West Side story

business card for West Side Theatre R

I found the business card in a country antique store, inside a plastic folder of old tram tickets, maps, and pamphlets for tourist attractions and theme parks. The West Side Theatre Restaurant, Keith Petersen. I could picture the West Side, as I had passed it many times on Illawarra Road, its blank facade stripped of adornments besides the small vertical sign with West Side printed on it in red. The sign is hidden for most of the year behind the leaves of the tree beside it, but I notice it nevertheless.

After I bought the card, I added it to the stack of miscellaneous library and loyalty cards in the back pocket of my wallet. I’d be searching for the card to check out a book or print something at Officeworks, and instead pull out the card for the West Side Theatre Restaurant, as if that would provide me with the help I required.

Keith Petersen was a vaudeville and pantomime actor and comedian, who made his name performing in productions in Sydney’s live theatres, like the Theatre Royal and the Tivoli (his one notable film role was as the drunk man on the ferry in They’re a Weird Mob who slurs out abusive comments about migration as he staggers around the cabin). But by the 1960s, audiences for live theatre had been diminished by television, and traditional theatres were closing, in favour of theatre restaurants.

In 1967, Keith Petersen announced he was “Bringing Variety Back” with the opening of the West Side Theatre Restaurant. He had invested all his money in the theatre, he said in a newspaper interview, and was both the manager and the theatre’s leading actor. The interviewer wasn’t convinced about the location – Marrickville? Implying: working class, migrant, Marrickville? Petersen, however, was adamant that the people of Marrickville wanted variety entertainment as much as the people of Neutral Bay or Woollahra. Advertisements for the theatre restaurant describe how it was “the largest and most lavish theatre restaurant in the country”, and also “the only restaurant with full dancing facilities”.

The article also included the unusual detail that Petersen, as a hobby, kept a pig farm near Campbelltown. However he’d been so busy setting up the West Side, he’d had to spend much less time with his pigs. “And that’s a pity,” he said, “because my pigs are my relaxation.”

It’s hard to determine the success of the West Side from the newspaper traces. Petersen died in 1971, (at his home in Campbelltown, it was reported), and then, at some point, West Side became the reception centre it operated as until recently. In even more recent times the building has housed a series of final-days businesses – a co-working space, a rug shop – while it is on the market as a development site. I often walk past the back of it, where ferns sprout from the bricks, and the pigeons are always up to something. They used to preside over a squashed air conditioning unit, before the unit was removed, and then they took over the nook where it used to be.

The building has all the signs of having once been a movie theatre, being long and wide with a peaked, corrugated iron roof, and indeed started its life that way, as the Hoyts De Luxe in 1921, before it was redesigned and reopened in 1938, screening the film “Dead End”. The film is set in New York, amid the crime and poverty of the tenements of the Lower East Side, alongside which new, luxury apartments have just been built with views over East River.

When I stand on the corner of the former theatre, where eighty years ago audiences gathered to watch this screening of Dead End, and Keith Petersen once dreamed of his lavish theatre restaurant, I can hear the pick and churn of new apartment complexes being constructed all around. One complex is being built directly across the street. Its sign promises residents will “Wake up Wonderful”. They will wake to the view of the Westside, where the painted signs in the window of the rug store say “Everything Must Go!”, until the West Side itself goes too.

West Sides

**

This post is dedicated to @ripmarrickville – which is an excellent chart of Marrickville past and present.

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A City Garden

The trees are a clue, visible from Clarence Street above the two entrances to the underground parking garage. The trees’ tall, wintery shapes seem to hover, like the buildings around them are dreaming of a forest. Behind them is a wall with peeling paint and sash windows, seven storeys high. The tallest tree reaches almost to its roof.

The entrance to the arcade on this side of the building is a narrow doorway, easily passed by. So too is the entrance to the garden, which has the look of a service corridor, branching off the arcade and its row of typical city small businesses: a barber, a sandwich shop, a newsagency. But if you pass through the doors you are delivered into a courtyard with trees and palms, and a pond into which a stream of water pours.

The trees that were visible from the street below are planted to either side of the garden, and underneath them are benches and paths, enclosing this garden amid the city high-rises. They surround it, so on one side is the back of the office building on York Street, across the road is the concrete stripes of another parking garage, and above is the St Martins Office tower, the building of which the garden is part.

The tower was built in the early 1970s on the block bordered by York, Market and Clarence Streets. Being across from the Queen Victoria building, with its sandstone warmth and elaborate detail, the St Martins tower has a functional, anonymous presence within the contemporary city. At street level, it is easy to walk past it without noticing it as a place it is possible to enter.

