Shop Sign Time Travel Part 1: The Bowie Deli

Elizabeth Bay Road ends in a loop around which is a crown of apartment buildings, some grand, some plain. The more elegant of them were built in the 1930s, like the nine-storey, art deco Adereham Hall, a tall building with a concertina shape like folding screen. It catches the afternoon light like it is a sunbeam solidified, starburst motifs spreading out above its doorways and windows.

At the other end of the loop is its modernist counterpart, an apartment building named Deepdene. The side of it which faces the road is rounded like a giant pipe, and curved walls emerge behind it. Built in the 1970s, the building’s form was based on an observatory in Potsdam, Germany, known as the Einstein Tower because it was constructed to make observations to test his theory of relativity. Its Sydney counterpart is dedicated to luxury: despite the building’s size there are only four exclusive, double-storey apartments inside.

Elizabeth Bay is a gallery of twentieth-century apartment buildings, containing everything from studio apartments with ugly grey trodden-down carpet and views onto the wall of the building next door to elegant penthouses with verandahs that open out onto the harbour. Simon and I pause outside the gates to Kincoppal, one of these luxury complexes built in the 1970s. Through the gate we can see the apartment building rising up behind the 1868 house built for merchant John Hughes. Hughes gave it the name Kincoppal, which means “horse head” in Gaelic, after a horse head shaped rock formation near the water’s edge.

But it’s not Hughes, nor horses, that has directed us here: it’s David Bowie. In the 1980s he owned an apartment in Kincoppal, to which he returned for regular Sydney visits throughout the decade, until he sold it in 1992. We peer through the fence, imagining Bowie checking his mailbox at the gold anodised aluminium mailboxes that look like a wall of gold bricks. This is the only detail of the building we can see beyond the trees and landscaping. Like many homes of the very rich, the entrance gives little away. A congested garden of palm trees and a tall bunya pine screens the buildings from the road.

Overlaid on this moment – a Sunday afternoon, people going back and forth from their cars with grey plastic supermarket bags or luggage from a weekend away – is the otherworldly thought of David Bowie stepping out from the Kincoppal gates. Would he even have gone out for a walk, I wondered, not quite able to reconcile his superstardom with such a mundane activity. But it seems he did, according to musician and Bowie-aficionado Jeff Duff. In one of the “Bowie in Australia” articles that appeared after Bowie’s death in 2016 he was quoted: “He was very hard to recognise,” Duff said, “he was very casually, normally dressed, a dude wandering around in Elizabeth Bay, nothing stood out about him apart from that he was a very handsome man.”

We wander away from the gates, follow the loop back down towards Greenknowe Avenue. Hanging from the awning beside the row of shops on the corner of X street is a sign for the Elizabeth Bay Deli: DELI in curling script beside an illustration of a cheese and a salami and some lovingly-detailed black olives.

The shop is one of those stores that has at least one of everything. Whether you need a glue stick, a banana, a container of Bacon Bits or a box of incense, you’ll find it in there somewhere. Maybe it’s just because Bowie is in my head, but there’s grocery items in here I haven’t noticed again since the 1980s. Apricot nectar in a can. Cottees Ice Magic. Pecks Paste. The spices are the same brand I remember from our pantry in the 80s, Molly McKenzie, presented in round plastic bottles with brown lids.

I lurk behind the crisps, imagining Bowie at the counter, politely buying a packet of Marlboro Lights or maybe a box of juice. The Elizabeth Bay Deli has these items and more.


Mirror Sydney, the book

I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.

There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.

  1. Hotel Westend

The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and  boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.

The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.

2. Kenilworth Witches’ House

On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.

Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.

3. Fibro Houses

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.

These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.

They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.


Weird Sydney at the Paragon Cafe

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to step outside of it. In this spirit myself, Peter Doyle, Chris Mikul and Michael Wayne are bringing Weird Sydney up into the mountains to the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba on August 12th.

