If the pub purchases of the Hemmes empire are anything to go by, the stretch of land that lies roughly in-between Redfern and Mascot will continue to change significantly over the next twenty or so years. It’s already changing rapidly, has been for a while. But perhaps the exponential is difficult to intuit.
Hemmes has recently snapped up the currently disused Alexandria Hotel on 35 Henderson Rd and the Tennyson Hotel at 952 Botany Rd, Mascot. These two purchases roughly demarcate a terrain of massive urban redevelopment, driven primarily by new apartment housing. Amidst the continual shadow play of scaffold, crane and developer banner, is the increasingly tenuous condition of the Botany Rd street front.
Botany Rd proper begins where Boundary St cuts into Regent, but the name used to identify the whole stretch of road up to Cleveland St, and looking at a base map, it makes more sense to think of it this way. Like Parramatta Road, the old east-west trajectory into the city, Botany Rd is an eclectic mix of commercial and light industrial enterprise, the resilience of which is currently being tested.
For those with the luxury of vigilance, the character of the place is something explicit and refreshingly different to the enclosed malls that typify the contemporary shopping experience of the twentieth century. For those who depend upon it—for income, services and a sense of meaning—this character no doubt exists too, though the relationship is likely less defined by aesthetic judgement.
Sydney high streets are a valuable part of urban amenity, particularly examples which aren’t subject to the atmospheric dominance of the car. Botany Rd hasn’t escaped this. But it retains a rare quality, a sense of character, in good part down to its eclecticism, that survives the steady mess of motion and noise we take for granted as street front ambience in inner city Sydney.
This is the first in a series of posts recording the changing and enduring condition of this place. Block by block. Sometimes impressionistic, sometimes forensic.
Redfern St to Boundary St
The place to start is the crossroads. The pedestrian traffic from Redfern Station collects at the traffic lights where Redfern St crosses Regent. There’s a paved, pedestrian friendly area that marks the beginning of Cope St. It gives the spot the sense of a rudimentary plaza or square.
Some of the space is taken up by sculpture known as Bower, an aggressive, spiky aluminium representation of a bower bird nest, well over human height, with blue tiles in the pavement in the shape of different objects: bowling pins, a key, a chess piece, a boomerang, a work boot. As is the fate of most public art in Sydney, the aesthetic ambiguity of this sculpture provoked brief protest about a lack of consultation and poor taste.
From the middle of the nest you can look up at the pleasantly irregular reds of the now soft edged brickwork above the awnings. The sound of the word ‘lozenge’ comes to mind. The date in the facade reads 1892 and a ‘For Lease’ sign obscures one of the windows of what used to be an architectural practice.
Below, on the street front, there’s an old bakery selling the reliable combination of ‘Donuts, Hot Food & Coffee’, a classic takeaway (once Grills ’n Chills now Sek Fun Noodle House) and a variety shop. This mix of older Redfern bookends the newer, less noisily advertised, Arcadia small bar.
The paved area extends into a reserve, identified by some City of Sydney signage as Jack Floyd’s Reserve. It’s a sad little wedge of green surrounded by more reassuringly put together stepped brick retaining wall. The aesthete in me wants to say: there’s potential in in this unlikely nook of pedestrian space on a street front otherwise claimed by the car. The brickwork, at least, shows up the public art and makes an argument for place sensitive forms of making that don’t just adopt the most basic forms of symbolic play.
The only thing that competes with the automotive traffic heading south is the activity upwards, on the other side of the road, as the remnants of the western street front are dwarfed by the new Iglu student housing development. The Appetite Cafe, which may have once clung to its free Wifi and Toby’s Estate coffee for safety in an ever shifting sea of gentrification, is now listed as permanently closed.
The striking blue painted Fosters sign on the first floor facade of Redfern Cellars has perhaps seen its last coat of paint, and will now rely on the ghost sign archivists of Instagram to ensure its enduring significance.
Further down the hill, following the road away from the city, two different eras are brought into juxtaposition with striking effect: a BP service station next to an old church. If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals” then here is an opportunity to assess some of atmospheric contrasts of the two cultures to which these constructions bear witness.
