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…)
When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.
A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.
The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.
Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.
In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).
During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.
By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.
But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.
The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.
They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.
There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.
When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.
The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.
Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.
On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10).
The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.
I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.
Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.
In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.
For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.
The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.
The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat, but therein lies its charm, and people’s sense of delight and connection. It’s a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.
Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.
On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.
At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.
The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.
I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.
A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.
(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)
This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.
Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.