Port Kembla. Kembla meaning ‘plenty of wild fowl’ but to all contemporary intents and purposes — Steel City. Also Iron City, Copper City, Coal City, Heavy Industry City and, like all such places, subject to fluctuation.
In the early 1980s the various arms of BHP employed nearly 30,000 people in Port Kembla. That figure is now a little above 3,000. Business pages talk: ‘an oversupply of steel, overseas competition, a stubbornly high dollar and muted domestic demand from the construction sector have again brought steel to its knees.’
Until 20 February last year it was also home to Australia’s highest chimney stack, 198 metres. Impressive or what? Unwind half an athletics track, stick it up in the air and blow industrial waste out if it. Port Kembla Primary School was once located next door but was closed down due to pollution problems including lead-contaminated soil, acid rain and soot. But that’s all. A warning alarm was fitted to warn of high toxin levels. I’m not sure if the kids were sent home or just instructed not to breathe when it went off.
In 2008, an inspection confirmed that the stack had concrete cancer. Demolition was planned for 2010 at a cost of A$10 million. Correct. $10 million. A team of 30 people working on it for 20 months with nine NSW government agencies involved. Taken collectively those factors would slow things down, but there were also asbestos concerns.
Clearly the stack added a certain landmark frisson to Port. The Gong (the city of Wollongong) 10 k.s north and much bigger had nothing like this.
The stack did come down 12 months ago. The Illawarra Mercury had an 8-page commemorative wrap with a live blog. It was a major story in the Canberra Times. Thousands turned out to watch. Many of them would have been sad. The demolition would have left big hole in the landscape.I guess this is relevant. When I was chatting to Julie Howard (at left) about Port Kembla the stack and its fate came up very early in the conversation.
But this is not about the stack. It is about Wentworth St, Kembla’s main artery.
A couple of months ago I was due to make a visit to Illawarra Sports High not far away in Berkeley, had an hour to kill and needed a cup of coffee. I turned down Five Islands Road and took the funny little Darcy St dogleg to get me into Wentworth Street, drove down the hill, up the other side, did a U-turn and drove back again. I bought a paper and was directed to the Enigma Coffee Emporium where I met Julie and her excellent coffee and very fine home made cake.
I drank in as much of where I was as I could, because I wasn’t sure just where that was. And then I came back, twice, because I thought I needed to.
There was the architecture. Let’s call it NSW Deco, certainly with a strong ’40s and ’50s flavour but individual in a Dave Warner (at left and right) sort of way, a not-to-be-denied individuality, coupled with a little bit of ‘theoretically I don’t speak Hindi’ kind of individuality.
And there were the shops. More than half of them are empty. It is a ghost town in the middle of a conurbation.
I am moved by dying towns and we’ve seen lot of them. They are often the beginning of walks. Timber, mining, tourism — they are all likely to be near somewhere naturally beautiful or interesting, and they are all likely to be going up or down. Although I am very anxious in an empty shop, I like the patina of decay. I like thinking about who has been there and what they’ve been doing, the detail of social trajectories.
In that light I wondered what Wentworth Street had been like as a bustling shopping strip, if it had ever bustled because there wasn’t much bustling going on there now.
At left and below are glimpses of how it began, and what it became.
We found the Westfield’s mall — with more than 56,000 m2 of retail space (yes!!! punches air) — at Warrawong a kilometre away when we went to see Penguins of Madagascar. Film and mall were well suited. Both require 8 litres of coke and a cubic metre of pop corn for digestion.
The Warrawong Mall is one of the beasts that have killed Wentworth Street. And yet, and yet …
Let’s see a bit of what the street looks like now. The formidable houses are at ends of the main drag.
The lads have left their mark on some of the decoration.
The International Billy Cart Derby celebrated above, began in 1941, collapsed in the 1980s and recommenced in 2012.
Is this so very different from the Rosalie Gascoigne below?
It is art, decay as art as well as art in decay. But it might also be art growing out of decay — the vacant buildings, the cheap rents, the congenial company — that revitalises Wentworth Street.
Both hills are showing signs of life. Besides a whopping bottle shop, the eastern end is growing a cluster of bric a brac and antique shops, and a bakery with fabulous smells. Amanda Johnson (at left) collects and sells vintage material and makes it up into wonderfully inventive bits and pieces. Dulcie Dal Molin is president of the Red Point Artists Association based in a Wentworth Street property and organises the Billycart Derby. The Illawarra Mercury quotes her: ‘Since the first revived race in 2012, Wentworth Street now has boutique wedding shops and an arts precinct.’
The other hill is dominated by the pub but there’s a chemist, hairdresser’s, newsagent, gift shop, more wedding stuff, flowers, party hire. Kevin Crane (looking fabulous at left) from Broken Glass hairdressers has won awards.
It all just might work. The Wollongong City Council, which has just spent a small fortune on duding up its own mall, commissioned a town planning study about what to do with Wentworth St. It was published in 2007 and the recommendations were pallid, and cheap: work on the main street entrances, emphasis on pedestrians (there’s no one else there chaps), new street furniture and signage.
But, seriously, would you get town planners to sort out something like this? You’d have to agree for start about what the result was going to be.
I left with a sense that it might be women who make Wentworth Street into a home for more than their working sisters. Maybe that’s part of the regrowth phase. Low key projects, low financial investment, moderate to high emotional investment, modest ambitions.
I’ve got to say I like it the way it is right now, but a) I’m a blow-in and b) I’m not trying to make a living there.
It’s great to see these lovely Art Deco buildings. In Victoria some – eg in Horsham and Ballarat – were in danger of being consigned to the scrap heap, because people thought that only Victorian era buildings had historical significance. The Horsham Art Gallery has been saved and the Ballarat Civic Hall might yet be. Seen in context with other buildings of the era around Australia, like those here, shows why they are special. Lots else of interest on your blog.
I have never been there or planned to go so I enjoyed your unique observations capturing both its appeal and its desolation. You even slipped in a reference and two pictures of Dave Warner. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for this fascinating trip into Port Kembla. Great writing. It has made me want to go there. A friend of mine went there about 12 months ago. She and her partner are drawn to Industrial towns. They loved it. Some of those buildings are real gems.
HI David, lovely piece. Realised I’d not got to read your latest. Very interesting evocation. I knew exactly what you meant when you said NSW deco before I saw the pics. Nice respectful capturing of a town that’s not what it was but nevertheless has a strong life force. Joan