When I did, and found the garden, there was no one else there. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear the city all around, a roar only partially obscured by the rush of running water from the fountain. The traffic on the street below groaned past, and the air conditioning ducts on the side of the building churned in restless interruption. I walked up to the edge of the pond and the carp swum over towards me, hoping for crumbs. They kissed the water’s surface, their bright orange backs looming up.

The sun had slipped behind the buildings already, so the garden was in shadow, but I pulled my coat tight around me and sat for a while, under the trees, listening to the city as the carp clustered, ever-hopeful, in the shallow water below.


Holland House

It has been a few years since I’ve visited Smithfield. As I travel along Horsley Drive I pass by its landmarks, a Buddhist temple, a front garden planted with tall cacti, and the concrete bunker of the former Smithfield Post Office. I had expected this building to have been demolished by now, but it remains, with a ‘for lease’ sign on its roof, looking as impenetrable as ever under its coat of pale green paint, still broadcasting the postcode and the insignia of Queen Elizabeth from its postal days.

post office building

Smithfield is on Cabrogal land, a suburb half residential, half industrial, bisected by the winding path of the Prospect Creek as it flows towards the Georges River. For the most part, the factories are on the north side of the creek, but there’s a smaller area of factories and warehouses on the south side, and it’s into this area I turn into, passing by industrial units with rows of palm trees along the street-front. It is the kind of light industrial street that has places that fix, store or destroy things: building materials warehouses, mechanics, scrap metal yards and wreckers. There’s a generator hire place with a rusty crane on top of a grey shed like a giant metal spider. To one side of the street is a vacant lot, a former market garden now overgrown with high grass and a few remaining panels of colorbond fence beside a stormwater channel choked with rubbish and weeds. Across from it the industrial units continue with a kitchen warehouse and an auto mechanics with a sign for “Smithfield Diff & Gearbox” in jaunty white lettering.

I’m distracted from the mysteries of Diff by the premises next door. Here, instead of another scrapyard or warehouse, is a row of four Dutch canal houses. Painted green with white windows, the facade frames the sign for Holland House, and a mural of a Dutch port with windmills and the nose of a KLM jet painted on it. Had someone asked me to imagine what the most unlikely business to find in the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial area might be, I would be guessing for quite some time before I came up with a Dutch supermarket, cafe and cultural centre.

 

‘t Winkeltje, The Dutch Shop, has traded here in Smithfield since 1985. At first it sold only imported Dutch furniture, but soon expanded to a supermarket, stocking the herring, cheese and liquorice that is signature Dutch fare. Inside, the warehouse building has been transformed. There’s a tiled floor, a low ceiling crossed with wooden beams, and wood-panelled walls, against which delft tiles and ceramic figurines are displayed. Under the wooden clogs and orange bunting that hang from the ceiling are aisles stocking sweets, packets of chocolate sprinkles, jars of pickles, containers of chocolate milk, boxes of pancake mix: an entire pantry of Dutch groceries.

Behind the shop is the cafe, and I walk through an archway into a room of dark wood and low, golden light. Fringed lampshades hang down over the tables, which have thick, woven coverings and vases of pink artificial tulips decorating them. Around the edges of the room, in cabinets and on shelves, are clusters of objects, pennants from the NSW Holland festival, coffee tins, wooden skates, copper pots, Dutch joke books, more tiles, more clogs.

On the other side of the cafe the shop continues, with racks of Dutch CDs and LPs, then souvenirs and kitchenware, then the oak furniture showroom that started it all. There are loungeroom scenes set up, chairs and tables and cabinets with trinkets and books in them, as if, at night after the shop was shut, families might materialise to inhabit these settings, sitting around the oak tables to read, eat salty liquorice pastilles and drink hot chocolate. I’m particularly entranced by the cardboard television, of the kind produced as props for furniture showrooms. It is obviously fake – it’s even called Imitronics – but I still touch it to check.

Through another doorway is the Dutch Cultural Centre, a room with a library and display cabinets, and a model of Amsterdam on a table in the centre of the room. It is a view along the Singel canal, lined with houses which, when I lean in to look at it closely, I see have been meticulously detailed with shop window displays and patterned curtains in the windows. It had been built by a man who was a butcher by trade, the volunteers at the cultural centre tell me. He’d designed it based on photographs he’d taken of this set of streets in Amsterdam, and constructed it in his garage, where he had displayed the model until he moved into smaller premises, and it came here.

I peer along one of the streets of the model, where there’s a Bloemist, a florist shop, with a window display of tulips, leading onto a bridge over the canal, over which toy cars are travelling. This is where it is, one of the volunteers says, coming up to me with a city map that has the location of the streets traced out over it. They hand me a photocopied brochure, too, with an architectural guide to the houses and this terse description of the model: “As far as the carpentry is concerned: Number of window frames: 1800. Window panes 7126.”

