Post-war Bankstown and the Bankstown BunkerPosted: October 1, 2013
Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Bankstown grew from 42 000 to 146 000. Correspondingly there was a boom in house construction, and the suburban streets of Bankstown took shape. Neat, white fibro cottages, row after row of them, were constructed on bald blocks of land.
Fibro was a cheap building material, easy to work with. It was flexible too. Plans were easily adaptable, and owners often had input into the design or built the homes themselves. For many of the residents of the new fibro houses, this was the first home they had owned and symbolised their new, safe suburban life.
Since then fibro houses, like members of a vast family, have gone on to many fates. Some are still as neat as the day they were built, their pale walls bright in the sunlight, a perfect stretch of lawn at the front. Others are surrounded by dismantled cars, the garden grown unruly. Many have been demolished and McMansions built in their place, houses on steroids which fill up blocks of land entirely.
Post-war fibro houses are part of a past world of Holdens, typewriters, and polite advertisements for new household appliances. The houses exist as backgrounds in small, yellowed photographs trapped in albums or rediscovered as long forgotten bookmarks. Such photos are of strangers but recognisable nonetheless: families standing in formation on the front lawn beside newly planted trees. The suburbs look hot and raw, at the edges of the city as it pushed outwards.
Nowadays the trees have grown tall around the fibro houses. Cacti and conifers reach the roof, like pets grown into monsters. The streets have lost the uniform appearance of cottage after cottage, although there is regularity in the variety of architectural styles. Fibro. 70s brick two-storey with steeply pitched roof. McMansion. Every house has something to distinguish it from its neighbour, no matter how tiny a detail it might be.
From the top of the hill on Simmat street there is a view over Bankstown and Punchbowl, trees and red brick roofs. Far off in the distance are the recent high-rise apartment buildings of Wolli Creek and Rockdale, but nothing else breaks the pattern of tiles and treetops. It’s a view of Sydney as suburbs, with the usual bookends of the city and the mountains hidden from view.
The grass at the lookout is strewn the remains of past picnics, wrappers, bottles and McDonalds trash, as well as weirder things like a bottle of nasal spray and a headless my little pony. It’s Monday afternoon and no one is around apart from the occasional car passing by. I set off down the hill in search of the Bankstown Bunker.
During the second world war an airport was built in Bankstown and became a military air base. The hangars were made to look like farmhouses and sheds in order to disguise their true purpose. From above the airport might have been disguised, but everyone in Bankstown knew it was there and why. As well as the aerodrome an underground military operations centre was built in Bankstown and became known as the Bankstown Bunker. It was three storeys deep and a maze of rooms, including a map room with a huge map of Australia and the surrounding South Pacific area. After the war ended the bunker was sealed up until it was rediscovered in the early 1970s. A few years later the bunker was damaged by fire, and in 1975 a housing development was built on the land above it.
It’s not difficult to find the location of the bunker if you know where to look. On the corner of Edgar and Marion streets the clusters of dark brick and wood villas of the housing development are arranged around a central mound, a grassy hill with a few big blocks of sandstone, and it is under here that the bunker remains. Despite the fire the structure is intact, although all the fittings inside were destroyed. The entrances are all sealed these days, although there are rumours of entering it through an air vent in the backyard of one of the villas. It has at times been accessible, as this cave clan photograph reveals. Another tantalising scrap of bunker lore is that a 1986 episode of Burke’s Backyard was partially filmed inside the bunker. Footage of this great moment in television has not yet arisen online.
It’s a strange feeling to walk around on top of the bunker, imagining what must lie beneath my feet. Like the hill on Simmat Street this stretch of grass is deserted and my only company is twists of food wrappers, a pale blue dinner plate, a crushed packet of cigarettes decorated with a gory photo of what might happen to your throat if you smoke them. Underneath the grass and trees and blocks of sandstone is the 5 foot thick concrete shell of the bunker, and the remains of the rooms where men once plotted how Australia would be defended from enemy attack, walls streaked with soot and graffiti.
On the surface the scene is a regular pattern of suburban components, houses, parks, roads, corner stores. At the bottom of the hill is a mixed business with faded ads for newspapers on the awning. The ad in the centre, for the long defunct Daily Mirror, has been painted over white but the name can still be seen faintly. Newspapers, world wars, fibro cottages, they’re of the past but they are still around us.