Read the Vibe: the fight to keep Newtown weird, safe and unapologetically queer

Read the Vibe: the fight to keep Newtown weird, safe and unapologetically queer

Stories/300 , Issues/Arts & Culture , Issues/Policy , Issues/Alcohol & Drugs
Newtown NSW 2042, Australia
27th Apr 2018
Read the Vibe: the fight to keep Newtown weird, safe and unapologetically queer
Meet the local organisations trying to keep the Newtown vibe alive.

Traffic was halted as a procession of hula-hooping harlequins, roaming DJ booths and dancing locals dressed in their finest freaky fashions boogied its way down King Street in a cloud of bubbles and bass. The third annual Keep Newtown Weird and Safe Protestival, organised by the Sydney contingent of Reclaim the Streets on April 22nd, 2018 was a statement about the spirit and defiance of a community.

A hive of creativity and alternative culture nestled in the inner west of Sydney, Newtown has been witness to plenty of change over the years. Share houses filled with artists and punks are being edged out by skyrocketing real estate prices. The main precinct, teeming with alternative boutiques, second hand stores and a melting pot of international restaurants, is under threat from becoming little more than a transit route if the proposed Westconnex scheme goes ahead.

A community characterised by openness, acceptance and embracing the "weird" has been fighting to maintain that identity amongst a variety of threats. The flow-on effect of Sydney's contested lockout laws and the tension stirred up by the last year's same sex marriage plebiscite are chief among them.

Source: Canned Fruit.
Source: Canned Fruit.

In spite of inevitable shifts and the reach of gentrification, various stakeholders in the local community are working to maintain the local "vibe" and Newtown's identity as a safe space for various characters and communities.

"Newtown is a colourful, creative and loving community, that has always been a welcoming and safe home to all manner of weird and wonderful people," said Reclaim The Streets spokesperson Blair Bennie.

A Rabble with a cause

Reclaim the Streets' inaugural rally to Keep Newtown Weird and Safe took to the streets in May 2016 in response to the homophobic bashing of a 25-year-old man who was targeted for wearing a dress. Although not isolated, this incident was the straw that broke the camel's back. A show of defiance in the face of anti-social behaviour, the rally was and continues to be a protest against rising homophobic and transphobic violence beginning to infiltrate the community.

A shared anxiety had begun to spread, and Newtown didn't feel as safe as it once did. It would be naive to paint the suburb as an untarnished utopia of alternativeness and queerness before the lockout laws opened a valve for hatred to spew in, but it wouldn't be incorrect to say that a certain vibe was being disrupted.

Seeking solutions, the Newtown Vibe Roundtable was established in 2015. Headed by the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and the Member for Newtown, Greens MP Jenny Leong (an important figurehead in local democracy following the protested merging of the local council into the amalgamated Inner West Council), the Roundtable incorporates a range of representatives from different groups including councils, police, business and community organisations (including Reclaim The Streets).

Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by: Reclaim the Streets.
Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by Reclaim the Streets.

Defining and defending the "vibe"

The Newtown Neighbourhood Centre found that the greatest attribute people value about Newtown is its "character" - "diverse, accepting, eclectic, welcoming". The Roundtable aims to work with community members and decision makers to maintain this "vibe".

"We're not all going to agree every time on what we want to do and say in response to something, but what we will always come back to is that there is something we all have in common, which is that we all want to protect this thing that we've loosely termed the 'Newtown vibe', because it's about the community," explained Liz Yeo, CEO of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. "I've always termed it as the Newtown VOWS: Vibrant, Open, Weird and Safe."

One thing Liz encourages everyone to do is to report any incidents to the police, and seeking out the assistance of Gay & Lesbian Liaison Officers (GLLO) if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

"The hard core data would say there hasn't been an increase in reported crimes relative to the significant increase in foot traffic to Newtown, but the anecdotal data would say people have reported more low level harassment and a greater sense of feeling unsafe, particularly late at night on weekends," said Liz.

Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by: Reclaim the Streets.
Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by Reclaim the Streets.

All locked out and nowhere to go

This communal sense of unease is deeply rooted in the flow-on effects of the Sydney lockout laws. As the city's traditional party hotspots began to wane and punters were turned away, people began looking elsewhere to play out their nights. Alcohol-fuelled crowds traded in Kings Cross for King Street (Newtown's main drag), converging on the Inner West. Elsewhere, the doors were closed on them at 1.30a.m., and bars were forced to call last drinks at 3.00a.m..

Not everyone who started making their way into Newtown was aware of the unwritten rule of "anything goes", and the safety that members of the LGBTQI community and others felt in the comfortable bubble of Newtown began to erode.

In 2015, the year after the lockout laws were introduced, a transgender woman was targeted and bashed at a popular central Newtown pub, where she was due to perform as part of a regular music night featuring female-identified artists. While the community unanimously condemned the actions of the perpetrators, the lack of care and responsibility taken by the venue and security staff was also called into question.

Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by: Reclaim the Streets.
Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by Reclaim the Streets.

The delicate business of alcohol

This event was a big driver for the inaugural community meeting organised by the Newtown Round Table, and also kick-started action from the Newtown Liquor Accord. Local venues agreed to enforce a localised lockout law in Newtown, with exceptions only for local hospitality workers coming off late shifts.

"It came as a reaction to the lockouts themselves and it was a decision made by the late night operators to have some voluntary measures put in place," explained Richard Adamson, current President of the Liquor Accord (and co-founder of local craft beer legends Young Henrys). "The intent of that was to make it less attractive for people who were maybe finishing their night in the city and then coming into Newtown after that... looking to kick on."

The Liquor Accord also spearheaded a poster campaign for local venues to promote the values and vibe of Newtown, and training with bouncers and bar staff about managing instances of assault and intimidation.

"You can't doubt that visitation here has gone up, it's much busier than it ever used to be," said Richard. "It's partly the lockouts, but it was also partly that the offering was good, so when people came here they really enjoyed it. So do you see it as being a 'victim of success', or do you say 'wow, we're actually doing something pretty unique here that is worth working for'? And I think it is [the latter]."

"The conversation you're likely to hear out there is that 'Newtown has changed for the worse'. I don't really believe that, I think that social media can heighten things at times. And I think the police are probably the most responsive they've ever been," he added.

Richard is of the opinion that Newtown has come a long way from the place he used to come see punk bands in his teenage years, and he's positive that with the right mix of late night businesses the area can flourish while maintaining what makes it unique.

Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by Reclaim the Streets.
Photo credit: Tolmie. Supplied by Reclaim the Streets.

Queer by nature, fabulous by design

As many locals would attest, Newtown's place as queer safe space is a huge part of its identity. The area has a legacy of queer parties and drag events to rival the glittery, rainbow paved history of Oxford Street. Some movers and shakers in the local scene are looking to bring back a bit of that old magic - Alex Dugan is one of them.

"It is interesting having seen over the years the shift in just goes up and down I've noticed. When I came into Newtown I was pretty blown away by how creative and accepting and inclusive this community was," said Alex, adding that the biggest shift she noticed came after the lockout laws.

"I noticed it creating an unsafe space for people who call Newtown home... Local communities like Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and lots of bars did step up and try to combat that and preserve the vibe. But it's still a work in progress."

Alex is the co-founder and organiser of Canned Fruit, an all-inclusive local mid-weekly party night showcasing queer performance artists and DJs. Sitting alongside other popular local queer nights like Birdcage at the iconic Sly Fox and the relaunch of the iconic Imperial Hotel (of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert fame) a pirouette away in Erskineville. Canned Fruit celebrated its first birthday in February 2018 and is only set to get bigger as it continues making room for queer people and their friends to be proud, loud and unapologetic.

