MARCUS WESTBURY's Creating Cities excerpt: The brave new world

In 2008, MARCUS WESTBURY went beyond the ordinary to push a plethora of ideas driven by his own experiences in the world of arts to reinvent a dying downtown through the actions of Renew Newcastle. This excerpt from Creating Cities describes the process of getting businesses started.  

THE best thing I can say about my personal ability to predict what would and wouldn't work in Newcastle is that I learned very quickly not to even try.

Projects that I was convinced would be bulletproof often failed quickly. People who I had unwavering faith in sometimes gave up at the first setback. Yet for every one of those, there were people that I underestimated, projects I wrote off in advance as "learning experiences", markets for things I had barely realised existed, and communities for ideas that I'd never given a second thought to that also proved me wrong.

The goal was never to drag the entire city towards any "vision" or any particular outcome. There was never a goal of where the project should end up or what the city should be. Renew was designed as a rejection of the single simple answer. What I personally liked was never the point of the exercise.

In this one key respect, my role at Renew was very different to anything I had done before. Working on festivals, making television, writing for newspapers and magazines had always, to some extent, been an extension of my own tastes, networks, interests and communities. This wasn't and shouldn't have been the case here.

Renew aimed to invert processes. It aimed to make what once had been hard easy, and what would once have been risky much less so. To take as much of what might once have been near impossible in the city and make it comparatively simple. The purpose was always to plant many seeds and see what grew. For that to work, the seeds couldn't all be the same. To nurture an ecology, you can't begin by planting a monoculture.

Marcus Westbury author of Creating Cities.

Marcus Westbury author of Creating Cities.

The point was never to fill the city with hipsters on fixed-gear bicycles, bearded designers, or trendy imports from somewhere else. The idea wasn't to turn the city over to the so-called "creative class" or to attract star artists, cool brands or designers. Our concern was far more pragmatic and grounded. It was to ensure that lots of people in the Newcastle community could see themselves, their talents, their ideas and aspirations reflected in the city once more. For that to succeed, things would need to appeal to a far broader group than the tiny cohort of me.

In those early few months, Renew Newcastle had begun to create a Petri dish of preconditions that would attract people's initiative. The businesses and community projects that would take root in Newcastle would ultimately be a product of that low barrier to entry meeting the individual passions and initiative of hundreds of people.

The mix evolved as the project evolved, and the city evolved too. It changed with the mix of spaces available, and with each new example created by the success and failure of what had come before. Someone would open a shop, remake a property or launch a business idea, and just by doing so, forge paths that others would be inspired and enabled to follow.

Some of it took some time to establish. Today there is a strong and growing mix of eclectic retailers in the city, and people have begun to think of the area as a retail destination again. But in those early stages, the lack of foot traffic was so dire that even our applicants were wary of retailing.

Within those first few years, the Renew program supported teenagers designing skateboard decks and streetwear, and milliners who were making hats for people who may well have been their grandparents. A 19-year-old surf photographer named Alex Thompson's business Surfhouse Photography was the first to move out and into rent-paying premises.

While we put a strong premium on getting into empty shops and removing the symbols of decay, it was often the low-profile, hidden, and out-of-the-way spaces that were the better incubators. There was a certain freedom in starting a little bit off Broadway. There was less pressure in the spaces that no one particularly wanted, or was opinionated about.

As we grew more capable and more confident, we took on more. By the time the David Jones department store left its central-city location, we had the skills, the means and the confidence to convert the ground-floor street frontage into The Emporium - home to a dozen maker-based artisanal businesses.

There was something strangely liberating about letting go of the illusion of control. Once you accept that you can't determine what will happen, it becomes much easier to discover what might. We deliberately tried different things and attempted to cross-pollinate ideas, businesses, artists, and audiences in the hope that serendipity and evolution would reveal what paths made sense. We aimed to find the shortest, cheapest, simplest and most efficient means to what other people could make work.

Bringing the life back to Newcastle's Hunter Street. Picture: Ryan Osland

Bringing the life back to Newcastle's Hunter Street. Picture: Ryan Osland

The projects that got access to the spaces were varied, but the process was always competitive. We learned from our mistakes. As we formalised our processes we managed to pare them down to a minimum series of practical requirements that would allow for a wide range of possibilities in practice. We looked for projects that knew their own audience and knew what they were trying to do. We resisted the urge to be all "arts" or all "business". We looked for projects that had the potential to be viable on their own terms.

