BY CHRISTOPHER HARRIS
The Newtown Vibe Roundtable formed amidst fears of increasing violence in the suburb, following the introduction of the entertainment precinct’s lockout laws.
Leaders from the local community came together to find ways to maintain the suburb’s diversity and keep violence down. They believe their innovative solutions are working.
“We’re not about resisting change,” says Liz Yeo CEO of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, “we’re about being active in ensuring that this sense of diversity remains.”
The Neighbourhood Centre convened local police, the Newtown Business Precinct, the Liquor Accord, ACON, local councils and state MP Jenny Leong.
Their aim: to develop innovative ways to actively preserve the sense of diversity in the suburb.
Soon after the lockouts came into effect, Ms Yeo said she knew something wasn’t right when a local resident said she didn’t feel as safe on weekends. The Neighbourhood Centre decided to conduct a survey with local residents.
“They said they loved the vibe and the diversity, but it was the first time I heard people saying we’re feeling a little bit less safe,” Ms Yeo told City Hub.
When the Neighbourhood Centre decided to have a meeting to discuss the issue, they were surprised when they quickly received RSVPs from more than 700 people on Facebook.
That was following the bashing of trans woman Stephanie McCarthy in June last year.
A sustained trend of increased violence has since failed to materialise. That could be down to the actions of the Neighborhood Centre in actively shaping nightlife in the area.
The roundtable community meetings started in August 2015 and Ms Yeo said she believed they have yielded results in that short space of time. There is now a taxi rank to get people out of the area easily.
A lot of local pubs now have a self-imposed early closing time, which means the area doesn’t attract drunkards late at night.
Ms Yeo said a creative program called Friday Night Vibes has allowed locals to showcase what the area is about– music and creativity.
On Friday nights, with funding from the City, the centre holds a mini market selling locally made goods and art as well as live music performances.
“We have people at the train station handing out flowers, saying welcome to Newtopia”.
“This community is about music, the arts, and a welcoming inclusive vibe. It’s not just about policing, although that’s important, but it’s about the broader sense of identity.”
Ms Yeo, who has lived in the suburb since the 1980s said that the program wasn’t about keeping people out of the area, but rather about keeping the “welcoming” vibe that she loved about the suburb.
Gentrification may have made it more difficult to keep artists and the “weird” spirit of the suburb, but Yeo said she believed the suburb could change and still retain its character.
She said she liked the fact that at Friday Night Vibes concert held outside the Newtown Neighbour Centre, a professional could be sitting next to a homeless person.
Marrickville Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore, who is on the roundtable, said that she welcomed the increasing number of visitors to Newtown, but said community driven solutions needed to continue, as there “is more work to do”.
She said that there needed to be a focus on dealing with the increased complaints of harassment directed at women and LGBTIQ people in Newtown.
“But the bottom line is that the community driven changes being implemented in Newtown to date are working,” she said.
“Even with the significantly increased number of visitors to Newtown, the rate of violence hasn’t increased. In fact, we’ve had a reduction in violence over this recent summer compared to last summer.”
A NSW Police spokesperson said “Newtown Local Area Command have been regularly attending these round table meetings hosted by the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre.”
“Newtown Police will continue to liaise with the community and its members and encourage a positive relationship.”
Member for Newtown, Jenny Leong told City Hub that having a roundtable meant that when issues came up, there was a vast local knowledge available to solve problems.
“There are certainly some changes to the feeling on the street on a Friday and Saturday night, but we’ve shown that it is possible to keep venues open late without compromising on safety,” Ms Leong said.
She said the Newtown community was able to learn from the mistakes of Kings Cross, by having transport options as well as a mix of different sized venues.
“There are lots of major international cities that have developed innovative approaches to their night-time economies and we’ve been drawing from their experiences. But what’s key is that local communities need to have a say in the decisions that are made in their local area,” she said.
Newtown locals enjoying the Friday Night Vibes, which currently runs every week from 6-8pm. Photo: Diana Shypula, Prema Photo.