Thursday, February 16, 2012

When A Town Divides

One of the most devestating things that can happen to a community is when it tears itself apart over a trivial issue and then for that issue to create a longer term community divide.

Such an issue has polarised my town of Newcastle over of all things, trees! Yep, the 14 Laman Street fig trees have driven a political wedge into the community, with the Save Our Figs (Greens/Social Alliance) on one side and the Newcastle City Council on the other.

Now trees are important to any community and they should be highly valued, however, as with anything, they should be closely assessed for suitability to the urban environment, The local city council assessed the Laman Street trees and for better or worse they concluded that the time had come for their replacement. The trees were around 80 years old, their invasive root system was severely compromising the underground utilities, also, the same  root system had severely damaged the road pavement and the figs themselves had not just the nasty habit of unpredictable branch failure, but also of total tree collapse (as evidenced during the 2007 'Pasha' storm). The detritus of the fig trees also clogged drains, created numerous slip/trip hazards and with the bird and bat (flying fox) excrement in abundance it made a visit to the Newcastle cultural precinct a decidedly unpleasant event. However, for all their faults they really did look wonderful, their enormous canopy provide wedding photographers with a wonderful backdrop and the dappled shade provided nearly the perfect lighting for capturing the happy couples wedding day. A lot of local Novacastrians grew up with the trees and so the figs formed quite an emotional bond with a lot of older residents, so It seemed that those who thought they held the most memories also believed that they held the final say in any decision on the future of the trees. The Laman Street fig tree's had become very important touchstones to peoples memories of a bygone age in Newcastle.

So it wasn't surprising that when the local council decided that the time was nigh for the figs, that the shit most certainly was going to hit the fan and it would cause deep divisions within the city as both sides settled in for a long, protracted fight. The big difference in this fight, as opposed to other fights with the council over development issues in the past, is that this time the local council wasn't dominated by the old ALP (Australian Labor Party) or a loose collection of left wing misfits, but had a majority of councillors that were of an independent and or, of a right wing persuasion (or for want of a better description, 'no crap' politicians).So when the decision was made to remove the figs and the vote taken, from that day there was no turning back.

So at 5.45am on the 31st January the chainsaw moved in and the trees came down, with the 14 figs felled to the stump and mulched to woodchip by Tuesday 7th February.

Personally I was for the removal as I saw that Laman Street had become a dirty rut riddled rat run that was not showcasing the cities unique architecture as I believed it should be presented to visitors. I, and a lot of other ratepayers, saw the redevelopment of the cultural precinct as a vital  step in the cities revitalisation as a visitor destination (Newcastle is currently ranked by the Lonely Planet guide in the Top 10 of must visit destinations) and now the trees now removed the Art Gallery, Library and the Baptist Tabernacle are able project their differing architectural styles to the world, instead of being hidden by the fig trees. 

Unlike a lot of  opinions, my favourite building is the War Memorial Cultural Centre (opened in 1957) it now dominates the landscape above Civic Park and now free of the fig trees it is reinstated as one of Newcastle's most important buildings of the last century. One thing I never noticed with the building is the unique colouring of the sandstone, when I first viewed the building without the foliage the sandstone looked almost  like pink paint primer and it is not until I got close that I actually noticed that it is in fact the hue of the sandstone that gives the building a unique look.   

The building on western side of the Cultural Centre is the Baptist Tabernacle which was opened in 1889 and it was designed by the renowned architect Frederick Menkens  (1855 - 1910). Menkens designed the Laman St facade in a neo-classical Corinthinan style that reflected the Classical Revivalist style that was coming in vogue during the late 19th century. It should be noted that apart for the very ornate Laman Street frontage, the rest of the building is designed in a very utilitarian manner to save on costs ... gotta love those very sensible Baptists! With the foliage removed from the from the front of this wonderful building all of Newcastle can see what a wonderful piece of architectural heritage has been retained.

The Baptist Tabernacle is in direct contrast to the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery which is located on the eastern side of the Cultural Centre and is an example of modernist architecture in the Brutalist Architecture style that came in vogue during the late 1970's, the Newcastle City Administration Centre is also another example of this type of angular geometric style. The Newcastle Regional Gallery which was formerly opened by Queen Elizabeth II on the 11th March 1977 is earmarked for redevelopment and expansion along with the changes earmarked for Laman Street refurbishment.   

But no matter what the end outcome of the redevelopment is, the psyche of Newcastle community has been changed and it will take a lot of time before the healing process can begin. Perhaps as a community we can take solace from the Lyndon Dadswell bronze sculpture in the foyer of the Cultural Centre which represents "youth emerging from the conflict of war and looking with hope and courage to the future"