It wasn't for us to decide those terms but, if a project was to be volunteer-run, we wanted to know if it had the volunteers. If it was a community project, did it represent the community it claimed to? If it was a business, was there reason to believe the person in charge could run it? And, of course, we needed to be confident that we could trust them with the space, that we could vouch for them to the property owners, and know that they would adhere to the responsibilities we had negotiated with and for them.

We were able to be guided, for better or for worse, by prioritising those things that we could make easy. We were always juggling two separate pools. On one hand we had whichever properties we could convince owners to make available to us, and on the other we had a broad and open call for project ideas. Each pool was being constantly refined, recast, and recalibrated as we went, and each one was informing the other.

While obviously not always ideal, the temporary nature of how projects began was often a liberation. It allowed us to take risks in a creative sense. We were not a government agency, though gradually we secured funding from state and local governments. We recognised that to do things, we needed to take risks. We became a pro-risk organisation.

Risk, in this context, was a good thing. Our organisational culture was to always find reasons why we could do things, to find ways of doing them resourcefully, and not go looking for reasons why we might not. We looked for solutions, opportunities, and loopholes, and not reasons to be afraid.

Inevitably, that means that we failed. We failed a lot. We were never to be defensive about failure. It was a cheap, controlled, and largely consequence-less failure, but it was still failure a lot of the time. Renew Newcastle tried many things that didn't work. More than half the things we have started aren't there any more. We covered almost every letter of the alphabet, from artist studios to 'zine stores, and learned from the sheer diversity of it all.

The rule that we ultimately settled on was not that everyone must be an artist. People need not be young, or cool, or even see themselves as particularly "creative". But they must at least make what they do. We took a broad definition of that, but the rationale was as pragmatic as it was philosophical. That constraint had grown, as much as anything, from an obligation to the interests and concerns of the existing businesses in the city.

The need to "make what you do" generally meant you weren't directly competing with an existing businesses - something that every Renew project explicitly couldn't do. Inevitably, that cut us off from many potentially sustainable businesses, and made it much harder to reach the volumes required for sustainability, but it was a fair trade-off and meant that everything was adding something different and unique to the mix.

Behind the scenes, we worked within a series of often-invisible constraints. Often it was the properties themselves that settled who would be successful. While we may have had 20 applications to choose from, often only one or two of them made sense in a given space.

Often the choices were not ours to make. Ultimately, property owners would decide the uses we put their buildings to. Some grew to trust in our ability to make those decisions but, as the number of property owners grew, so too did the different agendas and expectations.

Melt one of the businesses bringing colour to Hunter Street. Picture: Peter Stoop

Melt one of the businesses bringing colour to Hunter Street. Picture: Peter Stoop

Some only wanted projects that were likely to convert to commercial tenancies. Others wanted the opposite, and took the view that free space should be philanthropic and only go to the most worthy. Some were very hands-on and took an active interest in the lives and careers of their tenants while others probably couldn't have told you who they were.

Our agenda was a commitment to the experiment - to a diversity of simultaneous experiments. The goal was not to ensure that everything appealed to everyone but to hope that in that diversity, everyone could find at least something that appealed. Over time, we would discover and collect up viable niches. The city would gradually evolve a collection of things that made sense. It became an eclectic alternative to a suburban shopping centre, and not a pale imitation of it.

We were not afraid of change, but rather needed its own narrative to shift. We changed who got to own change, reshaped it from something that was imposed from on high to something that bubbled up from below. We never claimed to know what tomorrow's successful business models were going to look like - we never had a monopoly on what the city was going to be. We knew only that we needed to try things because the city of the future was unknown. We could only discover it by creating it.

RALPH Snowball was an enthusiastic and potentially obsessive photographer who died in 1925. He left behind more than 8000 glass negatives of life in Newcastle at the turn of the 20th century. Many would later be restored, digitised, and shared on Flickr by the University of Newcastle. I learned as much about Newcastle by losing myself in that archive as I had through any study or expert analysis.

One image of Hunter Street at the turn of the 20th century depicts a "Manufacturing Jeweller" by the name of Gilder in an elegant bay-windowed shopfront.

Outside, a lady is peering intently at the objects in the window.

Another of Snowball's images shows the inside of what may well have been the same shop. In it, there are seven men. They are all dressed in suits, some in white aprons leaning over wooden benches.

