Living in Canberra as a Millennial is a conscious decision.
Having called this city home through childhood, high school, university and the first decade of my working life, I can absolutely say that it’s a decision made in contrast to my peers’ overwhelming belief that Canberra is no place for the young.
I watched as hordes of fellow graduates fled Canberra after graduating from university, heading for the more ‘vibrant’ cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (some even went to Adelaide, though that seemed a bit extreme to me).
As each year passed, and my partner and I stayed in the ACT, we grew accustomed to validating this decision to our bemused friends.
“We like it here,” we would say. “If you know where to go, there’s actually an amazing arts scene, great local music and pretty good nightlife. And you can still get home from Civic within 15 minutes, parking is cheaper and we have the lake and mountains to enjoy.”
Over the past few years, our protestations have become somewhat forced, as Canberra’s music and entertainment scene has dwindled.
As apartments and townhouses slowly inch all over the inner north, the artsy spaces of Braddon have given way to more conventional shopping districts (first Lonsdale St Traders, then Hamlet were razed to the ground to make way for more apartments), and the inevitable tension between residents and the noise made from bars and clubs has seen what little nightlife was left in the city begin to cave.
First the Phoenix Bar closed its doors in Civic, and then clubs slowly disintegrated into wine bars (farewell Academy, ICBM, Bar 32 – places that no doubt would not ring a bell for people currently in their twenties). Now, we’re left wondering if a post-COVID-19 Canberra will retain any sense of a thriving entertainment sector at all.
In some ways, lockdown measures have highlighted to us how little there was to relinquish when it comes to going out in Canberra. It’s rare for there to be much live music outside acoustic covers at gastro pubs, and we have long since stopped being a destination for touring bands, if we ever were. It was actually relatively easy to settle into months of staying in as the options for going out were pretty slim.
Yes, we still boast plenty of awesome places to eat and drink, but COVID-19 has put significant strain on cafes and restaurants, and it’s unclear how many will still be standing when things finally return to normal.
And I might be alone in this, but I don’t think a truly vibrant city can exist on food and drink alone. There needs to be a genuine and thriving culture of artists, musicians, performers, makers, creators, and an audience that encourages and supports them.
The Canberra arts sector – local theatre, music, and performance – has taken a huge hit, and was already limping along prior to coronavirus thanks to there being so few venues available, and only a handful of committed organisations (like Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Belconnen Arts Centre and Smiths Alternative) ensuring that local artists had opportunity and audiences available to them.
In all the coronavirus-related stimulus packages, nothing significant has been forthcoming for the arts – only the existing funding pools being brought forward, and an emphasis on assessing applications through the lens of the impacts of the virus.
When I look forward to a year from now, it’s hard to imagine what exactly will be left for us to point to when the Canberra-bashers wheel out the usual line of our city being ‘boring’. I picture rows of empty apartments lining Northbourne Avenue, and little in the way of a genuine local entertainment and arts culture remaining to boast of.
But where there is downturn, there is also opportunity. With the right support and genuine support from the Legislative Assembly, we could come back from this with a renewed focus on supporting and growing our arts and entertainment sector.
Funding could be dedicated to supporting our festivals, arts centres and independent galleries to throw open their doors again. Infrastructure could be invested in to provide more and bigger venues to showcase both local artists and attract those from interstate.
It might seem like a naive hope, but I believe we can prove the naysayers wrong, by coming out of this crisis stronger than we were going into it. We already have the talent – but we need the leadership to get us there.
Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in the ACT and was the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year.