Port Kembla’s iconic smokestack stands no more. Towering above the Illawarra skyline since 1965, the 198 metre stack was demolished this morning. The Illawarra Mercury has provided rolling coverage leading up to the demolition. The demolition of the stack has divided opinion, but on the whole its removal appears positive – touted to instigate a revitalisation of Port Kembla’s social character, and an improvement in the Illawarra’s economic fortunes. Conversely, the demolition of Port Kembla’s stack highlights the uncertain place of industrial cultural heritage in today’s modern, technology-driven, climate-aware society.
A remnant of Port Kembla’s Copper (PKC) refinery – inactive since 2003 – the stack stood as a towering reminder of the region’s carbon-intensive past, and the toxic smoke and fumes which it once spewed into the atmosphere. Indeed, the billowing smokestack is an image synonymous with anthropogenic climate change – best captured perhaps by posters for Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.
The removal of the stack, and its association with manufacturing and extractive industry, aligns with Wollongong’s technology-driven ‘reinvention’. Shaking off the downsizing of BlueScope Steel and associated decline in industrial activity, Wollongong is attempting a blue-chip re-branding. Indeed, local council has the tagline ‘City of Innovation’. It is expected, therefore, that the demolition of the stack may not be the only ‘boom’ that Port Kembla experiences in its near future. In anticipation, phrases such as ‘revitalisation’, and a ‘new dawn’ are being bandied about. The land post-stack will be re-purposed; the expected result a stemming of the regions unemployment rate, and a renewal of Port Kembla’s local economy. As the smoke clears, the Illawarra is left with a brownfield site that swells with promise and optimism.
Notwithstanding, the region’s public expressed a strong attachment to the stack. Leading up to today the community has been speaking out and sharing their stack stories (for instance, Illawarra residents have been contributing to the Mercury’s “wall of memories” all week). This morning, residents milled together at a number of lookout points across the Illawarra. I was part of a group of hundreds that watched the stack demolition from Flagstaff Hill; some getting their spot early, and waiting for hours as safety checks were conducted. Attracted by the novelty of watching the stack fall; it was also quite clear sitting amongst this group that members of the local community felt a sense of loss. Indeed, the removal of the stack has ramifications for the Illawarra regions’ cultural heritage. It existed as a monument to the region’s economic past, the heady days when extractive industry reigned in the mid-late 20th Century – a time when the ‘plumes of progress’ were celebrated.
For those who worked there, and lived under its shadow, the stack was an evocative part of their personal histories – the reason why they settled in the Illawarra. For the wider public, it was a distinct regional landmark – somewhere to get your bearings, a site of wonder and novelty, and above all, a symbol of being home. To tap into this potential, repurposing the stack as a lookout/museum tourist attraction was briefly entertained. Ultimately, the costs of repurposing the stack – or retaining it in any state – sealed its fate.
The case of the Port Kembla stack also invites us to question the fraught place of industrial heritage in modern cityscapes. Lamenting the similar loss of a power station stack in Scotland, historical geographer Fraser MacDonald elaborates: “It is a characteristic of our time that buildings erected amid the white heat of mid-twentieth century urbanisation and industrialisation are being quietly and incrementally lost.” Was the stack merely the static symbol of the ‘steel city’, an unwanted reminder of our negative effects on the world’s climate – or did it stand tall amongst the community, as a much-loved monument to the region’s past?