I think about this as I sit at the corner table of Cafe Klein-Mokum, eating poffertjes, listening to the Dutch version of “Love is in the Air” playing over the stereo, feeling transported, if not to Holland itself, at least to a version of it. It was cosy in here: this was the feeling of gezellig, the menu informed me, and that this is the homely atmosphere created by activities such as playing board games and drinking hot chocolate by the fire when it’s cold outside. But I could not stop imagining that, instead of sitting in the cafe I had previously walked through, I had instead shrunk down to miniature size and was sitting inside a cafe in a canal house in the model of Amsterdam, looking out one of the 7126 windows at the carefully constructed city outside.

 


View from the Hill

For the past couple of years I’ve been working with the Powerhouse Museum on the Time and Memory project, the book of which was launched at the end of 2018. Soon the project will be finishing up  and ahead of this I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes story from one of my visits to the Observatory.

Sydney Observatory tower

161 years isn’t a very long time in the history of the land on which the Observatory stands, or compared to the history of the stars which the Observatory was built to examine, but until the introduction of timekeeping by atomic clock in the mid-20th-century, the Observatory was central to the city. It was Sydney’s most accurate timekeeping mechanism, keeping the city to time via precision clocks, that were calibrated through the observed movements of the stars.

The Observatory building stands on the highest point in the harbour, on a rocky ridge between the coves of Warrane/Sydney Cove and Tumbalong/Darling Harbour. Now it is on something of an island, the land around it winnowed away by roads, the city grown into high-rise, but when it was first built, it would have been immediately visible to anyone around the harbour. This, indeed, was its purpose, as the Observatory transmitted the time to the city through a simple visual mechanism: the time ball on its roof.

The time-ball is a metal sphere mounted on a pole atop the Observatory’s central tower. It is now painted yellow, although it was initially painted black, which made it easier to see against the sky. Almost every day since the Observatory opened in 1858, at 1pm the ball has dropped from the top to the bottom of the mast. Now this is continued as a tradition, but its original purpose was to communicate the hour to ships in the harbour. This was so that they could make sure their clocks were running to time, for this was essential to accurate navigation.

It was not just important for shipping: the Observatory held the time standard for all the clocks in the city. Before the construction of the Harbour Bridge the Observatory was the city’s most prominent structure, and in the early afternoon, many eyes went to it to watch for the movement of the ball. Errors in the time ball’s precision were noted in the daily newspapers:

It was a late-autumn evening when I climbed up through the rooms of the tower to the roof of the Observatory, following the two of the museum’s curators up the stairs and ladders that lead to the time ball. On the library level I stopped to look over the collection of astronomy books on the shelves. Their spines were mostly plainly bound, although some of the older ones were decorated with gold stars and comets, such as Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens from 1923.

These rooms once held the Observatory’s archives, the papers, notebooks, glass plate negatives and photographs that recorded observations of the sky and the weather (astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell’s beautiful cloud photographs, for example).

The room below the time ball contains its mechanism, a central metal column with a complicated collection of cogs and levers attached to it. Usually, this is as far as people go. It is here, at 1pm, that the gears are engaged, and the button is pressed to release the ball, and there is generally little reason to go up any further. But we keep climbing, up a ladder and then through the hatch onto the roof. It’s a shift in perspective to be standing up beside the ball, knowing that this is usually a place watched from below, or afar.

Up close I see that the ball is as tall as we are, see the bolts that hold the copper panels together and where the paint has faded and peeled (though since I visited it has been refreshed with a new coat of yellow paint). There’s a hatch on the side of it, and when I point it out, the curator tells me the unlikely-but-compelling rumour neighbourhood children would be given a ride inside the ball on their 8th birthday. Looking down over the streets of Millers Point and The Rocks below, I imagine the story taking hold, kids bragging they’d been for a ride in it, others waiting for the day when they’d have their turn.

The whole spread of the harbour is visible from here. In the west, the sun has almost slipped below the horizon, lighting up the low clouds in the east. As the light quickly fades, the white and red lights of the cars travelling across the bridge seem to increase in brightness.

As always when I see the harbour from this perspective, I can’t help but thinking of time differently. The time ball represents the colonial perception of time, as something to be measured and controlled, but the harbour carries the ancestral time of this land’s first peoples, and the geologic time of the land’s formation. The skies have shifted over the harbour throughout all these times – the clouds, the changing elements, the positions of the stars above – and been observed in different ways. I am one of countless observers who have watched the sunset from this hill, as I stand here beside the metallic sun of the time ball, thinking about the day moving into night, watching the scene below me change.

**

You can read excerpts from the Time and Memory book, from essays by Samuel Wagan Watson and Matthew Connell.