The church wouldn’t provoke anything more than a sneer from someone acclimatised to the architectural delights of the Northern Hemisphere. But here it’s a welcome foothold in times when shopping and driving weren’t the dominant activities undertaken in the city. It could do with some love, though is still in use as the Uniting Church Tonga Parish. Its services might yet outlast those of the station, if, through genius or necessity, the convenience of the car is usurped by other means.
The church has recently been listed as up for auction on the 6th of September. Hopefully the new owners don’t just built a massive stack of apartments out of its back.
The numerous designer outlets along the next part of the street front testify to older waves of gentrification. Many of these shops have been here for a decade or more. As Kitty from Redfern Fruit Market quips, “the change is getting old”. Her business has been doing trade here for nearly thirty years. A shambolic grotto of abundant variety, it retains all the character that a supermarket lacks and does a mean fresh juice. The flower shop next door, and the butcher just down the road, contributes to the feel of this being a mini market place, with the smells and visual stimulation that are completely absent from the refrigerator atmosphere of the nearby IGA.
The footpath widens to accommodate a vague avenue of peppercorn and plane trees that are home to a sizeable flock of pigeons that more or less constantly shit on the herringbone brickwork and garden beds below. Again, this is another area which exhibits some small shred of thoughtfulness for the pedestrian, but its all the more glum for being so close yet so far.
The shops leading up to and after the peppercorn grove continue the combination of recent enterprise aimed at newer money and older stalwarts. The former includes The Bearded Tit, the exterior tiles of which fit in pleasingly with the colourful palimpsest of the surrounding street front. There’s an artisan Gelateria and Happy D’s Dumpling House, which is a thrown together kind of new that seems to fit in. The nearby chicken shop exhibits a half hearted awareness of the recent currency the humble fried chook has come to attain in the so called hipper parts of the city.
As for the older stalwarts: there’s a series of variety stores, a bakery—from a time when ‘hot bread’ was more important than ‘sourdough’—a couple of butchers, a laundry and the South Sydney DVD Store, it’s vernacular signage indicating support for the much loved local league team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
One of the distinctive and pleasing things about this high street is even the variety stores come in a wide variety. There’s little sense of a dominant brand, no familiar franchise players, just confections of the esoteric, operating at different scales, within the one shop or between different shops.
The block is rounded out by Abbott’s Hotel, on the corner of Raglan and Botany. The pub was trading 1857 and still has the look and feel of pub prior to the foodie oriented fit-outs, which started at the beginning of the decade with places like The Norfolk on Cleveland St.
Any pub trading for that that long must be doing something right. The rate of attrition has been high, with close to forty hotels trading in the greater Green Square area in 1886, twenty two in the period between 1949-1969, and nine of these having closed since. The list of the departed includes: Rose of Denmark, Australia Hotel, Balaclava Hotel (now Fratelli Fresh), Boundary Hotel , Bow Bells Hotel (now apartments), Clifton Hotel, Duke of Wellington (soon to be apartments), Mount Lachlan Hotel (Catholic Community services) and The Star Hotel (apartments).
It simplifies the landscape to describe it as new and old. There’s a richer, more complex mix of old becoming new again and new becoming rapidly old. The Abbotts Hotel might look authentic and have menu that includes a ‘Classic Pub Parmy’ and a ‘Schinitty’ at $12 a pop, but the new chef is ex-Merivale.
Those engaged in nuancing activities can muse on whether what’s plated up here is any more or less authentic than The Unicorn Hotel on Oxford St, which recently relaunched with a classic Aussie pub theme and does a schinitty and a parmy for $25 and $27 respectively.
The movement and nature of gentrification of Sydney can be understood according to the same logic as the English language in a global context: its expansion and growing influence also guarantees its own warping and corruption, as new pidgin or vernacular Englishes emerge as appropriations of common meanings. One day every pub in Sydney might have an ex-Merivale chef dishing up Chinese Bistro classics.