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excerpts from Eric Eklund’s article on approaches to reading the past in a streetscape

Eklund, E. ‘Representing history in the Main Streets of New South Wales’, Locality, Centre for Community History UNSW, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1998

In popular understandings of history, and still in some sections of the history profession, national history and national events are seen as the locus of worthy history, even in apparently more progressive histories influenced by social, feminist and labour history. Under this rubric the 'local' is dismissed as too specific, contingent, bounded, and therefore not historically important.

But there is another way of looking at the 'local' and key sites of local life like main streets that reintroduces it into the centre of any historical investigation. We all live somewhere, and we all have a relationship to our immediate environment, no matter how mediated. In this sense the 'local' is a widespread even universal experience, and in the small to medium-sized towns in Australia the local environment meets the everyday needs of most people. This was especially the case prior to the Second World War and the rise of consumer culture and the mass media. Later, from the 1960s, the growth of major shopping centres threatened the commercial viability of many older main streets. The outdoor socialising characteristic of main streets became internalised into the malls and enclosed shopping centres of post-war society, while the face to face interaction of shopping and the exchange of information were (and still are) increasingly being replaced by the privatised recreation and consumption of leisure and foodstuffs occurring within the home.

But historians should be wary of taking an overly elegiac tone in their comments on the fate of main streets and the communities that supported them. Broad patterns of historical change have made these sites less important, yet beneath the nationalising and globalising forces spaces open up for new understandings and relationships to the local. This can be seen, among other things, in recent heritage-related interest in main streets and malls. A 1996 National Trust of Australia publication, Streetwise, highlights the contemporary interest in main streets and heritage-related commercial development noting 'an emergence of a new and exciting Australian street culture…’ In places as diverse as Maitland, Millers Point and Morpeth redevelopment has proceeded with a heritage flavour, while from the mid-1990s there have been a number of main street heritage studies of potential and actual commercial precincts with an 'historical' theme in the main streets of Wallsend, Broken Hill, and Glebe Point Road in Sydney, to name a few. This hardly supports the claims of some sociologists and media commentators that the local is no longer relevant, although the articles presented here are critical, to varying degrees, of the particular way that history and heritage are mobilised in these local contexts.

The following articles on Broken Hill, Lithgow and Timbertown, as well as the evidence from Port Kembla and Wollongong, suggest that key aspects of local history and experience are being neglected, or even actively suppressed. Visitors and locals alike are being presented with seriously-flawed visions of a town's history. The central role that main streets played in everyday life, and in moments of political tension, is lost in overly commercialised, sanitised and conservative views of a town's past. Townspeople in these localities vigorously sought local development hounding Councils and State Governments for many years over issues like drainage, road building and water supplies. Local development was not simply passed down to local communities by benevolent authorities. It was the result of political action and political campaigns, often finding expression in action in the main streets. Moreover, local labour movements also used main streets as key sites of political mobilisation during strikes, protests or annual labour day marches. Main streets were in some ways obvious forums for political expression – this was the most effective way to reach the majority of residents – but occupying a main street was also a highly symbolic act. It placed an issue at the literal and symbolic centre of a community. One could imagine the protests from townspeople if they learnt that this heritage of political action was being so comprehensively ignored by contemporary town planners, historians and architects.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Eric Eklund.

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