We will be talking about the city’s oddities and offbeat places, and chatting about some of the unusual objects and stories we’ve found in the city’s archives. Afternoon tea is also included! The Paragon’s a beautiful art deco cafe and we will be speaking in the 1930s banquet hall, designed in ocean-liner style.

You can book tickets, and read a bit more about the event here.


Leaving and Returning

Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.

This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.

A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.

Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.

The orange building – with the old Toohey’s ad from the building’s brewery days that’s revealed when they change the billboards over.

The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.

Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.

A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.

One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.

 

 


Tales of Tempe Tip

If there’s one type of place I am commonly drawn to, it is places on the margins: otherwise ignored, or soon to disappear, or discarded. Sometimes these places are also literally on the margins, in the outer suburbs, or on the edge of the city.

The Salvation Army store in Tempe is both. It is literally on the edge of the city, at the very last patch of the suburban land before the outskirts of the airport begins. Inside the warehouse that is the store and sorting centre are the discarded objects of Sydney residents, an abundance of clothes and furniture and bric a brac. Sydney has plenty of op shops, but this is one is certainly the most famous, so well known that it has, with its nickname “Tempe Tip”, become a cultural reference point.

The first references to the op shop as Tempe Tip appear in newspapers in the 1960s. The name was taken from the rubbish dump next door to the Salvation Army depot, and soon Tempe Tip became synonymous with the op shop, rather than with its original identity. Some of the newspaper mentions are utilitarian, advising newlyweds with little money to visit the Tempe Tip in order to furnish their houses. It is also mentioned in lifestyle articles, describing how people gather in corners at parties to talk about Tempe tip and the secondhand furniture bargains they found there. It’s the place to go for props and costumes, too. In 1971 the visiting Zorba Song and Dance company bought 10000 plates to be broken on stage in what was described as the “uninhibited finale” to their performance.

The Tempe Tip is also something of a local slang term, used to denigrate the quality of goods or clothing. If something “looks like it came from the Tempe Tip”, for example, it is no doubt shabby and strange. It was also used to denote poor quality in general. In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” declared that:

He has moved into a fuzzy world of songs which abound in personal fantasies. His voice has contracted to a mumble. His accompaniments are a scattered jumble which sounds as though they were recorded at the Tempe tip. We know that artists must be permitted to change their approach, but this is ridiculous.

My favourite articles about Tempe Tip describe the scene on Saturday morning, as people waited to be let inside the gates. In a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1982, “On Your Marks at Tempe Tip”, the scene is described in detail:

The waiting crowd is stacked impatiently behind a cyclone wire fence which heaves, stretches and sags with their weight. Promptly at 11, Charles H. Jolly, in a straw cowboy hat and a pink western shirt, opens the gates and stands back as a 200-strong crowd stampedes in search of cut-price treasure. The battle for a bargain at Tempe Tip, the Salvo’s Miroma thrift shop, is fiercer than the struggle at Harrod’s spring sale: people push, pull, scream and swear territorially over their secondhand goodies. 

In the 1980s the Tempe Tip’s opening hours were 11am – 2:30 during the week, and on Saturdays what was described as a “brief, exciting” two hours from 7:30am to 9:30am. Another article describes how :

You had to be young, fit and wearing your running shoes to race people sprinting in to get the best bargains.

The Salvation Army first moved onto this land in 1909, and set up a Prison Gate Farm here, providing employment for newly-released prisoners. A plan for a piggery was approved by the council in 1909, despite the objections from the nearby bakery which worried that “any offensive odours floating about in the air were liable to find their way into the dough when it was in a state of ferment, and would be in the bread when baked”.

The farm activities wound down and the site became a secondhand goods market. The name Tempe Tip came and stuck, and is still the affectionate term for the op shop that is there today. The shop is a large, low warehouse, painted royal blue with red awnings.

Just beyond it is a view of the edge of the airport and planes moving slowly from their hangars. Trucks go past at all times of the day and night, carrying shipping containers back and forth from the terminal at the end of Swamp Road, through a landscape of shipping containers, pampas grass, and the tall yellow pylons that support the landing lights for the runway.

