Dan Thompson from the Empty Shops Network is convinced that the high street is making a comeback. “People are returning to the corner store” he recently told an audience at a Renew Australia conference in Newcastle, a city where only four years ago you could count the main street lunch crowd on one hand.
The broken main street, a ubiquitous feature of the modern city, has been fifty years in the making and cannot be easily remedied with investment alone. Hunter Street, once Newcastle’s premier shopping destination, began haemorrhaging retail not long after the city’s tram network was dismantled in 1950. Around this time, an increasingly car dependent city began to rely more on their suburban malls and by the time that Newcastle’s heavy industry began shutting down much of the inner-city building stock had become rundown and obsolete.
This is a familiar story that has played out across the Western world for decades, the effects and severity of which remains contingent on a city’s geography and demographics. Detroit, the cradle and coffin of the modern world, remains the downtown horror story. Managing decline since the end of World War Two, over twenty percent of the Motor City’s CBD remained vacant last year. Other cities like Pittsburgh, however, have lured back linchpin tenants using public subsidies with varying degrees of success.
But the Newcastle story is different to most. Unlike other Western cities, Newcastle’s central business district has found itself on the eastern fringe of its own metropolitan area. Established at the mouth of the Hunter River in 1804, Newcastle is the nation’s second-oldest city but it did not begin growing inland until after heavy industry came to town in 1915. Since then, the metro area has swallowed a clutch of old mining towns that are now low to medium-density suburbs. For this reason, the original business district now appears marooned on a peninsula and is characterised by a surplus of unrenovated building stock that doesn’t meet the needs of modern businesses.
The 1989 Newcastle earthquake, the deadliest and most expensive in Australian history, was more or less the death knell for Hunter Street shopping. From that year onwards, the lights were going out in the inner-city quicker than ever before and by 2011 the last of the big department stores went out of business. But around this time, even with no major commercial tenants left in the city centre, the unexpected was starting to happen: people were coming back to Newcastle’s main street.
Attracted to projects and events supported by Renew Newcastle, a not-for-profit community renewal organisation founded by Marcus Westbury in 2008, Newcastle’s creative class began generating demand for ancillary businesses in the city’s historical centre. One Penny Black, an espresso bar underneath an early Renew project, single-handedly brought single-origin coffee and coiffed baristas to town. Spilling out into the empty mall on milk crates and old chairs, Newcastle’s Bright Young Things established a connection between the activation projects and small business. The bandwagon effect soon kicked in and the return of the lunch-time crowd brought new opportunities to the broken main drag.
As more small businesses followed the harbinger’s lead, the remaining chain stores found that the main street’s traditional market no longer existed. Gloria Jean’s cited “difficult trading conditions” when they closed their doors a few months ago, but in reality their brand had no place in a precinct of independent coffee shops and niche retail.
As the new and mostly under-thirty market began curating the business mix on Hunter Street East, Newcastle could begin promoting their old city centre as the region’s place for destination retail and personalised experiences. Recognising the new social infrastructure, an increasing number of restaurateurs even began picking the old business district over the revitalized waterfront at Honeysuckle. The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide gives some indication that this new generation of restaurants complement the integrity and originality of their neighbours; four of the Hunter region’s eight toqued restaurants, believe it or not, are now within a block of Hunter Street.
Today’s Hunter Street East, a bustling strip of niche clothing labels and espresso bars, has little in common with the tumbleweed drag of last decade. The McDonald’s is gone. The David Jones is gone. The Angus & Robertson is gone. But in their place are businesses like Nook Store, Make Space, Shannon Hartigan Images and The Emporium – home-grown retail experiences that trumped the franchises in their ability to pull a crowd. Lonely Planet even placed Newcastle among its top ten cities to visit in 2011, giving gravitas to the claim that it is emerging as Australia's new arts capital.
Although opportunities to revive Hunter Street are far from being exhausted, a lot has been achieved without top-down planning and investment. Several years ago, Newcastle City Council set aside over $3 million to revitalise the ailing main street. While debate and inertia prevented the rollout of any council-funded program, the creative class were attracting a new generation of small business owners to town that have since done more for the city than anyone could have anticipated.
Hunter Street, once again Newcastle’s premier destination for quality experiences, is a world-class example of how micro-work allows communities to reclaim their public spaces. At the same conference that Dan Thompson declared the return of the high street, Coralie Winn from Gap Filler in Christchurch said “the most important thing is to convince people that something is happening”. Once you’ve achieved that, as Renew Newcastle did even as traditional retail was bottoming out, the street will begin to come back organically and better than before.