Hornsby: Old things on the old side

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.

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8 Comments on “Hornsby: Old things on the old side”

  1. Simon klugt says:

    Thankyou for taking me down memory lane vanessa.i was born in hornsby.moved with parents in 82 to cattai.i long to reconnect with hornsby and find myself very sentimental to almost crying when i visit .
    Again thankyou for the journey.
    Simon

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks for your comment Simon, and yes, suburban places can be so full of meaning & emotion when we know or remember them well. Even though things have changed in Hornsby there are still plenty of traces of its past.

      • Hi Vanessa, I want to thank you for your beautifully written piece on the ‘old side’ of Hornsby. i wonder if you are aware that Hornsby Council voted to change the height restrictions on our Western, old side to 25 and 22 storeys. This is to make way for a Chatswood style development which would not ensure any of our built heritage there would be retained. It is breaking our hearts. We know the old side needs work but council’s plans will rob Hornsby of the only thing which makes it special, the unique village atmosphere there.. We have decided to not just lay down and take it, but to fight back as best we can. We have formed a facebook page , Friends of Hornsby’s ‘old side’ where we have a petition. Please feel free to visit and sign and maybe add a few words of encouragement. Council’s proposal is now in the hands of the Dpt. of Planning. Council proposes future developers retain heritage facades, “where possible” This isn’t good enough…..Do we have too much built history that we can afford to knock down buildings some of which were built before the turn of the century…

        Thankyou for your time and possible support ,
        Barbara Cronin.

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Hi Barbara,
        Thanks for letting me know about what’s going on – it’s frustrating to read of the kinds of proposals as they really do threaten the sense of place.
        For anyone who wants to join the petition, the link is: https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/restore-hornsby-s-western-side-no-highrise

  2. Sean O'Brien says:

    Great article about old and new Hornsby, an area where I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s. As if to prove the saying “things change, things stay the same”, as a child I would go with mum to Forbes Footwear to get my bata school shoes etc. That was 45 years ago. Now, I still go to Forbes Footwear, as they specialise in large size shoes (I’ve got big feet!). At the age of 50 I sit on the same bench to try on shoes that I sat on as a 5 year old! Not many places like that in a Sydney. Thanks for your insightful blog posts.

  3. Hi Vanessa, Barbara Cronin again. Would it be possible to buy a copy of the sketch accompanying your article. I love it . Please reply via email to barbell54@live.com.au.
    Thanks Barb.

  4. Sean O'Brien says:

    I just had a flashback of being fitted out in my Cubs outfit at a Scout/cubs/brownies shop on the upper level of “the Walk”. Circa 1971! And from the same year my most memorable film experience at the Odeon cinema, an obscure South African film called Lost in the Desert, which was kind of like Wake in Fright for kids. (Check out the comments for this film on imdb, every child who saw it was traumatised!)

    • Many of our precious memories took place in Hornsby but that means nothing to the current Council, headed by Mayor Steve Russell who thinks Democracy is just a funny Greek word. Once they were elected they proceeded to sell off or knock down everything they could lay their hands to. Some precious 19th century buildings are about to be lost below 25 storey highrise and council owned long day care centres sold off to feed the ever voracious developers and the user pays mentality of our right wing councillors. What the rate payers think or feel is treated as irrelevant, with councillors openly laughing up their sleeve at those who object. Who do we turn to for help? Our letters are ignored , our petitions likewise. I anyone cares just a little find us and sign out petition at facebook page, Friends of Hornsby ‘old side’ .


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