Renewtown

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT CATTO

It seems like a lot of cities of a certain age have a suburb named Newtown.

The general rule seems to be that they're usually the second centre to be created, after the main downtown area becomes established; so, most often, they're just a little more than walking distance from the core of the city, but easily accessible by modern transportation.

Somehow though, that distance acts as a barrier just long enough for them to get a bit run down, to lag behind the modernisation or gentrification that hits the closer suburbs first. So, they're the last bastion of the independent shopkeep, the stores set up thirty to fifty years ago in the one location, who are still hanging on - or not, as there are many empty storefronts - while shopping malls and megastores spring up nearby.

Sydney's Newtown is no exception. In Australian terms, it's one of the oldest parts of the city - dating from the mid-1800s, when trains began to cut through the farmland nearby - and the architecture shows it.

Fortunately, the lack of development in the past has maintained a lot of the old buildings, where much of the central city was swept away in favour of high-rise developments; so Newtown's got its own character still, and a walk down the now-busy main street shows it. Indeed, some shopkeepers still live above their stores, even as new chain stores move in next door and cause issues.

So Newtown to me is a time capsule, in a way - not just of its origins, but of the last time it was 'new', when posters were put up in the mid-eighties (never to be replaced, it seems), when houses had names as well as street numbers, when signs were painted by hand, when local phone numbers were only 7 digits long, and when small businesses started their names with as many "A"s as possible, to be first in the phone book.

Newtown is already changing fast; it's only a matter of time before the chain stores take over completely. But for now, rock 'n' roll may be for lease, but this town's still got soul.

Robert Catto

PO Box 806, Darlinghurst, NSW 1300, Australia

I'm a Canadian photographer now living in Sydney Australia, specialising in performing arts, live events, editorial and corporate / commercial work.