"It's pretty exciting and pretty amazing to see that it did pick up traction and that we have honestly created this really warm, inclusive family," said Alex.

Alex encourages anyone who runs an event or venue to "think about small things" when it comes to inclusivity, like instating gender-neutral bathrooms, disabled access, being mindful of language used in promotional materials, and making it clear to punters that the bar staff are there to support them.

"Supporting your local queer parties and events is also a huge thing," says Alex. It could be in the form of volunteering, or standing up for someone when you're out... but it takes more than watching RuPaul's Drag Race at home, that's for sure.

Source: Canned Fruit.
Source: Canned Fruit.

The centre of a not-so-civil debate

The importance of making queer support unashamedly visible and tangible in the neighbourhood was reinforced in 2017. During the tension of the same sex marriage postal vote, every second restaurant window and storefront was sporting "vote yes" signs and rainbow flags. Many of them are still up today. The Newtown Neighbourhood Centre publicly supported marriage equality.

"Loads of people have come here saying 'this is a place where I felt I could be who I was, whoever that might be, and I would be accepted, and find a place I could call home'," said Liz.

As the central hub of the community, the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre continues to demonstrate support for LGBTIQ rights - but this is but one part of their commitment to preserve the vibe.

"We don't see ourselves as the sole guardians of everything that happens in Newtown. What I think is amazing about this community is the community themselves will take up the issues that they care about... There are definitely things we can play a role in mobilising the community around, and a couple of the ones that we have played a role in have been affordable housing and advocating for renter's rights."

While this atmosphere fostered a bubble of support and empathy, Newtown also became a target for intimidation. Numerous (and often unsubstantiated) threats of violence filtered through social media, and the "Straight Lives Matter" group staged a bizarre attempt to provoke 'Yes' voters on King Street. Soon after the triumph of marriage equality was announced, queer themed street art was attacked and destroyed by people from outside the area.

Pictured: Keep Newtown Safe and Weird rally.
Pictured: Keep Newtown Safe and Weird rally.

Newtown's patron saint will rise again

It was little surprise that religious groups targeted a mural that popped up overnight on the day the result of the plebiscite was announced - a provocative depiction of Tony Abbott with his hands Cardinal Pell's pants.

More recently, as the friendly rabble of Keep Newtown Weird and Safe made their way from the hub of Newtown to Sydney Park to cap things off with a fashion parade and a family friendly rave on Sunday, a special detour was made to visit what remains of another mural, 'Saint George', a beloved portrait of the late singer and gay icon George Michael depicted as a saint wearing a rainbow stole.

Hearts broke when Saint George was targeted. A young man was charged with graffiti offences, claiming he was "defending his religion". Locals soon took to the black patches of black paint slathered over the work and chalked messages of love over it. The Reclaim The Streets parade took up the chalk as well, covering the wall in more messages of support. The artist behind the work, Scott Marsh, has promised Saint George will rise again. Marsh is also the artist behind the Abbott/Pell piece, as well as the mural that replaced it just in time for the 20th of April, depicting Greens leader Richard Di Natale smoking a bong.

Newtown is a community that took a large advertising firm to task when they painted over an iconic local mural. Street art is as intrinsic to Newtown as being socially progressive, or loyal to Clem's chicken shop, and locals will defend it.

Newtown might be easy to dismiss as a hipster-ised playground, or a gathering place for people leading genuine and some less-genuine alternative lifestyles, or the poor man's Melbourne. Yet there's an undeniable "vibe" and a sense of comfort that is greater than any one meeting, mural, rally or party. All those things have a role to play.

Every movement or action has its role - from the Neighbourhood Centre's community markets, meetings and affordable housing action plans, Reclaim The Streets' "protestivals", the Liquor Accord's measures to put community over profit, or the people planning parties and creating safe spaces. It is all kindling in the bonfire of the Newtown vibe. Maybe modern Australia can stand to take a leaf out of Newtown's book?

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