15 July 2020

Will post-COVID Canberra prove our city's worst critics right?

| Zoya Patel
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Canberra nightlife

Will Canberra’s remaining nightlife be killed off by COVID-19? Photo: Martin Robles.

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.

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Just realised the author of this piece is the same person quoted complaining about the Canberra Writers festival because it wasn’t “diverse” enough and didn’t match her tastes.

Seems pretty much the same message here, “fun is what I decide it is”.


nemesisrocks4:10 pm 17 Jul 20

Couldn’t agree more. The “City Renewal Authority” has arguably made the situation worse.

A board of old bureaucrats – who don’t even live in the City Precinct – endlessly approving new “edgy” developments without any thought given to planning.

There’s plenty of opportunity for development and culture to co-exist, but it does need some thought to go into it. There’s no reason why an open market space like The Hamlet could have been retained on the ground floor, and for a development to stand over the top.

Maybe with all the sourdough bread baking, people will learn something about culture – you need to create the conditions that suit it and then leave it alone to grow. This has not yet been tried in Canberra… hence the funny-smelling culture that never rises properly.

By the same token if you make too much bread you cannot eat it all and it goes stale.

And franky places like Braddon that is what has happened, the formula that worked (for some) became over saturated by more establishments trying to emulate others that it became stale.

But the one thing I’ve learned is the place constantly changes, the places I went to in my youth no longer exist because times change.

I wouldn’t have mentioned Tuggeranong and thriving arts in the same sentence. And here in Woden there is nothing for the arts and for youth entertainment. We just have more apartments being built with even less community facilities than before.

Canberra Times had a good article today where the Tuggeranong Arts lady finally stood up for the far south of the city.

My personal tastes haven’t been catered for in a changing city.

The city is therefore objectively boring.

Me too Chewy.

I want the Rolling Stones to play at the Deakin shops on Friday evenings. I’ll throw a two dollar coin in Jaggers cap.

Whenever anyone asserts Canberra is a great place for young people to live, it always ends with “and it’s so easy to drive everywhere in a car, and there’s always plenty of free parking, and you can drive anywhere in 15 minutes, and it’s a great place to be a car driver, and aren’t all the roundabouts so charming!”

Too much mental anguishing here. Right now we are living in the best city of the best country in the world. As proof just go for a walk around the lake or into the nearby hills and take some deep breaths of crisp fresh air, beneath clear blue skies and admire the uncrowded views.

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