Others are operating large metal machines. Some are perfectly still - obsessing over fine detail in studied concentration. Their colleagues, meanwhile, are blurred in motion - hammering and drilling too fast for the long exposure and the analogue machine to keep up with.

Today in what may well be the same block - perhaps even the same shop - another group of jewellers occupies a bay-windowed shopfront. Viewers can be found staring at the objects in the window, and inside artisans are engaged in studied concentration or hammering metal into exquisite objects. Studio Melt is a former Renew Newcastle project that began in 2012 and graduated to a full commercial tenancy in only a few months.

It's a studio, teaching space, and sales outlet for local jewellers Angela Hailey and Susie Manning. It was featured in the Sydney Morning Herald as an example of a new kind of business model that is supporting regional artisans and craftspeople to get their work to market. It now features, in addition to the work of its owners, about 30 designers whose work ranges from pottery to artwork and textiles.

Studio Melt's ambition is to work with and represent people on a similar scale to its owners - they try to stock items that are unique where possible. They source them locally and from across Australia. "I want customers to come to us and see things they have never seen before," Angela told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I think people walk out feeling very good about having supported someone they had a conversation with."

A buzzing Hunter Street in the 1960's.

A buzzing Hunter Street in the 1960's.

On one level, the work that Studio Melt does on site is almost a perfect echo of the work once performed by the artisans at Gilders. In another respect, though, it is doing something very different. Its makers depend on online stores and networks for much of their business, and on social media such as Instagram and Facebook rather than a captive local audience to drive interest.

Shops like Studio Melt, to me, are the physical manifestation of that invisible but rapidly growing online network of artisans, makers, and jewellers. Its owners run classes to train them. It connects and promotes them. If you walk in there, Susie and Angela can probably tell you not just where everything came from, but the story of the person who made it, and when they last spoke to them.

For lack of a better word, I have come to refer to this phenomenon as "peertailing". While Renew participants are required to make what they do, most of the retail businesses quickly evolve towards this kind of peer-based model as they move out on their own.

There is a growing movement of these reciprocal curated networks of makers, curators and artisans. It stretches well beyond Newcastle to cities and towns around the world, where people are opening stores that not only stock and sell their own wares, but pride themselves on seeking out a distinctive selection of others'.

While it is a long way from the days when Gilders made and sold its work on site, in some ways it is far closer to that than it is to the retail that I grew up with. It is a world away from the idea that a factory in China churns out 100,000 identical units to be stocked in 200 stores with identical branding, fit-outs and stock placement to be sold by a teenager on minimum wage.

Instead, hundreds of stores around the country and around the world are each curating a distinctive and unique selection of handmade, bespoke, and small volume products. Each and every store is staffed by someone with a unique collection and a unique connection to the work and the person who made it.

A block along from Studio Melt, there is another business with a similar story. It is one with a very different demographic, but it is another manifestation of the same phenomenon. Nook Store too began as a Renew Newcastle project. Nook, which took its name from the pokey, awkward corner space it originally occupied, is a collaboration between three local design labels.

It makes T-shirts, skateboards and streetwear. Its mission is to "showcase the passionate, independent brands that are emerging within Newcastle" and, like Studio Melt, it does so both in person and online. When Nook's originators first came to us, they were barely out of their teens, but they too have grown up and gone commercial.

Nook has built a business that promotes its own labels locally and nationally. In-store, it mixes them with complementary products and like-minded independent labels from around Australia. As the local online magazine HUNTERhunter noted, the experience of niche stores like Nook is quite different to the retailers that had come before them.

"Gone are the days," HUNTERhunter wrote, "where blokes awkwardly wander through big old-fashioned department stores, sifting through rack after rack, or getting their girlfriends to do it, hoping to find something a little less mainstream."

While there are no surviving Ralph Snowball images of skaters and streetwear labels, there is a clear connection to a tradition when tailors once made and sold clothes for men here and the factory up the road made bicycles.

In another shop a block along from Nook, Shannon Hartigan is a self-taught and multi-award-winning landscape photographer. To the extent that Renew Newcastle taught him anything, it was almost certainly not to rely on passing trade. His evolution into a full-fledged photography business began life in a less-than desirable '80s era arcade.

It had once been a thoroughfare between a bridge to the harbour that is no longer there, and a council car park which these days is perpetually under-utilised. Suffice to say there was little foot traffic, and few if any casual photography buyers.

