Let Them Eat at Cafes: A Tale of Two Newcastles

21 February 2014
There's no denying Newcastle has undergone massive changes in the last decade. Following the success of the Renew Newcastle project, the CBD is alive again, especially towards the east end; new cafes, bars, boutiques and galleries are springing up. And yet, as I read yet another blog post of "manufactured whimsy" (great term which I've borrowed from a commenter on another blog) about how lovely it all is, I wondered why the whole thing was leaving me feeling rather cold and left out. Then I realised why. Because I can't afford it.

The economic inequality which is, largely unremarked, tearing our society to shreds is writ large in Newcastle, as it must be in any locale undergoing gentrification. Lovely things are expensive. But when I read of yet another film festival or small bar opening alongside a Reddit thread by someone with a solid employment record who's applied unsuccessfully for 80 jobs in three months, it all rings rather hollow.

It wasn't always like this. It used to be easy to be poor in Newcastle; you had the feeling everyone else was too. Not anymore. The less well off have been squeezed out. Take Hunter Street Mall for example, and try to find lunch. There used to be both McDonalds and KFC there; but they've been banished to the west end of town, squeezed out to the undoubted relief of those who can afford to sneer at fast food, can afford to pay $13.50 for a pretend Banh Mi (sweet Jesus I wish I was making that up, but such a thing really does exist in Newcastle). The east end of town has been, in effect, priced out of reach of those of us struggling, in the undiversified economy of Newcastle and soaring rents, to make ends meet. We're banished to the west end, where our shopping choices are frowned upon. I understand, kind of. I would love to be able to buy my clothes in locally owned retailers hand sewn by the proprietor, but I can't.

There's a whole other Newcastle outside of the gorgeous little chichi cafes in the mall, and I live there. So do so many other people who don't even venture in to town; there's nothing for them there. I do visit, but my nose is perpetually pressed up against the glass of the glossy, fabulous life within. There's no place for the poor in the new Newcastle. And it kind of makes me sad. I liked the solidarity of the old Newcastle, the sense that this was a tough town in tough times but we were all in this together. There's no place for me here any more, I think, and even once I'm graduated and earning decent money again, I'll remember these days and be unable to enjoy a cafe lunch without the after taste of the junk food that was for so long all I could afford. My Newcastle is gone, a pretentious hipster in its place. I'm happy they're having such a nice time, I just wish they'd make a little room at the table for the rest of us.


  1. This is so true, and I'm not the least bit surprised about the $13.50 Banh Mi. I'm constantly amazed at how much it's possible to pay for things in this town. It feels like the perfect combination of the regional premium (things have to travel further, smaller population = no economies of scale = higher prices), a mining premium, and more recently a hipster premium.

    I think aside from feeling left out and unable to participate, there's the feeling of guilt when you're spending what money you have in chain stores and megamalls instead of at local businesses. I think there's a lot to really love about Newcastle. I like living here - lack of decent Laksa and crispy fried shredded beef aside - and I'm glad it's carving out an identity for itself, but yeah, while there are four of us on one decidedly average income, I really can't be looking out for the struggling local purveyors of homemade wax candles.

    1. I know! Like we're constantly hearing about the great dining scene in Newcastle, but it's all at the top end of the market. Going to a $40-for-a-main restaurant might be a once in two years thing for us. Give me Chinatown where I can gorge myself for less than $10 (and I do!). That's to be expected in any regional city I suppose. We really shouldn't feel guilty I suppose, I'm sure small shop owners aren't feeling guilty we can't buy their stuff.

  2. well... i'm not super convinced.

    gentrification isn't a phenomenon unique to newcastle east, anymore than it was unique to paddington, newtown, or more currently, marrickville, ashfield or similar places. frankly, signs of money in newcastle are a sign of diversification, and that's something newcastle has always lacked - diversity. progress is a bitch. i can't afford to buy in newtown anymore than someone who grew up there. there are no free passes for being "native", and no one has a 'god give right' to their neighbourhood.

    you may see positives in a "solidarity of the old Newcastle", but that is something i never felt. perhaps a kid from merewether who was constantly hounded by the "real" novocastrians from stockton at school was always expected to leave (especially a gay one), but your working class paradise rings just that kind of elitism in my ears. solidarity, as you put it, is without question in the eye of the beholder, and an easy illusion for anyone in a majority.


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