Ten years ago, Newcastle was a desert of unemployment and bleak prospects. Today, it’s one of Australia’s hottest places to invest, a world-leader in urban renewal, and most importantly an essential weekend away.

Let us begin this journey with an important disclaimer: this isn’t your usual rags to riches fairytale. It isn’t a story about a town that started off gritty and dirty to suddenly be championed. This town certainly didn’t rise above its roots, and it hasn’t become so sparkly and well dressed and nice-smelling that it’s forgotten it once had a bad perm and was called Charlene.

Certainly there is change happening in Newcastle. Lots of it. Edgy new cafés (slash bakeries slash galleries slash ‘creative spaces’); beautifully restored pubs and bars; fabulously unique shopping (and we mean unique); and a pride about the place that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

But the really interesting thing? There’s been no magical influx of wealth. No sudden new development that caused crowds to come rushing in. No, Newcastle’s transformation has been a grassroots movement by locals and for locals, and unlike most gentrifications, which attract hipsters and poseurs and a sense of disconnection, the changes here are bringing the community even closer together.

This is a story of gentrification done differently – and even if you’re not likely to visit in the next few months or the next few years, it’s a story worth reading. Because this, we’re willing to argue, might just be what the future of Australia looks like.

Art in the clink

Without an enormous influx of wealth, Newcastle’s gentrification has required some creative adaptions of existing spaces. Several pubs are currently undergoing facelifts (walk along Darby Street or the Honeysuckle Precinct for evidence) and office blocks are being turned into speakeasies (more on that in a moment). But the most outstanding, if somewhat spooky, example is a building on government-owned land: The Lock-Up.

“From 1861 to 1982, this building was a police station and lock up,” explains Jessi England Sideris, The Lock-Up’s director. “These days it’s an art gallery.” After its time as a police station, The Lock-Up was a cultural centre, a heritage centre and a museum, among other incarnations, but in 2013 it became a dedicated exhibition space. “It’s an amazing way to use Crown Land,” she says. “It’s such a loaded space that it can be quite an interesting place for artists to show their work. Our residency program has become quite well known in the national art community.”

It’s not hard to see why. You can view artworks inside ‘Cell A’, which measures less than two square-metres and is a significant example of colonial penal design, as well as an eerie space for the moving projection currently on display there (a snippet of history: the cell size was introduced by Governor Gipps in 1838 as an economy measure). Or admire the sculpture in ‘Cell C’, an even creepier setting: the brown leather walls curve inwards, covered in scratched graffiti made by bored prisoners.

A lucky place

Perhaps because the city has shunned neon lights and aggressive development, the past seems a lot closer in Newcastle. Its heritage streetscapes, in particular, are an absolute delight to take a walk along, with buildings representing almost every era and a glut of those from the 1800s, still wonderfully intact. There are also several pubs that date back to the town’s earliest days, including one owned by the ex-Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Jeff McCloy.

The Lucky Hotel might sound like a fortunate place but, like so many buildings in Newcastle, it sat empty and unused for nearly a decade before McCloy and his family restored it to its rightful condition. It makes for a particularly heartwarming success story for the sheer breadth of its scale. The $6.5 million commitment – personally funded by McCloy – was “a love project,” his daughter Hayley admits. “It used to be a place you’d come to watch bands,” explains Hayley, who is also the pub’s marketing manager.

“But it closed when Newcastle’s live music scene slowed down.” She gestures at the courtyard, a palatable version of Newcastle’s old soul, served up with a vertical garden, polished concrete floors and a bar serving craft beer. “This wasn’t even a courtyard – there had been so many add-ons to the building over the years, it was a big ramshackle mess.”

Beneath the rubble, however, was an incredible amount of history – including a variety of glass bottles. “We found them when we dug up the building’s foundations; some of them date back to the early 1800s. The Lucky Hotel first opened for business in the 1860s, but the bottles are thought to have been brought in [and reused].”

The bottles feature on two walls of The Lucky. They’re not only a small reminder of the pub’s rich heritage, but a gorgeously apt example of Novocastrian creativity at work: a means of fusing modern design with Newcastle’s past to push local enterprise forward.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia here,” says Hayley. “This was a special place not just historically, but in recent times for many Novocastrians. We often hear stories like, ‘I saw my first band here’, or ‘I met my husband 20 years ago in that corner where the billyard tables used to be.’” To pay homage to that, a custom-designed ‘drumkit chandelier’ hangs from the ceiling of the main bar area.

Cycling city

Newcastle has recently welcomed electric bike-sharing public transport service; Bykko. Cycling around hilly Newcastle has never been easier with the electric-bikes zooming you up-hill in no time.

With 19 docking stations across the city centre, and over 100 electric bikes available; Bykko is one of Newcastle’s newest answers to public transport.

Down-to-earth dining

Owner of acclaimed Hunter Valley winery and hatted restaurant Margan, Lisa Margan is no stranger to the hospitality game, but she says Newcastle is its own specific market. “You need to know this city before you open anything here,” she asserts. “It’s unpretentious and very comfortable in its own skin. You try anything that feels contrived, and the city will sniff it out. Locals can spot inauthenticity a mile off.”

This knowledge was front of mind when Margan decided to open an upmarket bar in the Honeysuckle entertainment precinct – a daring move, considering the area was known, until recently, for its dual offerings of tap beer and brawls. “We wanted to raise the bar – no pun intended – without putting anyone off,” she explains.

The Landing has been welcomed with open arms. “Newcastle was ready for it,” says Margan. “We’ve attracted our own clientele to the precinct,” adds sommelier Trent Alder. “But Newcastle’s whole hospitality scene is changing. Previously it was just big pubs; now there are many better venues to find employment in. We even have our first two-hatted restaurant.”

Like Alder, bartender Josh O’Brien, has worked at The Landing since its opening. After stints in Paris, New York and Dubai, he moved home to discover that the town had “an energy around that wasn’t here five years ago. There’s just more confidence here; people are willing to try new things.” While not every hospitality venture is as slickly executed as Margan’s, there are some real gems to be found among the plethora of new venues here.

“People told us no one would understand a cocktail bar, that all Newcastle wanted was craft beer and vodka red bulls, but I believe I sell more cocktails here on a nightly basis than almost any bar in Sydney,” says Ethan Ortlipp.

One half of the duo behind wildly successful bar Coal and Cedar – which Ortlipp co-founded with business partner Ryan Hawthorne – Ortlipp says Newcastle has been mistakenly dismissed in the hospitality industry. “It’s always been considered untouchable. The lock-out laws were trialled here and that’s what it’s known for in industry circles.”

Ortlipp, on the other hand, long suspected that people were “crying out for something new”. His ‘speakeasy’ concept was a daring one regardless. With no website, no physical address listing, no phone number and no signage, and only an Instagram account as a means of promotion, he took what traditional marketers would consider a sizeable risk. “We had a line out the door on our very first night,” Ortlipp says.

The bar itself is brilliantly executed – done on a low budget, though so well thought-out that it’s forgivably so – and set in an old bank, which had been converted into depressing office spaces and then sat, unused, on Newcastle’s busiest street for over a decade. Unthinkable!

“This is the most innovative, young city I’ve ever seen,” Ortlipp states. “Everyone’s chatting about what it’s going to be like soon, there are lots of young people venturing out and starting their own businesses. It’s almost an anthropological experiment.”

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