In person, Shannon is modest, reserved and reticent to talk up his own work. But you wouldn't guess that from the adept way he uses Facebook to tell the stories behind his photoshoots, to document his travels, to show off his images and to promote his commissions for high-profile clients. When I first wrote about him, I watched in a browser window as one of his images - a striking panorama of Newcastle - was picked up by a prominent tourism page and quickly went viral, with 30,000 Facebook likes and counting.

His tenacity and talent have taken his imagery to audiences well beyond the dead-end arcade. They have allowed him to grow his business from a fledgling experiment in a once-empty shop to a building he now owns in a far better location around the corner.

The Renew Newcastle projects that have thrived aren't for the most part connected by demographics or styles. Niches like jewellery, skateboards, and landscape photography don't particularly overlap. Their common ground can be found in their distribution chains, their marketing platforms and their business models.

Their approach is very different from the previous wave of retailers that had foundered here. They don't simply sell things to passers-by. They have grown out of or grown into larger networks that send their wares to outlets and audiences much further afield. I have seen bicycle bells designed and made in Renew studios being sold in bespoke bike stores in Melbourne; coffee cups from Newcastle Productions can be found in cafes in Cooma. I spotted Newcastle-made jewellery in a small store in Wellington, New Zealand.

Where once the retail businesses on this strip would have stood or fallen by the size of the foot traffic and the local market, they now have other paths. Those that are succeeding are doing so across multiple locations and channels - online and physical. The smallest of studio projects are using websites, markets, social media and online stores as secondary and often primary forms of distribution.

The economies of scale of producing one niche product in a mid-sized regional city might once have been a dead end. Now, opportunities online, in stores run by their peers, and in inexpensive physical spaces mean that small manufacturers are building increasingly resilient micro-economies. With low overheads and supportive communities, places like Newcastle suddenly have a competitive advantage.

What once would have required a strong local economy is increasingly stimulating that economy by bringing money in from outside.

Most of the Renew Newcastle projects that have gone on to have viable business models, sign commercial leases, or even buy their own buildings are ones that would have been marginal if not impossible in the 20th century. They are working in categories, such as online publishing and digital media, that have only recently been created. They are catalysing communities that would once have been nearly impossible to find. Often, they are using technologies and services which were non-existent or impractically expensive until very recently as their major means of marketing and distribution.

We have learned that this kind of activity can drive the revival of a place. To some extent, there has always been a catch-22 for unsuccessful shopping strips, precincts, and places. There is no point opening a shop if there are no customers, and often the disinterested tenants themselves become the bane of many failing strip malls and arcades. I've seen dozens of these places. They are half empty, in some cases closed off, literally shuttered up at one end or other. Often they are full of uninviting spaces used for storage and offices rather than retail.

These flailing strips are peppered with tenancies that seem to do everything but activate the place: clubs which meet once a month; an accountant, the only one in the town without a computer, who never seems to be there; a travel agent with fading signs for defunct airlines in the windows. Often mixed in is a single quirky shop - they seem to be the last bastion of vinyl record shops in a lot of towns - that you need to persevere past half-a-dozen dusty "closing down" signs to find. Collectively, they send a powerful signal: 'Turn around, there is nothing to see here!"

Whether it was by accident or by design, Renew Newcastle discovered a sweet spot. They didn't rely on the marketing and presence of others to bring them their audience because they brought their own.

Bringing these kind of businesses together began to bring back the foot traffic, to bring in the people that sought them out. It stimulated curiosity and tourism. It created a dynamic around which another wave of businesses, services, bars, cafes and restaurants began to take root.

Retail has always been tough going. It has only become harder recently. We haven't really changed that. In a sense, Newcastle is a microcosm of the uncertainty of changing retail in general. Retail has had to create a new identity. It is not the "centre of town" any more. For the most part, Renew has not been a catalyst for bringing back the kind of high street retailers who have fled to the suburbs and moved to the shopping centres. It has been an opportunity to discover something different - a collection of niches. Local products that have national and global audiences. Tourism.

In Newcastle, it's still uncertain whether the high rents of the high street, the proposed big shopping centres and some of the more ambitious developments will ever return. But at least the people have.

Newcastle Writers Festival director Rosemarie Milsom will be hosting a Q&A with Marcus Westbury on Thursday, September 3, to celebrate the launch of his  book, Creating Cities.

Following their chat and general merriment, there will be a screening of Marcus’ new ABCTV series Bespoke at 9.30pm.

Both events are free and will be held at Central Bar, 145 King Street, Newcastle, from 7pm. 

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