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.
The area along McEvoy Street between Botany Road and Fountain Street is an unremarkable patch of a partially gentrified industrial urban landscape. Cars are an inescapable part of the atmosphere, something you notice when trying to take an unobstructed shot of a facade or when you see them packed into the redundant space alongside large warehouses.
Unlike the areas of central Sydney, along this stretch there are rare glimpses of carpark rusticity: un-cemented lots, riddled with puddle holes, bare dirt and piles of old bricks partially uncovered by the traffic.
If you were showing a visitor around this area you’d probably prepare them by saying it wasn’t likely to offer a beautiful or sublime aesthetic experience, perhaps not even charming or agreeable. More likely, you’d say, it’s interesting, which is suitably ambiguous with regard to evaluation.
Nonetheless, as you walk the stretch enough times things start to stand out and just seeing them there in their often inexplicable peculiarity is reassuring.
Take the anomalous brick structures below. I can’t for the life of me work out why they are there, with their own little cement deviations from the main footpath. Perhaps the folly of someone with leftover bricks? Perhaps they’re coving up some kind of piping similar to bit jutting out of the grass against the grey wall in the background.
The street features a contrasting combination of a few remaining, run down weatherboard workers cottages, what you might call old-style ‘authentic’ industrial eateries, and gourmet cafes.
A view down some of the lanes leading off the street can offer a classic, Jeffery Smart like view of an industrial streetscape. The candy stripes in the foreground perhaps herald the increasing softening or funification of the area that will come with the continued transition to the services and retail industry.
By contrast, other alleyways are impressive green tunnels of trees, usually Port Jackson Figs, the roots of which twist in loose leaves like tentacles or splay out in cross section form at the gutters edge.
The combination of domestic and industrial architecture in the area takes many different forms. The Able Metromix is an older variety and features what must be among the most pleasing bits of street advertising in the area, with the green and gold, painted sign a soothing comparison to the nearby signage advertising muffins and coffee on the outside of Caltex.
The Able cement works is bounded by a cement wall that incorporates a small, corrugated iron roofed cottage featuring the asymmetrical facade common to the variety of buildings identified as being in the Federation Style which are common in the backstreets of Alexandria and Erskineville. It’s complete with a shingle awning over the window, cast iron lace work on the veranda and decorative bargeboard on the eves.
Such a combination is perhaps reminiscent of the service station incorporated into the Spanish Mission style apartment block on the corner of O’Sullivan and Old South Head Road in Rose Bay, also known as Broadway Garage.
Another more recent example of the industrial, retail and the domestic can be seen below, where a the facade of a brick warehouse has been retained and converted into a retail space, here a Nandos fried chicken ‘restaurant’, with an anaemic set of residential apartments rising above it.
This is a less extreme version of the phenomenon discussed in an article by Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, only in this instance it is industrial rather than classical architectural heritage that is being preserved. It’s a phenomenon I have described elsewhere as obligatory postmodernism in the sense that heritage demands or desires produce an aesthetically contradictory relation between past and present functions, which is characteristic of postmodernism.
The architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas has made some fruitful observations on the modern obsession with heritage. Including the following: “there are a number of phenomenon these days that are intersections of intensity and decreasing intensity, and that maybe preservation is one of those. you can look at this as an incredible increase in nostalgia and decrease in memory, and that is for me the field in which preservation currently takes place.”
The curious pastiche of old and new is in large part the result of the 60-plus new listings that were part of an initiative by City of Sydney to preserve the industrial history of the area.
Some of the remaining warehouses provide foundations for appealing buildings, such as the example below on the corner of McEvoy and Loveridge, which features street level retail space above which a facade of large, multi-paned windows form the outer wall to apartments.
Some of the old infrastructure has been converted into the kinds of services Twenty First Century humans demand, such as the mood enhancement venues commonly known as cafes: we’ve worked out mood lighting, now to mood lifting. Below an old electrical substation has been converted into a substation cafe. Vanessa Berry of the Mirror Sydney blog has written a piece on the efforts of Matte Rochford to catalogue this building type.
The large Dan Murphy’s liquor outlet is another prominent feature of this stretch of road. It too now features a restaurant known as Sushi Jones, more or less incorporated into the side of the building. This seems an upmarket version of the tuck shops that pop up in industrial areas, a famous example of which is the Weigh Bridge Cafe not far away on Bowden Street.
On the McEvoy Street side of Dan Murphy’s in front of the large asphalt carpark between the shop and the street is a curious memorial to Shea’s Creek, which was transformed into the Alexandria Canal in 1887 and polluted with toxins used in the mills, tanneries, brickworks and foundries once common to the area.
Heritage maps of the area reveal that an underground sewer pipeline begins at the memorial and along with a series of other stormwater channels meets with the open air canal that runs alongside Burrow Street near Sydney Park.
The memorial is made of what seems to be recycled rubber composite that forms part of a wall obscuring the carpark. Unless you see it close enough and in the right light the text Sheas Creek Under is barely visible. A brick pathway with smaller than normal brick stock leads to dead end bordered by more of the rubber composite. Who commissioned this curious work? For whom is it meant? Who was the designer? When was it built?
Across the road from Dan Murphy’s is another converted industrial building housing an impressive series of gourmet food outlets, including: Bread and Circus, Campos Coffee, Salts Meats Cheese, a Pana Chocolate outlet and a Vietnamese eatery known as Nguyen Brothers. As you’d expect, the building has been subject to an attentive and what I imagine to be expensive make over, featuring the staples of polished concrete floors, high ceilings with stray steel girders and exposed piping. The brick foundations of the facade are interspersed with the regularly partitioned windows that are among the most pleasing features of such buildings. All the venues inside offer a spacious environment in which to work at a laptop, eat, hold meetings and catch up with friends.
Back towards McEvoy Street, behind the foodie outlets, is an apartment complex known as The Foundary, “one of the premier residential properties on McEvoy Street.” The rustic industrial materials of heavy steel, old brick, rusted metal and “inviting” wooden sleepers are contrasted with brown, red and yellow panels that jut out from the building, creating a kind of zany aesthetic that is at once fun and unfun. It’s vaguely reminiscent in recent McDonald’s architecture, which is a kind of cheapening of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1924 Schroder House, a seminal example of De Stijl architecture known for its adaptable interior spaces and the permeable relation it exhibits between inside and outside.
The building features an internal “greenery common courtyard.” This is a laudable part of many similar complexes in the area. However, I’m eager to know how often it is used by the residents. I’d say: only occasionally, if it’s anything like the fake grass courtyard in my own apartment complex that I don’t imagine soaks up the dog urine as well as real turf.
Speaking of McDonalds, here is a parting sight that I imagine is unique among the branding ploys of the giant restaurant chain and nicely sums up the character of this strip. The golden arches are mounted on what seems to be the remnants of an Art Deco industrial facade. An interesting structural ploy. I’m guessing heritage wasn’t involved considering the facade is all but unrecognisable. But who knows. It acts as a grand entrance to the restuarant carpark.