Swamp Road Scene

The first time I came to Tempe Tip was some time in the 1990s and I thought it a kind of op shop heaven. The scene inside was much calmer than the crush of waiting shoppers against the wire fence in the 1980s, but it was no less exciting to me, newly moved out of home. I bought armfuls of clothes, baskets of bric a brac and a big round coffee table, a metre and a half across, with a copper top carved with hieroglyphics. A friend of mine with a van, a goth who played in a Birthday-Party-esque band, helped me convey this enormous table home. I liked to imagine the 1970s lounge room this table had once been a part of, something that would be pictured in one of the kitsch home decorating guides that I also bought in abundance from the Tempe Tip.

Furniture in limbo.

As I approach the entrance, I notice a man waiting out the front of the op shop. He is wearing a leather jacket with a logo on the back for the “Raging Dads”. His friend, another Raging Dad with tattoos and long hair, leaves the store with an armful of clothes and they push off with their baby strollers, their shopping trip complete. Mine has only just begun. It has been some time since I’ve been to Tempe Tip, but it works its magic over me as ever.

The store has its own atmosphere with the roar of planes overhead, the giant industrial fans suspended from the ceiling, and people intently browsing. A man discusses a Willow patterned platter with his elderly mother, who is holding a plastic bag of balls of mauve wool. A woman sizes up ceramic dog figurines, turning them over to look for maker’s marks on the paws. In the furniture section people move from couch to couch, testing them for comfort. A man with a bum-bag slung across his body like a holster pushes a shopping trolley past me, its contents an insect zapper and books by Deepak Chopra.

In between the planes flying by overhead, and the jangling sound of someone going through the cutlery, the radio plays U2s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I keep looking. Tempe Tip will have it, even if I don’t know exactly what it is yet.


St Peters, Post-Industrial Playground

As part of this year’s Australian Heritage Festival, I’ll be presenting a talk and slideshow about St Peters called “Post Industrial Playground”. It’s on May 10th at St Peters library, and is free, but please register here if you’d like to come along. I’ll be talking about St Peters’ recent past, with a focus on alternative culture: punx picnics, St Peters in pop culture, and weird scenes from Sydney Park. Of which there are many.

Kate Bush in multiple converges on Sydney Park.

 


A Tour of the Sirius Building

Approaching the Sirius building I can see the group I am to join already assembled outside, waiting for the tour. They gather in the forecourt, a brick-paved area with circular garden beds, in which grow banksia trees and jade plants, and a hibiscus flowering with pink blooms. Among the people waiting there moves a tall man wearing a purple shirt. He is handing out flyers, talking with verve as he does so. This is Tao Gofers, the architect who, in 1976, designed the Sirius building, and has been working with the Save Our Sirius group to protect the building from demolition.

The Sirius is one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings, instantly recognisable due to its striking modular design and its prominent position beside the Harbour Bridge. Its stepped shape of concrete blocks and roof gardens with purple funnels rise up alongside the Bridge. It seems almost close enough to be able to reach out from the Harbour Bridge walkway to touch them. At least this is what I imagined as a child, as I, like generations of Sydney residents, wondered what it would be like to live there and explore on the rooftop gardens, looking out over the city.

The Sirius is a building that gives much to the imagination. It’s a people’s building, both because it was designed as social housing and operated successfully as such for four decades, and because it has such a strong physical presence in the cityscape. It’s a building that’s embedded in the city’s collective consciousness, as important and as controversial as it was when it opened in the late 1970s.

Illustration of the Sirius from 1970s Housing Commission brochure, image courtesy of Tao Gofers.

We are taken back to 1976 as Tao Gofers describes the process of designing the Sirius. At that time there had already been demolition of social housing properties and relocation of residents in the area. A condition of lifting the green ban that had been imposed on area by the Builders Labourers Federation was that that there be provisions for the working class community who had been living in the area for generations to remain in The Rocks. Until the Ban was lifted, the government could make no changes to their existing properties in The Rocks, and they were eager for the stalemate to be resolved.

