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Saving a national treasure

Save the Powerhouse campaigners Patricia Johnson and Jean-Pierre Alexandre. Photo: Ann-marie Calilhanna

By ALLISON HORE

Living just a few steps away from the doors of a much-loved Sydney attraction has made this couple passionate defenders of it.

Ultimo locals Patricia Johnson and Jean-Pierre Alexandre started the “Save the Powerhouse” campaign back in 2015, just following then Premier Mike Baird’s announcement the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo would be closed and the building would be sold.

“Immediately after the announcement we had a meeting in the Ultimo Community Center and we decided to start that campaign,” Jean-Pierre explained.

“It’s a national treasure, it doesn’t belong to the government of the day, so we felt we had to do something about it.”

Since starting the campaign the pair have organised community meetings, met with many politicians and set up a Facebook page which has received support not just from those in the local community, but from people around the world.

“The campaign may have started in Ultimo but it very quickly spread not just in NSW, but we have supporters in the USA, Britain, New Zealand and many other states around Australia,” said Patricia.

“It really became a national campaign.”

For Jean-Pierre and partner Patricia, the plight of the Powerhouse Museum was right on their doorstep. The couple live in a small old terraced house only a few steps from the Powerhouse Museum. When they moved to Ultimo in 2007, Patricia says they were impressed by how “fond” the community was of the museum.

“It has been a part of daily life for many people for so many years. They’d go there as kids, and then take their kids there as young parents, and then they would take their grandchildren there,” she said.

“It’s absolutely part of daily life in Ultimo and that is why we are especially pleased that the decision has been reversed to move it to Parramatta.” 

The relocation and staged closure of the Ultimo museum, expected to cost between $420m and $645m, was due to start on July 1. But after the NSW Government backflipped on the plan, the industrial-science museum will remain open in Pyrmont with a second location to be opened in Parramatta.

When Jean-Pierre and Patricia heard the news that the move was not going ahead the pair said they felt “relieved” and “excited”.

On top of the Powerhouse campaign, Jean-Pierre and Patricia are the conveners and founders of “Friends Of Ultimo” group which campaigns for smaller-scale issues impacting the local community. They are closely watching updates from the NSW government’s Pyrmont Peninsula Place Strategy, which encompasses Ultimo and could see more high rise buildings developed in the area. 

Living in a terrace house, Patricia says “naturally” she and Jean-Pierre “are biased to low rises”. 

“The whole area around us at the moment is low rise and we’ve got a lovely village green just around the corner with a church and a pub. It’s all very traditional, and that’s the way that people in Ultimo want it to stay,” she explained.

“The government wants to make Pyrmont and Ultimo an extension of the CBD, and we say we don’t want to live in the CBD because a CBD is a terrible place to live,” Jean-Pierre added.

While Jean-Pierre and Patricia are worried about the effects that new developments will have on the area they say they are not against it, they just want it to be well planned and have a focus on improving public spaces.

“Pyrmont and Ultimo have to change and evolve like anywhere else, we’re not against progress. But it has to be done in an orderly fashion,” said Jean-Pierre.

“You don’t put developments and new high-rises until you’ve solved traffic and public transport issues and you have public amenities such as schools and green spaces. And it has to respect the character of the village as well.”

Patricia echoed Jean-Pierre’s call for more green spaces.

“We definitely need more green open spaces. Over the years they have been eroded, and we need them to be reinstated and expanded.”

While the Powerhouse Museum’s Ultimo location has been saved. Jean-Pierre and Patricia say that the Save The Powerhouse campaign is not yet over. They will continue to lobby for additional funding for the museum so that it does not fall into disrepair and are working alongside Parramatta community groups to ensure heritage buildings there are preserved when the new museum is built. 

It is this cooperation and collaboration that Patricia sees as key to community campaigning and she encourages everybody to get involved.

“Ultimo has its own community groups, and in Pyrmont you also have a couple of other groups. Each precinct conducts its own campaigns but we also cooperate,” she said. 

“It’s always worthwhile to get behind community campaigns. That’s what we’ve found. When someone gives the lead other people follow, we think that’s how social change can work.”

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