Auburn Secret Messages

My familiar paths are dotted with small landmarks. Walking home from the train station there are certain details I look for each time: a small metal statue of Winston Churchill on a front porch, a glimpse of chickens in a garden, the location of the blue Citroen DS that is sometimes parked on the street like a time travelling craft from the 1960s.

Every one of my train journeys in Sydney is similarly linked by minor landmarks. As the train travels towards Parramatta, the streets of the inner west slide past the windows. At Summer Hill I look for the giraffe painted on the side of an old shop, an ad for a furniture removal company. At Ashfield, I look for the words ..RICH!+Death…SØUP*, painted across the top of a windowless brick building. For every suburb I have certain things I always look for.

One of the pleasures of catching the train west is to glimpse into the yards of the houses that back on to the railway line. Some are neat, with washing pegged in colour order on the line. Others are overgrown with rusting cars being consumed by grass. Each flickers by in an instant, too quickly for more than a glimpse, and so my eye skitters over the details, unable to grasp them. But every time I look, hungry for details.

One of the buildings I always look for is on The Crescent, near Homebush station. The 1930s building that once housed the sub branch of the RSL decays more every time I pass by it. It is now a shell, broken and in some places burnt. A new development will replace it, but for now it is a rotting fruit of a building. The memorial rose garden in front of it is overgrown, the flagpoles are bare white sticks on either side of the gates.

Further along the train line is my favourite secret message. On the south side of Auburn train station is a row of the two storey brick terraces with shops below and residences above that are a familiar sight in the inner Sydney suburbs. Looming behind these is a newer residential development, rows of balconies with satellite dishes and blinds drawn to block out the strong morning sun. Each of the terraces in the foreground is painted a different colour, which makes them even more distinct from the beige building that rises up behind them. The terraces are a patchwork of colours and signs that layer over the original art deco ornamentation with little regard to the original pattern.

Among all this is a defunct neon sign, on top of what is now a Chinese Restaurant and a barber shop. The neon tubes string the letters together into cursive script:

For you a Loan

This sign is a reward for the uncountable hours of my life I have spent looking out windows in search of secret messages. What is, in prosaic terms, the forgotten sign of a long-gone small loan company, is to me a validation of always looking up, or looking beyond, keeping an eye for detail open.

When I am on the train at Central station I still look for the most well known of Sydney’s neon signs – the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House with a golfer hitting a hole in one – even though it was taken down some years ago, and the building is empty and in disrepair. There is something magical about neon signs, the alchemy of electricity, gas, and glass combining to colour in the night. While they are an integral element of the classic night cityscape, mid 20th century neon signs are rare to come by in Sydney, apart from the iconic Kings Cross Coke sign, and the Chateau Tanunda neon sign at the entrance to St James station (which I liked so much I used it as the background for my book’s author photo). Even in Kings Cross, which was once known as the “glittering mile” for its concentration of neon signs, there are few neons remaining (to see them in their flashing and winking 60s glory watch a home movie of Kings Cross neon signs 1962 or the opening of the “Glittering Mile” documentary). Neon signs have been replaced by billboards on the large scale, and fluorescent or LED lights on the small scale, neither of which seem quite so magical.

Large scale, heritage protected neon signs are in a different league to this forgotten text on the roof of an Auburn shop. Although I would be sad if one day I passed by and it were gone, part of its beauty comes from the risk of its disappearance. The message is just big enough to be noticed, but small enough to be forgotten.

***

Above street level in Auburn is a different version of the suburb to the everyday one below it. On street level there is a repeating pattern of bakeries, fashion stores, discount shops, real estate agents and the Turkish, Pakistani, or Vietnamese grocers. If I were to walk the same path above street level, along the awnings, I would come across more secret messages, the signs for old businesses and ads for film processing that no one had thought to remove. These are Federation-era buildings, their decorative brickwork now disguised by peeling paint and covered over by signs. Similar buildings form the distinctive roofline of King Street, Newtown, and there too, the decay and dishevelment of the upper levels gives the place a sense of the past. But while Newtown’s dishevelment is integral to its character, in places like Auburn and the many other Sydney suburbs which share this architecture, these details are less celebrated. Life happens on the street below, the upper levels are forgotten.

