Hornsby: Old things on the old sidePosted: July 9, 2012
Hornsby has two sides, the old and the new. The suburb is split in half by the train line, which divides both east from west and past from present. I had thought the old and new designations to be my family’s shorthand until I realised that they were commonly understood and used by all locals. The new side is mostly the shopping mall, a vast Westfield centred around the square and the water clock. The old side is the alternate version: a few streets of shops, the small Odeon cinema, a walk through milk bar.
I have always preferred the old side to the enclosed world of the mall on the new side, even when I was a child and the mall was two smaller, separate shopping centres. On the weekend my grandfather would drive my sister and I to the new side, to the KMart in the Northgate Mall, to buy a present with one of the small, shiny $2 coins that had just replaced the pale green paper notes. We would choose items of novelty stationery that were manufactured solely for this kind of situation.
Despite the potential of searching through the knicknacks in shops like K-Mart and the Granny Mays gift shop, the old side of Hornsby had something more, a dangerous allure. Before moving to live with our grandparents, we lived in Kenthurst in the north west, although we still went to school on the north shore. My father would drive my sister and I there through the Galston Gorge, a road notorious for its tight hairpin turns. The road ascends in zig zags before straightening out and joining the Pacific Highway, which runs through the old side of Hornsby. One morning, while the car was stopped at traffic lights beside Hornsby Park, my father told me that there were “maniacs” living in the bushland below it. I’m sure he meant it as a joke, but every day from then on I turned my head away from the park, too scared to look lest one of the bright eyed, long haired maniacs appear from the bushland below.
The maniacs terrified and thrilled me and the old side of Hornsby seemed more interesting for its proximity to danger. There was more potential for interesting things among the old, and as I grew up my main objective in life became seeking out interesting things. I could sense them hiding just under the surface of every day life, even if I didn’t exactly know what they were.
Coronation Street, which runs in between the Pacific Highway on the old side and the train line, was Hornsby’s main shopping area in the days before malls. Replacing the grocery, butchery and hardware stores of the early twentieth century has been a succession of other, less essential businesses. When I was a teenager there were two of importance, Coronation Asian Market and Discovery Records. The Asian Market sold the kind of hippy clothing that was my first step in rebellion, colourful floating skirts and silver jewellery that gave an imagined exoticism to my life in suburban Turramurra. But my real saviour and rebellion came through music. When Discovery Records moved from a shop above street level on the highway to a shop in Coronation Street I realised my assumptions that it was a Christian music shop (something to do with the logo of a musical note with angel wings) had been very wrong. It was a paradise of the kind of post punk and goth records I coveted, Fall albums, 4AD compilations, all sold cheaply as they were little in demand at the time.
Coronation Street still has a record store, although Discovery has long since gone, packing up to follow the north shore teenagers who used to shop there into the inner west, to Erskineville where it is now known as Revolve Records.
Coronation Street’s one remaining record store is Mix Up Music, a music/junk shop with an ambience of mustiness. On the morning I approached it the store was blaring a Katy Perry song into the rainy street, the song’s glossy production and motivational postcard lyrics – baby you’re a firework – clashing with the shop’s cluttered interior. This was mall music in a place that contained the mall’s long-ago discards: high heels, a Feng Shui pack with CDs and booklet enclosed, a home laminator, a set of chunky glass wine goblets, ex-rental VHS, all on the one shelf.
There was no one behind the counter and I thought the shop empty until I noticed a woman at the back of the store, sitting at a computer scrolling through photos on Facebook. She stared at the screen, unaware or uncaring of my presence. I looked through the racks of CDs, dustying my fingers on their cases. The collection was a graveyard of 90s albums, back when CDs were desirable objects. Behind the counter was a sign I remembered from the days when thieves would break into houses to steal CDs: When dealing in secondhand goods, any official information you provide will be reported to the police.
Every available surface was covered in notices and faded posters of pop stars, an 80s-era Bowie, the cryptic sign:
as the saying goes
everything has its price
anything in this shop
could be yours
if the price is right
sticky taped to the end of a shelf containing plastic picnicware and outdated computer games.
