Photo by Chris Peken

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“Don’t just take pictures, come and join us!” protesters implored to onlookers as the ‘Keep Newtown Weird & Safe’ Reclaim the Streets rally marched down King Street on a dark Saturday afternoon. A mix of beards, dresses and dreadlocks paraded as mobile speakers blasting tunes kept the rally in step.

The rally was a retaliation to the bashing Isaac Keatinge suffered whilst wearing a dress and makeup whilst on the street in Newtown. The incident resulted in fifteen stitches in his head.

Many believe that the bashing is symptomatic of a wider issue invading the Newtown community. Spokesperson from Reclaim the Streets James Loch draws a connection between Sydney’s lockout laws and the rise in homophobic violence.

“Half of the issue is the lockout laws have made Newtown into the ideal party destination for violent outsiders and it’s clashing with the area’s LGBTI community,” Loch said.

Newtown MP Jenny Leong says that rallies like Keep Newtown Weird & Safe are a sign of solidarity from the community.

“I know the local community has been shocked and saddened by the recent attack. People who live in our local area feel strongly about keeping our local suburbs safe and welcoming spaces. It is fantastic to see initiatives like the Reclaim the Streets rally to keep Newtown ‘Weird & Safe’. Events like that show that our community stands together against transphobia, homophobia, and any kind of violence,” Leong said.

In June last year, transgender woman Stephanie McCarthy was bashed at the Town Hall Hotel on King Street after facing transphobic insults.

Newtown Neighbourhood Centre CEO Liz Yeo says that homophobic and transphobic incidents are contrary to what Newtown’s community represents.

“Obviously those incidents are very out of line with the community we think we have here, which is a very inclusive community of people. Everyone should be safe and accepted here and that’s what has always been so special about this place,” said Yeo.

“There’s no doubt that in general terms a lot of the community would draw a link saying that there’s more incidents due to the lockout laws,” she added.

Statistics from the NSW Police have indicated that alcohol-related assaults were down 40 per cent in Newtown in January compared to the year before. Additionally the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported that non-domestic assaults in Newtown had remained stable compared to before the lock out laws had been introduced.

However this data fails to capture incidents that go unreported. Liz Yeo says that the Neighbourhood Centre is working on trying to get a more complete picture of how the community feels.

“We think there’s a place for trying to capture more of those anecdotal things that are occurring before the most terrible thing happens,” said Yeo.

Reclaim the Streets’ James Loch says that gentrification of the Inner West is also to blame for the new set of community challenges in Newtown.

“We saw the rent hikes coming a mile away and always assumed as a community we’d naturally just get pushed one suburb outwards at a time,” said Loch. “However the rents rose just as fast in Marrickville, Stanmore, Petersham and Leichhardt. This has left much of Newtown’s once visible ‘weird’ community either scattered among the outer suburbs, or migrating to Melbourne or Berlin.”

“Those left behind no longer have the comfort of concentrated colour to feel at ease in. Their isolation also makes it easier for the influx of bullies to single them out,” said Loch.

According to ABS data, the median household rent in Newtown has doubled since 2006 to $600 per week. 57 per cent of residents in Newtown rent, almost double the NSW average of 30 per cent.

Liz Yeo says that housing affordability and homelessness are the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre’s prime concerns.

“We would have on average around ten people a day who would present at the Neighbourhood Centre looking for some information or advice on housing affordability and homelessness… That’s a key thing we have noticed that has changed,” said Yeo. “We haven’t been able to keep pace with that demand.”

Yeo chairs the Newtown Vibe Roundtable, which works with the City of Sydney and Marrickville councils, local police, the Newtown Business Association and local member Jenny Leong. The Roundtable is part of an approach of empowering Newtown’s community and preventing the homogenisation of the inner city precinct.

James Loch believes a solution may lie in adapting Newtown’s night economy. “We can reduce violence by increasing the diversity of business and people on the streets at night.

Cafes and Restaurants should be allowed to operate late into the night,” he offered.

“King Street should be blocked off to traffic between 8pm and 4am on Friday and Saturday nights with markets and live entertainment booked. These measures will drastically increase the number of eyes on the street at night, increasing the area’s ability to self-regulate. Even hardened delinquents are less likely to throw the first punch when their grandma is watching,” said Loch.

Jenny Leong warns that a night economy built without an understanding and respect of Newtown’s vibrant community is not welcome.

Leong concluded: “We want Newtown to continue to be a place that people love visiting for a night out, but we want people coming to Newtown to be respectful of the vibe here. Our community won’t tolerate sexism, racism, homophobia or general drunken dickhead behavior.” (JF)

BY JORDAN FERMANIS