2014: the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s that time of year when writers feel the need to wrap the last twelve months into a tight bundle allowing 2015 to come in smoothly, unimpeded by any scrappy unfinished business from the year before. And who am I to rock the boat? I like a good list as much as the next obsessive compulsive, so here goes.

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The good
When the West End is good it is very, very good. Our favourite part of town has a vibrancy and hopefulness which is plain even to the most cynical old-time Novocastrian. You know the ones, their voices form a grim chorus bleating out drab mantras: “It’ll never work in Newcastle”, “It’s all been tried before and nothing ever changes”. Well yada-yada-yada to them!

It’s always good to prove negativity wrong and no more so than with the delicious proverb ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. The West End is coming into its culinary own with a group of passionate locals heading up regular Food Safaris to new foodie hot spots. (Food Safari reviews are posted here) Cafes and specialty shops have come to our part of town, with a new bakery planned to open in early 2015. There’s just one gastronomic wish waiting to be granted by the New Year fairy – a good deli (preferably European style) for our home turf.

It’s thrilling to see a flash new hairdresser and a groovy urban cycling pod also deciding to make the West End their commercial home. After a long period being empty The Star has been reborn, the new residents deciding rightly that just west of the city centre is the perfect place to live. This year Christmas lights came to the West End for the first time in decades, illuminating Hunter Street and providing a lovely backdrop for our two street pianos, ‘Sam’ and ‘James’, who have proved to be wildly popular. Thanks to Jo Chisholm-Ray of cstudios Art Gallery and her enthusiastic band of supporters this year our local waterway, Cottage Creek, went from being grimy and congested to clean, green and renewed.

The bad
The impact of the Federal Government’s cuts to the national broadcaster hit home when our beloved radio station, ABC Newcastle 1233, lost nine staff including on air gems Carol Duncan and Helen Clare. The pain in breakfast presenter Aaron Kearney’s voice as he struggled to remain professional, while announcing the magnitude of the local cuts, was palpable.

The ugly
December 2014 saw the end of a direct rail line into Newcastle. When the last train left Newcastle station late on Christmas night it brought to a conclusion a service which began way back in 1858. For us in the West End it meant the closing of our home station of Wickham (which I always dreamed would be re-named ‘West End’). I debated going in to see the final train pull away, but chickened out. It would simply be too sad to watch that last train leave, head west, rattling along that familiar city-to-Civic stretch before scooting under the Wickham station overpass for the last time.

But there is no avoiding a truth, no matter how unpleasant. On the 27th, with a grey drizzling sky perfectly reflecting the sombre mood, I headed to the West End stretch of our former rail line. Down at Stewart Avenue the boom gates weren’t just up, they were gone. Further down the line, at the perfectly named Railway Street, the level crossing was now permanently barred and the shortcut, which for almost a century had connected the West End directly to the front door of the Lass O’Gowrie pub, was no more.

Wickham station itself was barricaded with industrial metal fencing, barring access to the platform. A living station had become a no-go zone patrolled by a lone station security guard. I brought a candle with me and settled down on the overhead bridge to light it and take a moment to recognise and remember: the closure of our home station, the end of a direct rail line into the city, the process which had seen an order by the Supreme Court of NSW on Christmas Eve forbid the removing of any existing rail line, yet then see a large section of rail track subsequently removed and the sudden taking down of 700m of overhead wiring around Wickham which despite being there for decades had most conveniently been deemed to be suddenly ‘unsafe’.

The candle was lit; it flickered and struggled to stay alight. I started photographing Wickham station, the metal barricades and the Station Closed sign. I could almost see ghosts on that deserted, eerily still platform. As I clicked away the security guard spotted me and called up “You can’t photograph the station”. It seemed like the final insult. “Really?” I thought “just watch me.”

If you support a heavy rail line to Newcastle the group Save our Rail have constant status updates on their Facebook page Save Our Rail NSW Incorporated. A pithy comment about this issue appeared in the letters pages of the Newcastle Herald recently: http://www.theherald.com.au/story/2786050/letter-light-rail-talk-purely-fantasy

If you’d like to hear both sides of the issue and see a video of the last train to leave Newcastle have a look at this: http://www.theherald.com.au/story/2784964/last-train-leaves-newcastle-station-video. The Newcastle Herald also ran an interesting editorial on the issue: http://www.theherald.com.au/story/2784816/editorial-dangers-in-the-rail-line-battle

ABC Newcastle 1233 interviewed the NSW Minister for Transport and Minister for the Hunter, Gladys Berejiklian, on 30 December and she answered questions submitted from Novocastrians. You can listen to the interview here: https://soundcloud.com/1233newcastle

Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires and infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me: kimberly@netspace.net.au; 0413 250 155.

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