Menu Search

Mining a City’s Treasures (Jetstar Magazine)

11 August 2009 | Posted in: Media

Jetstar 1

Standing in Makespace, one of Newcastle’s most colourful and eclectic new stores, it’s hard to imagine this was an empty, ugly eyesore just six months ago. But this beast-to-beauty makeover is being happily repeated throughout the CBD as part of a project to breathe life back into the city centre.

Known as Renew Newcastle, the idea is simple: use derelict and abandoned shopfronts to house local artists and artisans who create and display their wares on-site. After just eight months the results are overwhelmingly positive, with the CBD finally starting to re-emerge as a destination for savvy shoppers.

From jewellery made before your eyes to locally crafted baby beanies, the stuff on offer at more than a dozen Renew Newcastle-backed stores wins top marks for quality and originality. Better yet, the person behind the counter probably made the goods you’re buying, so you also hear the inside story of how your purchase came to life.

The project kicked off late last year thanks to 35-year-old Marcus Westbury, a passionate former Novocastrian better known for directing arts festivals in New South Wales and Melbourne. Like many Newcastle residents, Westbury watched in dismay for more than a decade as shoppers and shop owners abandoned the CBD in favour of suburban shopping malls.

“I’d wanted to do something like this for about 10 years, and I’d been shooting my mouth off trying to convince other people about it,” he says. “It wasn’t really getting anywhere so at some point last year I just decided I should do it myself. Once that decision was made, it was amazing how quickly people fell behind it.”

More than 2,000 people signed up to a Renew Newcastle internet group within two weeks of its launch, and the project soon won community and government backing. With an abundance of vacant shops along the CBD’s main strip, Westbury was somewhat spoilt for choice; the challenge was convincing owners to hand over the keys to their vacant properties for free.

“I looked at every single one of those empty spaces as a lost opportunity — a place that people could use,” he says. The first Renew Newcastle stores opened in the Hunter Street Mall in February, with a second and third round of openings in the months since. “It’s really early days, but the feedback has been very good,” Westbury says.

Newcastle’s CBD stretches mainly along two long streets — Hunter and King — with a pedestrian mall at the eastern end of Hunter Street providing the focal point for retail shopping. Navigation of the Renew Newcastle stores is easiest on foot, so pull on your shopping shoes and start off at the western end of the mall.

First stop is Aboriginal art gallery Biami Mara, on the ground floor of the Silk House apartments. The gallery and shop showcases the work of indigenous artist and owner Floyd Tighe, as well as other works by local Aboriginal artists.

Next to Biami Mara is Upcycling. Items on offer here range from woven floor mats to funky furniture, but all have a common theme — they adhere to the principles of “upcycling”. Designer and proprietor Nick Nelson explains that upcycling differs from recycling because the items usually retain their original composition. They are simply “refocused” to serve a new purpose. “The energy it takes to knock something down and recycle it can actually be more wasteful than producing a new product,” he says.

Further up the mall, Emerald Arts stocks a colourful, quirky collection of gifts, prints and craft pieces that will instantly brighten up your day. Most of the items are made in-store by multi-talented owner Emma Stronach, though one part of the little shop is set aside to feature other artists’ work.

Gallery Raw on the other side of the mall has an ever-changing array of local art photography, while up in Market Square two very different Renew Newcastle shops have come to life. The first, Art Brasil, is the baby of ebullient Brazilian artist and jeweller Luciano Dos Santos Pedroso, who moved to Newcastle a couple of years ago. Gesturing enthusiastically and speaking with a rich Brazilian accent, Pedroso is all too happy to take visitors on a tour of his little shop, explaining how each piece of jewellery is made.

Using seeds, beads and fibres, he crafts simple bracelets in just a few minutes while you watch. But the more intricate and artful pieces of silver and copper jewellery — many featuring stunningly beautiful rare gemstones — can take up to 25 hours of painstaking work.

“Renew Newcastle is fantastic,” Pedroso explains. “For me, and many other artisans and artists in the city, just having a space to work and the opportunity to show and sell what we make in a shop is amazing. It’s nice for the city as well because people are seeing artists at work — they’re seeing things happen in these shops that used to just be empty.”

Also in Market Square, Mad Hatter Millinery is a must-see. Four local milliners (that’s hat-makers to the uninitiated) produce a dizzying array of headwear on-site, from the understated and traditional to the truly outlandish. Milliner Jennifer O’Brien says that while some hats are made from scratch, others are vintage versions, overhauled and restyled to suit more modern tastes.

Head back out to the mall to find Surfhouse Photography, where 20-year-old photographer Alex Thompson has turned her fascination with the city’s surf culture into an impressive array of prints that use light and colour to excellent effect.

Finally, towards the eastern end of the mall, is Makespace — that colourful shop where this story began. A team of five local women runs the store, each specialising in a different craft. The end result is a wonderful mish-mash of goods: handmade children’s clothes, fashion accessories, refurbished furniture, original paintings, sculpture and even home-baked cookies (if you’re lucky).

Team member Suzie Bailey, who specialises in women’s and children’s clothing, said running such a store was a fantastic opportunity. “I just love coming here — it’s so enriching,” she says.

“When you make something, of course you want it to be worthwhile and something that sells. But like the rest of the people involved with Renew Newcastle, we’re not here to make a lot of money. We’re here to bring people back to the mall so they can shop here and bring it back to life.” FIND IT

It’s a long walk from one end of Hunter Street to the other, so hop on a bus instead — it’s free! Thanks to a government initiative to bring shoppers back to town, public buses within the city centre zone are free to ride daily from 7.30am–6pm.

Read the full story here.