It was February 2011
and I was finally leaving. After a couple of years of attempted escape, I had received a proverbial golden ticket, guaranteeing me a place in a fancy degree at a fancy institution in a big city to the south. My bags were packed, my bedroom of 10 years was (mostly) cleared of my junk and I jumped in the car without a hint of sentimentality. I do not recall if I looked back at the family home as my parents drove me away.
It is a funny thing to grow up in a place and then leave at the exact moment you begin to understand it. I had lived in almost the same suburb in Newcastle since I arrived with my parents and my brother, fresh off the plane from New Zealand, in early 1995. Of course, the world is a small place when you are young, and the mind renders everything in black and white. I may have come from New Zealand, but Newcastle was where I lived, where I knew the streets and the suburbs and the lay of the land. It was where my friends were. Newcastle was "home", a fact as unchangeable as sunrise, and it did not merit further inquiry as a place or need to be appreciated on its own terms. Of course I knew it had value; the beaches were great and the pubs, as I discovered when I reached a certain age, were cheap. But I lacked the knowledge and the experience to imagine any other life.
Although I had never felt much interest in going anywhere else apart from our family's occasional family trips across the Tasman, that changed when my parents paid off the house and decided to take us overseas. In the course of a year, my mind was opened to the world. The energy of London, the old seat of Empire, which belied its grey and gritty setting. The melancholy beauty of the Somme. The vast scale and eccentricity of Tokyo, a city which is like living on a different planet. I realised there were cities where I could walk down the street to watch an internationally-renowned jazz band, or visit a gallery and contemplate the masterpieces of the finest artists of their era. Compared to that, Newcastle had … what did it have? Did it have anything? I could not see (or was too immature to notice) the good in my hometown - the artistic and musical community that was its own, its progressive and even-handed way of looking at the world, and the efforts then being made by locals like Marcus Westbury who had a vision of the city and what it could become with a bit of help. In my own mind, I turned my back and decided to move on.
In the time since I made that decision, I have continued to visit the city regularly and have kept a finger on its pulse. I know the shibboleths of local discourse: "truncation" - "fig trees" - "high-rise" - "V8s". However, as the years have gone by, a bit quicker every time, I have made the inevitable transition from local to visitor. I'm most conscious of my alien status in the small moments, like when I can't remember whether Glebe Road or the Pacific Highway is the quickest way to the beach, or when I get asked for my loyalty program address details at Westfield Kotara (sorry, Garden City).
At the same time, Newcastle has itself transitioned. What was formerly a nationwide urban punching-bag has become a byword for renewal and regional pride. It has experienced a rapid upswing in fortune and, correspondingly, property prices. The consumer jargon of the modern bourgeoisie is everywhere evident: "boutique" - "authentic" - "artisanal" - "hand-crafted" - "locally-designed". Give it another few years and Newcastle will start showing up in travel magazines, like Monocle's The Escapist, which are intended for the globetrotting elite.
The accelerating reversal of Newcastle's bad fortune is not without its problems. Suburbs which were cheap and cheerful ten years ago are now getting too expensive for their residents - many of whom go back generations - to stay on. And it is hard to attract tourists to any city on a large scale without turning it into a Disneyland version of itself which can be monetised and consumed. Nonetheless, it seems this upswing has been a fantastic outcome for Newcastle and its citizens overall, and I trust that the city can devise local solutions to these global issues. But an old Newcastle - the one I carry in my head, frozen in time on the day of my departure - is becoming less a physical place than a mere idea with every passing day.
Nowadays, when I leave my "new home" for a visit to my "old home", it is always a fresh experience. Usually I will try to make time to walk through The Hill and the East End, the relaxed nature and heritage value of which I now understand. Sometimes I'll go to the Art Gallery (which recently held a John Olsen exhibition, don'tcha know?) or see what I can pick up at MacLean's Booksellers on Beaumont Street. I'll go to Blackbutt Reserve and try to think of another place with so much reserved bushland so close to the city (so far, no luck). I might even order an artisanal, locally-brewed craft beer at one of the many authentic, family-owned eateries which have sprung up. All jokes aside, what I mean is that the gaps of my understanding of this city - where it has come from, where it is going, the merits of the life it offers to its residents - are now being filled in.
Finally, with this newfound appreciation has come a more existential concern. Did I back the wrong horse by leaving? How sure was I that my hometown could not give me what I wanted out of life? How much do I want to get trapped in a mercenary city where the best way to service your mortgage (if the bank'll even give you one) is to take out a second mortgage? Maybe this is the psychological pull, back towards what you already know, which brings many people home to where they grew up. Still though, I wonder how much the locals would appreciate the arrival of yet another big-city blow-in.