The shops along Auburn street have frontages of regular width but extend back deeply. The further you get towards the back of these stores, the further you retreat into the past. This is where you find the School Project folders in the newsagency and the still-shrinkwrapped cassingles in the Vinnies. The Mado cafe with its copper decorations and relentlessly brown colour scheme stretches back so far it is possible it goes on forever. While it is tempting to read the street in a linear fashion, it nevertheless extends out in all directions.

Like all urban places, Auburn exists in layers, both in place and time. There are many Auburns to choose from. It is one of Sydney’s most culturally diverse areas and accordingly in mainstream press it is either the focus of fear (reports of crime and violence) or of appetite (the discovery of exotic foods). The framework of demographics, real estate, and food are the dominant ways in which some people define suburbs, but they are frameworks well covered by mainstream media and dinner party conversations. Place is more than just a sum of these factors, and it is the more subtle things that interest me.

The most interesting places to explore are those with texture. In Auburn this texture is an interweaving of place and time, and details that open up spaces to conjecture. The Hasan Barber has a large banner picturing chisel-chinned hunks each with a versions of a short back and sides printed on a pink gingham background. Above it remains the painted sign for the previous barber, Roland Lane Hair Shoppe, in a script that carries me straight back to the 80s. Inside, Hasan’s has the appearance of a mirrored cave, with brick archways dividing the internal space and every surface cluttered with bottles of hair products and ephemera.

It is the same for Alsultan Homeware in Auburn Arcade, where the ads from the previous business to operate in that shop are still somewhat accurate. Above the entrance to Alsultan Homeware, coloured dots promise Cosmetics, Candy, Pictures, Clocks, Toys, Gifts and Photocopying. Inside the store are tall shelves stocked with all manner of plastics.

Across the street, a tobacconist and a deli continue business beneath the burnt out Socrates restaurant. Beside this building, a For Lease sign is affixed to the gate of what was once the Auburn Garden Centre. I peer through the wire and down the driveway. At the end of it a few plants in pots are still visible, and behind the remains of the garden centre looms a multi storey carpark. Behind almost every scene, the concrete ogre of a new development is visible.

I decide to keep walking all the way to the end of the shops. The shops stretch for a number of blocks up Auburn street before the houses begin. On the corner, the primary school is quiet in the latent way that primary schools are when all the kids are in class. Across from it is yet another barber, this one operating from the front room of a house. Displayed on the front lawn is an ad for one of the less popular candidates for the upcoming local government election. The faces of the candidates, all neatly groomed men, smile out from every second shop window, above the ads for bidets and granny flats.

When I took this photo of the door to a Turkish deli, the proprieter appeared from a shop a few doors down. He was smiling, and assumed I’d taken a photo of another of the posters stuck on the door, which pictured an elaborate and colourful artwork you can see just the red edge of here. “I have kept this picture for fifteen years,” he said. “It is by Turkish women. They make it using water, they mix the paint on the water, then put the paper over it.” As he describes his love for this image, I look beyond him into his store, which is cluttered with bottles and packets. This accumulation of objects, an aesthetic shared by many Auburn stores, reminds me I am one tiny detail among everything else here. I feel ashamed for finding a poster for a local government candidate next to a bidet ad funny. Now I can see the women’s painting is indeed beautiful, but it has taken this man’s story for it to be revealed.

All around Auburn are messages that hint to other worlds, whether they be to the previous incarnation of the built environment, or another country and culture. In the window of every jewellery store, among the gold pendants, I notice the blue eye talismans worn as protection against the evil eye. They watch my progress as I enter arcades and photograph details, reminding me that all these secret messages are subject to my interpretation, which is one of an endless number of possibilties.

***

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