"It's representative of what Newtown is really about."
When Newtown made its way onto Sydney's cultural radar during the '60s it was known as a low income, blue-collar enclave. But today, the Newtown area is synonymous with being a hub of arts and culture — a mecca for young bohemian Sydneysiders and a haven for all things individual, eclectic and multicultural.
A group of concerned individuals put their heads together in 1976 to find a solution to the plethora of social issues faced by locals. They came up with the Newtown Neighborhood Centre; a not-for-profit co-operative that has provided free services in the community since its conception.
"The Neighborhood Centre runs truly amazing programs. Any one week we might have 500 people coming in to get assistance for different kinds of issues like homelessness, mental health, multicultural aid, drug and alcohol support, emergency referrals and so on," says Newtown Festival director Sue Andersen.
"How do you do better than those really fantastic awards? It's pretty mega."
For the 37th year, the Newtown Festival is hitting the streets to raise much-needed funds for the NNC and celebrate the spirit of the area and its people. This year, the festival is breaking free from the traditional one-day extravaganza to span an entire week (which is currently underway) with various events around the suburb, culminating in the all-day festival at Camperdown Memorial Rest Park on 8 November.
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The festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings. "It started as this tiny weenie little festival in the park, with a little stage and a couple of community stalls and over the years it got more and more popular," says Andersen. "It was a natural progression to expand into a week-long event. We were at capacity in the park and we wanted to spread it through the whole suburb."
The main affair covers a sprawling variety of events and attractions, with three music stages pumping out tunes from the likes of Jinja Safari, The Laurels, Le Pie and The Cops among many others. Local emerging artists will rub shoulders with big names, and a new busking performance space will give music enthusiasts and amateurs a chance to present their works to a huge crowd. "It's representative of what Newtown is really about, all in a day. Picking the best and highlighting it," says Andersen.
Photos by Jacquie Manning
And this year it's all happening in the spirit of a new theme — Newtopia. "My personal vision of Newtopia is for us to build on what already exists here in Newtown; to be a really inclusive community where people are able to express themselves culturally, artistically and politically, and for the whole suburb to support those who are not as well off. A good community feeling where inclusion is paramount and people are conscious," says Anderson.
It is no secret that Newtown is a creative hub for emerging and established artists, musicians, writers and eclectic small businesses, and there will be a sample of everything Newtown has to offer in events throughout the week. A writer's tent will be set up by local bookshop Better Read Than Dead, which will feature talks from high literature buffs, chefs, comedians and screenwriters and even children's story time and activities. Making a comeback this year is the Newtown Locals, which was established by a group of local beverage and food outlets and provides an opportunity for people to sample the best of the local fare from a group of friendly, familiar venues. "What they're doing is amazing. They're shutting their venues down for the day, all their staff are volunteering and they're actually donating all of the proceeds back to the centre," says Andersen.
But what is the director looking forward to the most?
"Well... I gotta say... the kids' section," she laughs. "I don't have kids, but the area is really beautiful and it's a little quieter than a lot of the other places, so it's a nice little haven under the trees with lots of decorum and people are really chilled out."
Photo by Jacquie Manning
When asked about why the festival is a free event, Anderson mentions that this is a topic that has been discussed for quite some time. "People ask that question a lot: 'Why don't we just charge for the festival?' But we are really committed to keeping the festival accessible to people who might not necessarily be able to afford to go to a great community event," she says.
The festival is a true testament to the power of community support, with over 150 volunteers, artists and musicians donating their time and energy to make the event a reality. It was such a success that it took out two awards in 2014 — first place at the FBi Radio SMAC Awards for 'Best Music Event', and also won 'Best NSW Community Event' at the Australian Event Awards.
"Well I've got to say," Andersen laughs, "it definitely puts some pressure on this festival. I mean, how do you do better than those really fantastic awards? It's pretty mega. It's really good validation that we're doing the right thing. I think it's just going to get bigger and bigger."