IAN KIRKWOOD: Time to change fearful attitude

REBORN: Surf House Merewether is airy, open and joyful.
REBORN: Surf House Merewether is airy, open and joyful.

AS much as I hate to say it, we’ve got a collective fear of the future in this place.

It’s a rare month indeed when one development proposal or another is not bitterly attacked, with opponents metaphorically and physically chaining themselves to whatever aspect of the status quo that is under challenge.

We’re like Hanrahan of the old bush poem, claiming ‘‘we’ll all be rooned’’ (as in ruined) by fate, whether it’s drought, flood, fire or bank failure.

Such cataclysmic events do cause real grief but I’d venture to say that not even the most bitterly contested of our urban battles – and that includes the Laman Street figs – leave any real mark, except as symbols of our fear of change.

As lovely as the trees were, Newcastle is not exactly short of big fig trees, and I think their removal from Laman Street gives the broader civic vista a gravitas it didn’t have before.

And what about Merewether’s ‘‘iconic’’ Surf House. The old one, not the new one.

It took us so long to knock down that empty, guano-splattered, unusable, small-windowed and ill-sited piece of inter-war architecture that an entire generation of beach-goers went from toddler to teenager while we made up our minds.

Now, in its place, stands an airy, open, joyful building that is more popular than even the most optimistic of early backers could have hoped for.

It treads ‘‘lightly’’ on the site – to slip in a bit of architectural jargon – but it could have been even better had the designers been able to lift the lid another metre or so to give the ceilings a bit more height. But they were restrained by the draconian design limits that kept the building within the height limits set by its unlamented predecessor.

 A little to the north, we went into a collective frenzy over inevitable improvements to the Bogey Hole, forced into being when a young man died after hitting his head on a submerged rock on Australia Day 2010.

Thankfully ignoring calls for the site to be permanently closed or filled in, the state government unveiled plans for a new set of steps and a platform at water’s edge that were immediately set upon as being too modern and out of keeping with the convict character of the place.

I admit that I was one of the doubters about the design, but I should have realised that real life is never as shiny and perfect as the artists’ impressions would have us believe.

I’ve taken the kids down there a few times this summer and the galvanised and stainless steel finishes have an industrial toughness that is perfectly in keeping with the feel of the place, and far safer than the slippery rock steps they replaced.

The rest of the set-up remains as it was, and adventurous swimmers still cling to the old steel pipes and chains on the ocean side of the pool to be buffeted by the waves when the swell is up.

In Sydney, high-rise apartments dot the harbourside and people pay eye-popping sums for priceless water views.

But in Newcastle, as any developer or bureaucrat knows, high-rise is a pejorative term, frequently complained about in letters to the editor and submissions to authorities arguing why a particular development should not be allowed to proceed.

I don’t know why things are this way, but I’ve spoken to enough new arrivals to the region to believe that Newcastle does have a problem with progress and change.

Remember the fight over putting cars back in the mall?

 Today, it’s busier than it has been for years, with cars and people sharing the space without a worry.

While there’s nothing wrong with preserving the institutions and the built infrastructure that has served us well, Newcastle could easily find itself bypassed as little more than the exit point for the Hunter Valley’s export coal if we don’t face the future with optimism.

Nothing stays the same forever, and that hopefully includes Newcastle’s attitude to change. 


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