Between Hornsby and Newcastle in NSW is an area known as the Central Coast. Smack dab in the middle is a town called Gosford, which passes for the local Big Smoke; I grew up around there. As far as scenery goes, it’s a lovely region – there’s gorgeous beaches, national parks, acres of bushland and a proliferation of Australian wildlife. It’s not exactly the country, but sometimes, we had lyrebirds in our garden, and every day we fed kookaburras and lorrikeets on our balcony. Fourty minutes north, there’s a backroad between Kangy Angy and Tuggerah – more well known now, since they built a Westfield at one end of it – where you drive through an overhanging canopy of green light, and where, if you roll down the window, you’ll hear bellbirds and whip-birds. It’s like passing through a Henry Kendall poem.
We lived on top of a very steep hill in a very small suburb which, unless you’d ever been there, you wouldn’t have heard of. It was originally named after a local poet, with a small bronze plaque to that effect planted firmly in the park by the bus stop. Halfway up our hill, the houses on one side stopped, giving way in the space of a few meters to national park and, just inside the treeline, a bush turkey mound. It was a fantastic place to explore, and, like explorers, my friends and I gave names to our favourite places: Swing Rock, Lookout Rock, Turtle Rock, Hideaway, Sand Cave, Water Cave and the Skateboard Ramp, which was a huge, smooth, concave-sloping wall of rock, with a ledge above and a drop below. Sometimes, we used Aboriginal names: we built a rope swing at Jabin Jabin, and a miniature Uluru in the midst of an ocean of ferns became Lyaleatea. We climbed trees, made cubby houses, went on laborious treks, fell down short cliffs and, once every year or so, borrowed parental gardening tools and spent a weekend hacking back the lantana from paths near the road.
In fact, as a child, it was nothing but beautiful. Children aren’t prone to critiquing the familiar. Changes to the local landscape had washed over me in much the same way that new furniture did: I noticed when it turned up, blinked for a few days, and then carried on as though nothing had happened. There was no point of reference or comparison – I’d been to other places, but that’s not the same as living somewhere else. I spent three years at the local highschool before, in Year 10, a financial windfall let me transfer to a Sydney private school. It was, in many respects, a culture shock. I’d thought about the Coast before then, but now I had an external perspective. I read the newspaper. I looked things up. At the end of Year 10, I did work experience with the local Central Coast Express Advocate, travelling out to cover stories with the wickedly-cynical-and-observant woman who wrote the front page. And suddenly, things that had bothered me before began to make an awful kind of sense.
Because for all its scenery, the Central Coast is not a beautiful place. Traditionally, it has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in Australia, and the second highest rate of domestic violence in New South Wales. Of girls in my grade at highschool there, five fell pregnant before Year 11 – two deliberately, as an ill-considered means of keeping partners or escaping home. At least four students I knew were facing parental violence, and in all likelihood there were more I hadn’t heard of. Our school was fantastically under-resourced. And everywhere, you knew of kids who went off the rails, got hooked on drugs and hung out at the train station, leaden-eyed boys and shrill girls pushing strollers, the needle-marks still fresh on their skin…
Piece by piece, I put my view of things together: where had it gone wrong? In modern times, the Central Coast was developed as a retirement community – somewhere not too far from the city where retirees could congregate. The infrastructure was geared to this effect: chemists, hospitals, and a dearth of youth services. Then the housing estates came: the land sold cheap, houses went up, bushland came down, and thousands of young families began moving in. Early on, there weren’t too many problems, little children and old people needing, by and large, the same kinds of services. But the influx of families didn’t stop, and in the interim, their children were growing up. Kariong was a particular problem: belatedly, they built an extra primary school to accomodate the housing estate children, but every year, it was more and more under-resourced, quite literally bursting at the seams, unable to keep up with the growing population.
My own highschool was resourced for grades 7 – 12, on the premise that each grade would have a maximum of 150 students. By the time I left, the new Year 7 had over 300 students, none of whom could be turned away: it was a public school, and the Kariong estate fell within the school zone. Classes equipped for 25 students had upwards of 30; at one point, the sudden resignation of a maths teacher forced the collapse of an entire class, redistributing 40 students across the remainder. It was the same all over. Juvenile delinquency was an omnipresent problem: despite the skyrocketing young population, there were still too few youth services and even fewer jobs.
At the same time, beach communities like Avoca were undergoing massive redevelopment – not for the local communities, but for the flocks of Sydneysiders who travelled up in summer for the surf. Erina Fair, the local shopping complex, was an economic case in point – after its fourth major redevelopment into a Westfield-size complex (without being, in fact, a Westfield), boutique stores that catered exclusively to a North Shore tourist clientele fell into a readily discernable pattern: roaring trade in summer, bust by winter, replaced in spring, roaring in summer, bust in winter, repeat ad nauseam. There’s almost no public transport on the Coast, which doesn’t help – buses are unreliable, and there’s only one train line. If you’re young and looking for something to do on a Friday night, there’s not many options, and most of them are far apart. It’s one of the reasons that Iguana Joe’s, of recent ignominious fame, is so popular: it’s open long after everything else has closed, across the road from where I went to kindergarden, by an oval where the circus used to come.
The Central Coast has always had problems. Some are considerably worse than others. But until I went away, I’d only seen lyrebirds.