The death of Newtown and the Weekend Warrior

Second place in the 2014 Honi Opinion competition, by Alex Gillis.

The actual point in time is debatable. Chris Martin traipsing down King Street as some pop troubadour, his back laden with a one-man-band and his voice laden with reverb, is probably one of the more universal. Could be the Sando finally shutting or the opening of yet another speakeasy. While lining up for hours at Sydney’s best gelato, you would hear many attribute it to the recent influx of froyo. Regardless of whether icy sweet dairy is a cause or merely symptomatic, the truly on trend all say that Newtown is either dying, dead or buried in a pile of gentrified trash.

Not the same as it used to be

The rent is steeper and the shops are all freshly painted. The veneer of a bustling and commercial suburb throws those looking for something edgier, even gritty, right off. Where are the artists, where are the musicians? I was assured they were here, but this clearly average suburb must have changed. The nostalgia is so real, so cemented that the whole place may as well be rose tinted. Ringing through the streets are reactionary apoplectic sobs at the invasion of the DINK di to the inner west. Sydney council and real estate both delight at this vibrant community precinct, with an Arts Scene, Quaint Coffee Shops and Quirky Retail. Foot high letters sprayed on a vaguely decrepit building read; “fuck off yuppie scum”. Suitably, the block was recently demolished to make way for a boutique but unique set of apartments.

Newtown has changed, you’d hear if you stopped to ask pretty well anyone. You hear it from the bartenders, from the shopkeepers, from the carefully presented artists on street corners. Most of all, you hear it from the weekend warrior.

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The weekend warrior doesn’t live here, or necessarily know anybody that does. They turn up on Saturday mornings and hungover Sunday afternoons for trendy markets and to gawk at the fabled Newtown Local. They read with growing interest about Chelsea of Chelsea’s Hotel’s protracted and increasingly schizoid battle with, of all places, the button shop. So quirky! They shared the story about those bemused wildebeest stumbling down the highway. Only in Newtown!

The weekend warrior bemoans gentrification, travelling an hour by train to spend money – taking photos of niche alleyway graffiti and leading their friends to a little café that they ‘discovered’. The weekend warrior saw the Dunerats support FIDLAR at Oxford Art and talked about it while lining up to see Alt-J at the Enmore. They much prefer Alt-J’s earlier, less mainstream work. They come in remarkably cohesive outfits – a style most accurately described as “soft as fuck punk”. They don’t skate but happily borrow some vacant suburban rage in the form of Vans Authentics, messy tattoos and a hat from a friend’s street-wear brand. Tapping on an iPhone in fresh Nike Frees, they decry sweatshop labour and advocate buying vintage.

Sweating down King St, trying to establish which of the junk shops discernible through the leather jacket induced heat haze will develop lomography. The lo-fi cult that digs Lana Del Rey while calling Triple J out for being too commercial. She wears a Sea Shepherd t-shirt while flicking her cigarette butt into the gutter, and he wears distressed jeans and a self-ripped singlet while stepping around a homeless bloke. He privately wonders why they can’t move the smelly old bastard out of here – this is, after all, vibrant Newtown.

The weekend warrior was schooled early on. Sydney is trite, Sydney is corporate, Sydney is for bankers – but Newtown. The alternative haven, the indie enclave.

The lesson

Breathless high schoolers looking for style, looking for where things are cool, are indoctrinated into bohemian Newtown – where the hipsters live, where the op-shops are trendy. It was undoubtedly happening. So cool it evoked that standard of all Australian trendiness, gasped softly from Nowra to Toowoomba – Melbourne. Even, even in the depths of our cultural cringe we still leap to the defence of our most European city with its ‘cold’ climate and trams. We still leap to our inner city Newtown cafés and cinemas and second hand shops. Just like they have overseas – quasi-foreign styles quashed into a few klick strip

No wonder we’re disappointed. Point to the newly painted shops and decry their commercialist failures! Dr King proclaims his dream on the centrepiece of an allegedly street culture suburb fifty years later, on the other side of the world. Our insipid meep of culture is drowned in self-consciousness. In the midst of this dire deficit, we see a town being developed. We duly apportion the blame to the great commercial remodeling – the working class cum artist borough made into a zoo for squares.

Newtown’s perceived stilted atmosphere doesn’t reflect some influx of capital or a change in real estate pricing. It results from the same cultural cringe that leads our bars to be American and our cafés to be Italian.

“Keep Newtown weird!” come the plaintive cries of the weekend warriors, grasping at their vintage shirts and junk shop typewriters. Listen to the approaching strains of Elvis, emanating from an elderly fellow on a mobility scooter, his eyes tired and cold. Some Sisyphus condemned to roam the street and entertain. So quirky, so Newtown, so alive and kicking.