Hornsby: The New Side

If the old side reveals the shape of the past, the new side takes the form of a vast concrete block with a red Westfield insignia atop it. Cars funnel in and out of its entrances like the traffic of ants in and out of a nest. Inside it is as unspecific as any mall, the same ubiquitous set of businesses, inspiring the same sense of disorientation as one makes for what they hope is the direction of the exit.

Yet Hornsby’s new side has not been completely remodelled and there is life beyond the mall. I enter the new side not from the shopping centre carpark but from the train station via the concrete bridge. The bridge is so familiar to me I have not before noticed its disrepair, the awning clouded with spots of lichen, the smashed panels, and the sticky grime on the poles from the removal of countless notices. Nobody loiters on the bridge for long enough to register its details, and few would ever stop to read the plaque on the stairs, commemorating the bridge’s opening in 1980. Stopping to read it was like opening an old, dusty library book, the same feeling of paying attention to long-neglected words.

The shopping mall was constructed in two halves, retaining the town square at the intersection of Florence street and Hunter streets, both of which are closed to traffic. At the nucleus of the square is the water clock, an unusual contraption, as misunderstood now as it was upon its construction in 1993. The clock’s sculptor, local artist Victor Cusack, initially described it as a “cacophony of movement and flying water”. A thrashing, sloshing monster, the clock is equal parts steampunk nightmare, garden ornament, and folly, yet I find it hard to dislike; I respect the clock for its preposterousness.

When the clock was unveiled at the “Rock around the clock” festival in 1993, official descriptions praised its iconic presence, and likened it to landmark European civic sculptures. After Big Ben, it was said to be the world’s second largest pendulum clock but local conservatives were having none of it: “Many pensioner ratepayers would rather eat than tell the time,” wrote a reader of the Hornsby Advocate, one of the many protesting the cost of the clock. “Maybe the council could recover some of the funds spent on this monument to monstrosity by hiring it for any future version of the Addams Family,” another reader suggested. Others predicted it becoming a receptacle for rubbish, or soon to be sabotaged by vandals with detergent. When the clock stopped repeatedly over its first few months, the culprit was found to be the chicken bones flung into the water by littering onlookers.

Local residents may not have liked the clock, but they did find it inspiring, one contributor to the Advocate letters page even penning experimental poetry about the structure, culminating with a verse linking it to wider social and economic problems:

Techno-clockart Miserable

Devoid of humanity, time keeping or

sanity.

Unsustainably pricey, ecologically dicey

(its)

Satanic, pretentious and glum.

Marie Antoinette hurriedly beget

A tear for the poor but too late!
Insipidly following, councils commerce is

wallowing (in)

A splurge of the very first water.

An edifice should raise in pure wholesome

ways. A no-frills renaissance of spirit,

best the thirst of the soul is made bourgeois

by toil (in)
Cross purchase, contrivance or merit

Yet like the hearts of our brave, lonely and

flawed

This monument weeps by the bucket

Timed to clank and persuade by robotic arcade (the)

Resplendence of Ugly Recession

(P.A. Holmes, Wahroonga, published in the Hornsby Advocate, June 1993)

I had no reason to enter the robotic arcade, so I hung about its entrance, watching the clock. The clock’s principal movement is the filling and tipping of a couple of long perspex buckets. Periodically the larger bucket spills out a jet of water into the pool below, and at times the whole contraption emits a hoot like a far away steam train.

These hoots punctuated the singing of the two girls set up at the shopping centre entrance, busking. They wore fluffy jumpers and shorts, despite the freezing weather. Both sung and one of the girls accompanied on acoustic guitar, which she had collaged with postage stamps – during a lull in their performance I went over to ask her if she had done it herself. She met my enthusiasm with polite distance, and I dropped a dollar into her guitar case. The song my dollar inspired was a vigorous performance of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”, a song especially calibrated to trigger a sense of wild, emotional freedom. I went back to staring at the water clock with their urgent voices bleating,

            Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back!

            The dog days are over!

To which the clock uttered another hoot.

