YOUR STORY: Community drop-in centre Havachat's future

Havachat proprietor, Chris Hooper
Havachat proprietor, Chris Hooper Contributed

FOR folks who don't know, Havachat is a shopfront warehouse space at 20 East St, which is old Rockhampton's premiere shopping street, now fallen on hard times.

It exists in the shadow of empire... literally. Because across the road, the Empire, a recently opened 13-storey hotel/apartment block, takes the morning sun.

By night, neon light from its mega logo shines through the gaps left by Cyclone Marcia in Havachat's roof.

The Empire is everything modern in steel, glass and concrete and its architecture crows self-aggrandisement and confidence.

By contrast Havachat is old, meek and a wonderful meditation on the randomness of what gets left behind in the rush to waste all of our enterprise.

Walking by you might miss Havachat if you didn't trip over it.

Sometimes parked on the pavement out front is a collection of strange pushbike contraptions.

The front windows are plastered by a collage of hand-lettered slogans, signs, notices and other printed oddities stuck on so close that little light penetrates from the street.

On the awning, hand-painted letters proclaim it to be an Artist Collective.

For sure, it ain't Kansas.

The curious who venture inside need to weave through more jumble of pushbike contraptions, rickshaws and mock-up plywood pedal Kombis.

Behold an armchair mounted on a motorbike frame. Note walls crammed with mystical paintings. No surface, horizontal or vertical, is without its trash and treasure.

Then one becomes aware of a phenomenon astonishing to find in this modern day: in this space, nothing is selling or for sale. Lots of stuff but no merchandise.

This is a place for the cash poor and the time rich.

As its name suggests, Havachat is set up for chat.

An array of capacious lounge chairs faces each other about a low table. No altar to television here.

The north-facing armchair is where the proprietor, Chris Hooper, sits to hold court.

Here is where The Morning Bulletin is read and its news stories discussed; here is where opinions are aired and contested. And all with that distinctive Queensland nasal twang, hey?

Chris is a CQ oddity and, I suggest, a national treasure.

A former engine driver on the Rockhampton-Winton line, his lower half is never to be seen in anything but thongs and shorts and the upper half sometimes wears a checked fleecy-lined jacket if cold and a battered bush hat if wet or hot.

Before he took the lease on 20 East St, Chris had a farm fronting the Emu Park Rd which, because of its odd signage and strange bush-basic assemblages, became a local landmark known as the Funny Farm.

In 2011, the Funny Farm came to town as proclivity rather than stuff.

Havachat began as an empty space; artefacts accumulated as Chris's afternoon patrols in the lanes of the CBD and local junk markets delivered discarded office furniture and other stuff to his care. Bit by bit, 20 East St became an orphanage for the abandoned object.

Chris loves to show visitors his collection.

Out back colourful protest banners hang from the high trusses and more paintings cover the walls. A collection of the multiple pedalled bikes cram the floor. A tour is concluded with a demonstration of the ear pain which Chris can elicit with a didgeridoo assembled from PVC kitchen plumbing fittings.

Out the very back is another charming urban oddity: a garden with shade trees and vines, mango and passionfruit.

The only trees amongst the car parks of East Lane, this garden began as a refuge for abandoned indoor plants.

You can tell I am a fan of Havachat.

I see it as the product of a truly authentic vision of a truly authentic character and thus as something truly unique to Rockhampton.

For a few seasons now I have been a kind of activist/artist in residence there, painting banners, making lanterns and organising for the Peace Convergence.

This year's NAIDOC banner was painted there, for example. Lots of out-of-town people coming and going. Lots of meeting and greeting, lots of interaction. Lots of community.

Alas Havachat's days maybe numbered.

The building inspectors of Rockhampton Regional Council are set on adding to the empty shopfronts in East St by closing Havachat down by issuing a notice to show cause or quit (as to living in the downstairs area of the flat).

Although, 20 East St has served as a residential property for as long as anyone can remember and Chris leased it on the understanding that it included a residence .

Other cities with ailing old CBDs, like Newcastle, NSW, for example, have revitalisation strategies which foster low-rent residential studios for artists.

This way planners expect to bring creativity and creative living back to the streets. But not so Rockhampton.

Rocky, it seems, believes in the promise of trickledown economics.

High-security, high-cost, high-rise riverside apartments are supposed to create trade and street life.

They don't and they won't. Count the lights at night.

Mostly empty, mostly out of town.

Meanwhile, Chris is philosophical.

"Things come and go," he says.

Coming is maybe a big garage sale.

But East St will be the poorer for the absence of Chris Hooper.

Topics:  east st empire apartment hotel graeme dunstan

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