The Sirius was the key factor in the lifting of the green ban. It all happened quickly: there was only 10 days between Gofers first hearing of the project to his presentation to the stakeholders. He describes the scene, the government officials in double-breasted suits, and the Rocks residents “like us”, people in their everyday clothes, who had gathered to see his proposals. He first showed a design for a small development of 14 terrace houses, which was unacceptable to the government. Next he showed a proposal for a 20 storey building with 8 apartments per floor, which was unacceptable to the residents. A third proposal, for a standard tower block of 80 units was also rejected for being aesthetically displeasing. Then Gofers presented the proposal for the Sirius. The design was presented as a compromise between two extremes, but it was the one that Gofers believed in, and the one that came to be built.

Tao Gofers describes the Sirius building planning process.

Sirius was based on The Laurels, an earlier apartment development Gofers had designed in Sans Souci. The model for The Laurels had been made with Revlon eyeshadow boxes, which had the right kind of dimensions for the windows that filled the ends of each concrete module. The Sirius was an expanded version of this design, which combined 1,2,3 and 4 bedroom apartments, as well as apartments specifically designed for the elderly and people with disabilities.

We walk around the building, looking up at the apartments as Tao describes how of the 79 units, 74 have access to a balcony, terrace or roof garden. “If you have just little boxes,” he says “people aren’t going to be happy.” His designs were made with people’s emotional bond to their homes in mind. These were not purely functional spaces, although their simple design made them adaptable to the multi-level site. It included numerous communal areas, including the Heritage Room on the 8th floor, designed as a common area for older residents, and the Phillip Room on the ground floor, with red patterned carpet, wood-panelled walls, and dramatic beams of raw concrete.

The wooden figures that decorate the walls of the Phillip Room.

We cannot even glimpse into the Phillip Room now. The windows are completely blocked off with black plastic, for no other reason but to prevent us looking inside. All we can see is our own reflections moving by. The group is big, around a hundred people. We stand at the back of the building, staring up at the apartment balconies where succulents grow wild and unpruned from the planter boxes. Almost every one of these apartment is empty. The government has been moving residents out since 2014, with the intent to sell the building and have it demolished. Despite the recommendations of its own Heritage Council, heritage listing was refused, and it is this decision Save Our Sirius campaign is working to fight.

 

Accompanied by security guards, we crowd into the foyer, and then go in small groups in the lift up to level 10 for a look inside Myra’s apartment. Myra, who is 90 years old and has lived in this neighbourhood for almost 60 years, has become the face of the Sirius building. Myra is blind, and has no wish to move away from the familiar apartment and area she has been a part of for so long. This morning she is at the front of the building, sitting in the forecourt with a drawing group assembled around her, sketching her on their notepads. Upstairs, groups of people stand in her living room, looking around. It is the homely environment of an elderly person, with its teaspoon collection hanging on the wall, framed photos and knicknacks arranged on the shelves, and a horseshoe hung up in the hallway as a luck charm. The windows fill the entire of the eastern wall and through them is a view across the harbour.

The SOS lights (for Save Our Sirius) in Myra’s bedroom window.

This, Tao says a number of times during the tour, is a sticking point – the idea of people who are not privileged, not wealthy, living with this harbour view. Standing in Myra’s living room, looking out at the clouds moving across the sky and their reflection in the steel-grey water, it is indeed beautiful. No one could deny it, and anyone living with such a scene as part of their daily lives is lucky. But luck and beauty should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy. A city where money and privilege dominates pales even the most glorious view. From its inception the Sirius has been symbolic of the city and the harbour being available to all, and it is even more so now as the majority of its apartments lie empty, and the fight to save it continues.

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Follow the Save Our Sirius campaign here with links to details of future tours and campaign events.