Newtown Vibe Worth Protecting

This opinion piece by Jenny Leong appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 5th 2015.



Some of my first experiences of Sydney, as a newly arrived teenager from Adelaide, came in the early hours of the morning. As a waiter in Circular Quay, our nights out began when others were starting to wind down.

Dancing in the Cross, playing pool at the Oxford, walking out of the Imperial to see the sunrise over Erskineville - these are all part of why I love this city.

These days my late-night struggle for a cab tends to start after long parliamentary sittings rather than nights out. But I love the late-night culture of Sydney, and Newtown in particular. I don't want to shut it down and lock it up.

That said, it must be acknowledged that the "vibe" in Newtown is changing. It's clear the law and order response that imposed lockouts on Kings Cross has had a significant impact on the area and on Sydney's nightlife.

While crime data showed the January 2014 measures reduced the rates of assault, they were unable to determine if lockouts and last drinks were the sole determining factors.

Less people will mean less drunken, offensive and aggro idiots making people feel unsafe, being abusive and in general ruining it for everyone. But what else is lost when lockouts are imposed?

Lockouts don't stop alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour and violence. It's not like Cinderella: sexist, transphobic and racist dickheads don't magically appear after 3am. Unfortunately, they can surface at any time.

Lockouts move the problem down the road; they move it inside houses, down lanes or to other pubs in other suburbs. History tells us that prohibition doesn't work, whether it's alcohol, other drugs, or violent behaviour in general.

It's positive that many of Newtown's late-opening venues have agreed to restrict the sale of shots and doubles after a certain time. It's positive that these venues seem aware of emerging concerns in the community and want to do something about it.

However, this solution needs to be about more than self-imposed measures by the big, late-night venues.

We need to look at the variety of entertainment after midnight. It's OK to have one or two large noisy booze barns where you can get drunk with your mates and have a lazy pash at the end of the night, provided it's done in a way that isn't causing harm to others. But a whole suburb of this kind of venue is going to create problems.

That's why we need to look at policy and legislation that encourages more small late-night venues, where a couple of friends can keep chatting until 5am over one more "one for the road?" or those finishing shift work can grab a bite to eat.

Let's ditch prohibition and focus on creating the type of late-night environment we want: live music - in venues and on the streets - dancing like there's no one watching, laughing around crap shots on pool tables, good food, feeling safe to walk down the street.

Recently we held a public meeting at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre to talk about how the community could protect the Newtown "vibe". Hundreds attended.

A young woman shocked herself by suggesting we needed more police, albeit the friendly, smiling kind. Another said she'd been bowled over by revellers and no longer felt safe on the street on weekend nights. Some suggested a "No Dickheads" policy, or a team of "Newtown ambassadors" at the station and on the streets.

While you can't regulate for more buskers and impromptu dancing on our streets, we should be looking at how we encourage this kind of non-commercial, non-alcohol focused community activity.

The same goes for more late-running transport options to get people into and out of the area.

We should be able to dance for as long as we want, have a nightcap at 5am, and a game of pool after a long night at work. We should also be able to walk down the street safely and without fear.

To do it we need strategies that foster a diverse late-night atmosphere, strategies that address aggression and alcohol-fuelled violence. It is possible.

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