Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion over an article in the Canberra Times recently about whether Canberra is cool or not, written by one of it’s previous inhabitants who now lives in Melbourne. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away, not helped by some of the superficial journalism that passes for content in the online world.

Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality – including Canberra.

The eye-challenging foyer of Hotel Hotel in NewActon.

Fleeing the tizz of the big city
When I first moved to Canberra in 2000, as part of my own personal Olympic project, representing Australia in the well-established and popular sport of moving house, I wasn’t sure what I had come to. I was sick of the tizz of the big city—the late night parties and the unbanned substances, that probably should have been, the nicotine and plonk and shimmering vodka, clear as the conscience of a new-born child. In the end I galloped out of Sydney, like one of those wild grey horses that roam the Snowy Mountains—the ones that have now become far too prolific and need to be culled by gunshot from helicopters.

I’ve lived almost everywhere in Australia but this is my favourite. It’s the hard-edged dry, high country, in the shadow of hills, where the rain rarely falls. It’s just like the Central Highlands of Tasmania that I know so well, the country where I grew up. Here, in a strange way, I have come home.

Canberra is cool in the same way that Bendigo is cool. It’s just a bigger (and different) version. Even pretending it’s like Sydney or Melbourne – or not – is falling into big city myopia. It's a regional city, which just happens to be the capital of Australia.

Balancing urban and regional, global and local
The other side of the coin to the massive and ever-accelerating urbanisation of Australia is a search for the value of local and regional. The two trends are not simply opposites, as the growing urbanisation also benefits larger regional centres and the presence of large, internationally connected cities can benefit other centres. The mobility of modern populations and the increased flexibility of working patterns is also an asset as it makes it easier to obtain the benefits of large cities, while also engaging with regional life.

This is happening in many lucky regional towns and cities and in some suburban and outer suburban areas – witness Sydney, where it’s increasingly clear that the excitement never really stopped at the edges of the inner city. Canberra is benefiting from this trend as well. I notice it here because it’s where I live.

There are negative sides to this as well but the challenge is to fight against the attempts by a limited number of wealthy and powerful to capture the value of these immense changes, and instead have them shared more equitably.

What’s art got to do with it?
What’s art and culture got to do with this revival of interest in cool? What cool there is so often depends on a city’s artists and cultural organisations – tiny, small and large – and the world they attract around them. The keys are innovation, which links closely to creativity, as innovation is a kind of ‘applied creativity’, and the ‘maker’ phenomenon, which also resonates with the craft sector.

This sector has always been a highly ‘applied’ area of arts practice, often with strong links to industrial processes and technologies. The way in which the contemporary craft sector is cross-pollinating with innovation in the knowledge economy more generally is fascinating and mirrors the way the ubiquitous spread of digital technologies is transforming all arts and cultural practices.

Coolness, creativity and economic prosperity
Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. As a result of this and the associated growth of culturally diverse and exciting communities, they drive economic prosperity. Reviving them when they have lapsed into torpor and disuse can tap immense possibilities far beyond the initial immediate benefits. Coolness is interesting and relevant because it is linked to so many powerful social and economic forces that are transforming our communities, hopefully for the better.

What makes Canberra cool?
These underlying social and economic currents inform change in our communities that may make them better – or worse, if the change is not on our terms. However, at a daily level, there are a set of things that make life in Canberra as a regional city a real pleasure – for starters the Epic Farmers Market, Silo Bakery, The National Gallery Sculpture Garden, Breizh Café, the Breton pastry heaven in Ainslie, Italian and Sons restaurant, Palace Electric Cinema, hipster heaven in Braddon and the NewActon precinct near the National Museum, the Shine Dome and the National Film and Sound Archive. Many are connected with food and produce, many are connected with arts and culture, all are connected with a strong local sense of enjoyment.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen ups the ante
‘I have been here twice since it changed hands and the capable crew from Restaurant eightysix in Braddon took over this Ainslie favourite, tucked away down the side of the shops. Each time it has been very good and very enjoyable. I used to really like the previous incarnation of Pulp Kitchen and went there many times, but this is even better. I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for many decades and it made for an excellent night in a buzzy, busy venue in the heart of the inner North’, Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen delivers the goods.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts
‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii 
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

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