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Merlinda Bobis in conversation with Anthony Dennis

Dennis, A. ‘Ascent of a Dirty Old Town’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4.12.99

From atop Flagstaff Point, with its whitewashed lighthouse starkly contrasted by the blue of the sea below it, Wollongong's perennial dilemma is illustrated perfectly in a 180-degree vista.

To the north is a superlative coastline dominated by the escarpment unravelling to the horizon. To the south is a more confronting panorama a somewhat less alluring coastline, its beauty smudged by a mangle of stacks, smog and sooty structures.

"I can see the beauty of the steelworks," says Merlinda Bobis. "For many people, the beautiful is something that is comfortable. Think about the angles, the symmetry. When it's night-time, it's lit beautifully. It's a fantasyland."

Dr Bobis is a Philippines-born author and academic who arrived in Wollongong almost a decade ago to complete a doctorate in creative art. She stayed to build a life there. Today she is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wollongong and the award-winning author of such books as White Turtle, a collection of short stories set in Australia and the Philippines.

Yesterday, Wollongong City Council announced it would spend $2.5 million over the next five years in a bid to improve the city's image and shed its national perception as a kind of struggletown-by-the-sea. Now Wollongong has christened itself Australia's "Innovation City".

Eager to attract investment and tourism, the city's advocates point to some significant achievements.

A new antibiotic has been discovered in a shellfish on Wollongong's beaches; the world's first amphibious tourist coach, Aussie Duck, has been developed there and is awaiting its Sydney launch, Barkbusters, the business that stops dogs barking, began there; and a microwave oven for expanding wool bales compressed for export was developed at the University of Wollongong.

"Wollongong's landscape has nurtured me as a writer," says Dr Bobis. "In less than nine years I have created so much here. Even when I write about the Philippines, my old home, the act of writing is actually nourished by Wollongong, my new home. My heart belongs here now. I fell in love here – at the university – with the man I married and now I am married to Wollongong as well."

But although Wollongong attracts 2 million visitors a year, few of them bother to stay even a night. Unemployment remains close to 13 per cent and the BHP steelworks is a landmark that the city can't live without, but one which continues to contribute to unfavourable perceptions of the Gong. However, Wollongong's new cafe strip, Keira Street, is home to Ristorante due Mezzi, one of NSW's finest Italian restaurants, only 90 minutes from Sydney. Although more people are being drawn to this unexpected side of Wollongong, it is Port Kembla, depicted in the recent Australian film Soft Fruit that tends to cement the city's image.

"I love going to Port Kembla," says Dr Bobis. "…though people in Wollongong’s more affluent beachside suburbs might scoff at all the industry there, it's BHP that's created the lifestyle."

It might take more than $2.5 million to overcome Wollongong's image problems, but Dr Bobis's optimism remains as eternal as the flame that burns at the old steelworks, which BHP may one day vacate as it did in Newcastle.

"I know we're all ambivalent about BHP. But coming from a city (Legaspi City, the Philippines) at the foot of an active volcano, I accept such ambivalence. The volcano, which makes my old home agriculturally rich, also buries houses and vegetation and wreaks havoc with your lungs during an eruption. In the same way that we can't deny the smog that comes from BHP, we can't forget that it has been the economic lifeblood of a community."

Reproduced with permission of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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