or Gosford over Bondi.

It's easy to miss the grandeur of the harbour. It has none of Sydney's glittering beauty, but it is a fascinating industrial beehive if you sit and watch it. The Honeysuckle precinct has revitalised the Foreshore and is a promising sign of what could be done with the entire "CBD" if only they removed the barely used rail line that cuts the city in half.

Newie is indeed bathed in potential. Reinventing Hunter St and the CBD must be the first step.

March 26, 2012 @ 2:27pm
by Rob

This story was repeated in the Newcastle Herald and many Novocastrians are asking why because most of the fact came from one person reasonably new to Newcastle over a coffee. It might seem like a lot of work went into the article but as an untrained person I would have done better. Most of the nuance of Newcastle and Novocastrians is missing.

March 27, 2012 @ 5:10pm
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