Bread, circuses and our disappearing city

Witnessing the impact that the current racetrack construction has already had on Newcastle East forced me to think: what might appear to be an obvious cultural and environmental issue is, in fact, also one of decaying citizenship and liberty.

In democratic society, citizenship implies freedom and shared responsibility for governance. Citizenship established in ancient Greece distinguished the free from the enslaved. Some thousand years later, Roman emperors, troubled by their displeased free citizens, realised that “two things only the people anxiously desire - bread and circuses”. Free food and great spectacles, together with fear, became modus operandi of governments worldwide. Have we learned since?

I can understand how most of us may not be troubled by the vast, toxic dustpan that is expanding in the city’s backyard. Hunter Valley coal mines, over 60 kilometres in breadth, lie well clear of commercial flight paths and are screened by nature strips and artificial ridges. But I cannot fathom how acres of our most popular public parkland can be hastily upturned and converted into a thickly tarred heat pool for the sake of a private racing enterprise, while most Novocastrians seem content, even rejoicing, at a staged public appeasement event. How can it be?

I was not in Newcastle when its citizens fought to preserve the fig trees in Laman Street, but I recall their commitment resounding through the media nationwide. Together with their fight, perhaps much more was eventually lost: faith in political integrity, accountability and reason.

Since Laman Street, Newcastle City Council’s careless handling of public assets seems to have lost all friction.

Over heating glass and plasterboard cubes of generic, copycat design are celebrated as architectural masterpieces, while irreplaceable heritage buildings are left to gradually collapse and make way for more lucrative development. Our urban forest is being systematically destroyed and our best parks and listed conservation area transformed into a racetrack. Those who question the council’s conduct often attract hateful comments and public ridicule.

It takes a lifetime to just begin to understand the making of a good city, but here’s a start: First, nothing good can grow on spoiled land. Let us protect the land, and the air and water with it. Let us cherish and support those toiling for better environment, not insult and defame them. Urban green space is easily lost, but nigh impossible to recover.

Second, our historical heritage carries forth the wisdom of the past to benefit the future. Let’s protect ardently the little we have left from our past, not allowing any short-term and short-sighted decision compromise this irreplaceable asset.

There is nothing reactionary about rejecting a development that is clearly not appropriate for a place. Newcastle has an abundance of disused sites in dire need of new purpose. To dismiss those, and instead impose the racetrack on a key recreation and heritage precinct, is ignorant.

Let not the bread prevent us from speaking up and the circuses blur our good judgement. If the heart of the city can so easily be turned into a private racing venue, think what could one day be done to your quiet suburb? Rome was eventually rebuilt with the stones left of the old city. If Newcastle does not change its course, we will be left with glass, cardboard and tar.

Jiri Lev is a sole practitioner and post-graduate student of architecture at the University of Newcastle