The new side was the site of some of my own teenage musical adventures, which were centred around my version of the 100 Club, the Hornsby Police Citizens Youth Club. Around the same time the clock was being constructed a series of all ages punk shows were held at the PCYC. These shows attracted the kids with nose rings, Manic Panic hair and band t-shirts, who I yearned to be one of. The first show I went to was held in a small, concrete basement room under the club. My discovery of this world inspired feelings of  such joy that I flung myself towards the knot of people dancing. I was jabbed by punks’ elbows and shoulders, and when my face entered the thick black web of a goth boy’s hair and I inhaled the hairspray smell of it I felt I had been initiated.

While most teenage goths move on and become respectable citizens, others return to creep around their old haunts. I left the girls sending off the dog days and went in search of the PCYC, which is now squeezed in between an Officeworks and a tall apartment complex. The PCYC is a 1960s brick building with red and blue trim and a defunct neon sign of dancing feet for the “Stomp Cafe”. The nearby AMF bowling centre is also still there; I used to sit on the fire escape under the lanes in the breaks between bands at the PCYC, listening to the crash of the balls above and imagining the church youth group pizza and bowling nights that were going on in the alternate universe inside.

The everyday reality of these places didn’t quite match up with my memory versions, which cast them as secret, night places, settings for adventures. The bowling club was a dour blue and grey box, the PCYC building was shrouded in scaffolding. I stood outside it on the footpath as police officers rushed past me to get out of the rain. No one else was out walking on a day like this.

 *

Despite its name, the new side of Hornsby is structured around its old bones. The wedding cake building of the high school, where my mother studied, is unchanged on the south side of the mall, although nearby Orara Street has been transformed by apartment buildings. The only old building left on Orara Street is at the far corner, the old shop that used to be a general store run by my grandparents, now a real estate agency. Despite my family’s history here, my mother never expresses nostalgia for the Hornsby of the past, beyond retelling the story of the drunks who would lean up against the side of the shop, singing on their staggering way home to their little houses on Orara Street.

About a decade ago all these little houses were vacant and fenced off, awaiting demolition, a scene which filled me with dread. I felt the incipient apartment buildings were a threat to my personal history, even though they were part of my mother’s story, rather than my own. All she said about the new buildings, as we drove towards Hornsby on one of our regular op shop excursions a few years later, was, “I’d hate to live in one of those”.

Past the new apartment buildings, on the other side of the high school, is a dilapidated shopping arcade, back from before the days of the Westfield. It is on the corner block at the intersection of the Pacific Highway and Edgeworth David Road, a place I have accumulated many hours in cars, waiting for the lights to change. The arcade, known as “The Walk”, has been host to more and more obscure businesses over the years. Once the rug sale businesses move in, a building’s fate is sealed.

The shopfronts of The Walk are angled, giving their front windows a jaunty appearance, and the upper level has a balcony that reminds me more of 60s holiday flats than a shopping arcade. Mounted on the roof is a sign for the new development for the site, already selling off the plan. A few businesses remain on the upstairs level of The Walk, Fortress Locksmiths, the Small Loan Company, and a couple of mysterious offices with names like Cognitive Pty Ltd. I’d never been up the stairs and onto this level before, and had the feeling few people ever venture up here. A man in one of the mysterious offices stared out at me as he stirred milk into a mug of instant coffee, as if I were an apparition. He looked similarly unreal inside his office with piles of papers stacked on every surface, my view of him sliced by the stripes of the vertical blinds.

His view is usually the inscrutable block of the Westfield across the street and the cars travelling past on the highway. To stand on the balcony of The Walk and look out is to feel invisible to all this present day life, as if looking out from the past. The chairs and the table with an ashtray on it at the end of the balcony must be where the remaining inhabitants of The Walk congregate to discuss their impending extinction.

Downstairs, apart from the wedding dress and luggage stores sticking it out to the end, many of the shops are vacant. In what was once a small loan company, a glass containing three toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste is the only thing left behind. Only one shop interrupts this pattern, the showroom for the new version of The Walk. A neat white box, with tiny figures glued here and there on the balconies, is on display. It is just a model, but soon it will grow to completely consume the old Walk, retaining only its name.

For now, at the corner of the old building, the sign for “The Walk” is still readable on the tiled wall, in cursive ghost lettering. This point is the nexus of the old and new sides of Hornsby. The Pacific Highway curves over the railway line, old becomes new and new becomes old. The Walk is on the wrong side of the tracks. Soon it will be sacrificed and reborn.


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