What I had most wanted when I entered Mix Up Music was something that could have no price, which was the shop itself and everything in it, the whole atmosphere of the place. In every corner were different obsolete formats, under the counter, just before I stepped back outside again, were cassettes, some labelled carefully by hand: “Romantic Saxophone”. “100% Dance Hits”.
On the other side of the street I bypassed the recently-appeared vintage shop and cafe as too self consciously old and followed an elderly couple walking in front of me to ‘Brewhaha’, on the corner of Coronation Street and the Pacific Highway. In every suburb there is a cafe beloved of the elderly residents and this was obviously Hornsby’s one. I sat in the corner drinking a bitter coffee as the couple I had followed each read their own copy of the day’s Daily Telegraph.
I too had picked up a newspaper on my way in, the Hornsby Advocate. I turned to the letters page, which included the usual civic whinges and congratulations, and a photograph of a lounge room set-up with chairs and tables in the bush, sent in by a reader who asked “Do parents know what their kids get up to in the bush?” Teenage rebels in Hornsby today don’t go to record stores, they have tea parties in the bushland.
The elderly couple with their matching newspapers finished their cups of coffee at the exact same time, which seemed a good omen for my own leavetaking. The photo of the living room in the bushland had convinced me it was time to face up to my long-held fears of the maniac park. I crossed the street and passed by the rubble of the CWA tearoom. It had been a mid-twentieth century building which sat modestly at the corner of the park, screened from the street by a sandstone wall and a row of lavender bushes. Buildings seem so eternal until they are demolished, I thought, looking at the bricks.
I had never been into Hornsby Park before due to my childhood fear of what lay beyond it. Even after I realised there were no maniacs I still avoided the park, having excised it from my mental map of Hornsby as a badland. On this cold and rainy day the park was deserted. Beside the construction site that was once the tearoom was a fountain with a giant slab of rock in the centre, its water jets switched off and the water in the tiled pool greenish and dirty. A plaque on the side commemorates the fountain’s construction in 1970 to mark the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the east coast of Australia by Captain James Cook. Another plaque, much newer looking, revised the original: Hornsby Shire Council acknowledges that when Captain James Cook claimed possession of the east coast, the land which is now Hornsby Shire had already been occupied by the Darug and Guringai People for many thousands of years.
The significance of the giant slab of rock was left up to me to interpret. Perhaps it came from the nearby quarry, which is now disused, overgrown and regarded as an unstable site. The quarry is located behind the park in the space of my imaginary badlands, which perhaps was not so ill fitting a description after all. Sydney suburbs are pockmarked with old quarries, some more obviously so than others. Pyrmont’s three quarries, known by early stonemasons as Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole in reference to the quality of the rocks, are now only remembered in the street name Quarry Road; other quarries have become lakes; others remain simply as holes in the ground. One North Turramurra house my family had considered living in had what seemed to be a normal backyard until you noticed the sharp, 20 metre drop into what was once a quarry. I would have enjoyed sitting at the edge of it contemplating existence when I was a teenager, but the idea of the steep drop gave my mother nightmares and we moved elsewhere.
I left the park and walked back along the highway, past the grand buildings that once were banks, Danny’s Patisserie with its faded displays of cake decorations and incongruous Polish groceries, the VHS repair shop, and on towards Forbes Footwear. The interior with its shoeboxes stacked to the ceiling makes me think of x-ray foot measuring machines and Brannock devices. Adapting with its clientele, now Forbes specialises in orthopaedic shoes. When I was a teenager the woman working there once launched into a long, bitter rant about how much she hated my Dr Martens boots, which were not only bad for the feet but erosive to society’s morals.
The woman climbing the ladder to bring down a box of Hush Puppies could have been her, twenty years on. Things change slowly on the old side, although there are now Korean supermarkets in among the perennial stores of the old side, some shops are for lease and others carry a sense of doom that comes with dwindling trade. Further down the street, at the end of the shopping strip, a huge crane hovers over the construction of the new RSL club. The crane could start there and then gobble its way through the rest of the old side, transforming it into another hulking, beige shopping centre, a mirror image of the new.