Big thanks to the curators and editors at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences who have guided me in my research.


Last Days of Lawson’s

After trading for 55 years, Lawson’s Record Centre is closing. At 380 Pitt Street is the last remaining of what was once a row of secondhand record stores on this block between Liverpool and Goulburn streets. When I started shopping there the top three on this stretch were Ashwoods, The Pitt, and Lawson’s. At that time there was a vast vacant lot across from the record stores, the whole block between Pitt and George Street empty. The Anthony Horderns department store had stood here until it was demolished in the 1980s. But I paid the vacant lot little attention. The city had many such holes at the time, on pause between demolition and development. Instead my energies were focussed on the record stores, and what I might find within.

I found records inside them, of course, but as much as I enjoyed looking through the racks, I enjoyed being in the stores themselves. They were cluttered, serious places, dense with records and books, with layers of gig posters decorating their walls. Their mood was one of studious attention to the pursuit of treasure, and I joined the searchers with enthusiasm. When I was a teenager books and music were my lifeline. I navigated the city with subcultural intent, frequenting the record book stores, navigating by the cinemas and arcades.

Approaching Lawsons this feeling returns to me, although the rest of the street has changed and is now mostly restaurants. Through the door I can see the long rows of boxes inside, through to the back wall lined with 7″ records. As I turn to go in I note the handwritten sign in the window thanking customers for their support and announcing that the last day is April 27th. Once through the narrow entranceway lined by vinyl records, I see this date is also marked on the calendar affixed to the pinboard behind the counter. There’s a circle around the last Saturday in April and the words “last day of Lawson’s” written below it.

Knowing that this may well be their last visit, the store is busy with people searching through the records and CDs, heads down, flipping through. As I browse ’50s 60s R&B’ a man beside me explains to his son the system of alphabeticising artists under their first names, one of the store’s quirks.

I turn my attention to the walls and their layers of posters. My favourite, which has been on the wall since the first time I came to the store in the 1990s, is the State Rail fare evasion poster that shows a figure being consumed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “There are harsh penalties for those without a ticket”, ran a line of text at the bottom of the poster. No matter how often the LPs displayed on the rack below it changed, the day-glo scene of prehistoric fare evasion was a constant.

 

Lawson’s too has been a constant, a reminder of an era of the city that now has fewer and fewer traces. Climbing rents have now priced it out of the city, a familiar story for other secondhand book and record dealers such as Goulds, which had to downsize from its iconic Newtown store last year, also due to increases in rent. Another stalwart of the city book and record store circuit, Comic Kingdom, closed in recent years, and the copies of Captain America and Spiderman grow ever-dustier in its unchanging front window.

For many years Lawson’s has been the last store left of its kind in the city, but now its time is coming to a close. A For Lease sign is displayed in the front window beside David Bowie and Prince. But inside, for these final weeks, it has the same atmosphere of studious searching, looking through, hoping for treasure.

***

For a guide to Sydney’s record stores see Diggin’ Sydney map of record stores.


Deep Purple

In the floral calendar of Sydney, after the pink of the crepe myrtles in late summer comes the velvet purple of the tibouchinas. Like the city’s most renowned non-native flowering tree, the jacaranda, the tibouchina also originated in Central and South America. Yet the tibouchina is still an unfamiliar name to many, even if their iridescent purple blooms are a recognisable marker of the change of season.

For most of the year the dark green leaves and slim branches of tibouchina trees seem unexceptional, camouflaged by other garden plantings. But in March and April, when in bloom, they flare into a mass of intense colour. Like jacarandas, they transform streets into constellations of purple. This purple is richer, darker, as befits the time of year when the days grow shorter, and there’s a briskness to the air, a colder wind. Pale mauve jacarandas flowers are light, airy spring; deep purple tibouchina flowers are the dark of the lengthening autumn nights.

A tibouchina – or as they are were then known, the Lasiandra – formed part of a Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1869; by 1887 they were being grown and sold in nurseries. By the 1920s the tibouchina was a familiar tree in suburban gardens along Australia’s east coast, and the beauty of their flowers was celebrated: “The head-piece of most of the shrubs is just covered with loveliness”, extols one 1928 article, “lasiandra is a gem thing”.

Today tibouchinas can be seen across city parks and gardens, usually in isolation, but in some areas such as in Ashfield and Summer Hill, they have been used as street trees, forming an autumn corridor of bright colour. It is a surprise to turn a corner and encounter such a street, as if colours have inverted, the greens changed to purple, as if they have pulled the last of the summer’s heat from the air, in order to glow so richly.


Vanishing Point

Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.

There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?

For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge  of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”.  Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.

I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.

Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.

I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.

A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.

**

(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now  the sign has lost its lustre…)