OpinionOur unique towns are being malled

By , 25/04/2020 19:36

MAIN ATTRACTION: “We’ve let the delight and intensity of our townships slip away”. Population growth in the Hunter’s towns – Cessnock, Kurri Kurri, Maitland, Raymond Terrace and Dungog – is at record rates. Singleton and Muswellbrook are the exceptions with the dark shadow of coal falling across these once proud centres.
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Over the years, the Hunter’s towns have played a key role in the commercial, social and cultural life of our communities. The town is where you find the council, the library, a theatre and an art gallery, doctors, dentists and public parks and gardens.

The towns have given people their identities. We sign up to organisations that carry the name of the place we come from: Cessnock Goannas, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Scone Anglican Church, Kurri Kurri Public School and Singleton Diggers.

The Hunter’s towns emerged when grazing and agriculture came to the region in the nineteenth century. Cessnock and Kurri Kurri then exploded at the start of the 20th century when miners poured into the coalfields.

The rollout of the townships was carefully staged. Streets were laid in grids, with different sized blocks for commercial and residential development. Provision was made for water and sewerage, and later for electricity and street lighting.

The government provided each town with a shire chambers, schools, a courthouse and a police station. These gave each town a democratic structure and an employment base of public servants. From the get-go, being in a town guaranteed health and education services and civic order. A grand pub or two arrived. The banks erected buildings of substance to convince locals their money was safe. And shops gathered around them.

The high street became a street for all. Everyone’s dollar was equal. Window displays were pitched to all comers.People stopped and chatted on every corner in winter and under shady awnings in summer. There was, too, the right to hand out a leaflet, stand on the back of a truck and make a speech, and march right through the middle in celebration, commemoration or protest. The main street was the life of the town.

Heritage lists show how determined our town’s founders were to build town centres that had substance. Cessnock’s Vincent Street has 23 buildings on its heritage list, Dungog’s Dowling Street has 24, Lang Street in Kurri Kurri has 19, Maitland’s magnificent High St has 46, Muswellbrook’s Sydney and Bridge Streets have 32 and the enchanting streets between the river and Adelaide Street in Raymond Terrace boast over 40 listings.

But what have we built since those days? The absence of significant new buildings in our town centres and the deterioration of the old buildings are evidence of poor stewardship.We’ve let the delight and intensity of our townships slip away. And government has withdrawn its support.

The major cause has been the rise of the shopping malls, the small malls away from the main street, and large ones down the freeway. High street retailing has suffered, as has the social and political life of our towns. Commerce, society, politics, cultural life: they came to the Hunter in town-sized packages. Now they’re being malled.

We need to fight back. Our valley is growing, housing estates are springing up all over the place. Now is the time. Main street revitalisation projects need enthusiastic support. Build-and-run developers need shackling. The NSW government needs to spend more than loose change. And we all need to hang out in town a little more.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

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