A fence went up around the block on the corner, hemming in a string of houses. A pale green fibro, a house with the front room curving out into a rotunda, a house with tall conifers planted along the length of the driveway. They were unremarkable houses, their greatest distinction being their proximity to the busy intersection of Epping and Lane Cove Roads. The kind of houses that gave you cause to wonder what it would be like to live on such a busy road, beside the endless traffic.
It’s a familiar process. The fence goes up with the sign advertising the new development. The houses languish behind the fence for a while, quickly falling into disarray. Without people to care for them the gutters droop and windows break. Tags appear on the walls as the empty houses are explored. They stay like this for a while, the decaying structures taking on a solemn, ruined look. Then one day the bulldozers move in and the houses are gone. Though this has been expected the land looks bare without them.
This time the sign advertises “Live Next to the High Tech Village”, referring to the nearby business districts of Macquarie Park and North Ryde. There’s an artist’s impression of the proposed development, a collection of neat blocks of varying colours and textures. Behind the sign droops the remains of a brick cottage.
Most of the houses have been demolished now and the cold smell of plaster and smashed bricks floats out from behind the perimeter fence. The rubble has yet to be cleared and where each house once stood is a twisted pile of bits and pieces, bricks and tiles, wood, metal, the hairy wedges of insulation bats. The view from the overpass is a pattern of these house-sized piles. There’s no way to walk up onto the overpass, so this sight is only visible in glimpses while driving. From this aspect it looks less like demolition than a kind of weird magic, like the air has been sucked out of the houses until they collapsed inwards.
Closer to the road the fences and letterboxes remain as if nothing beyond them is out of the ordinary. The trees have been left also, arranged in seemingly odd patterns now the houses they once surrounded are gone. There are two big oak trees, their leaves turned golden for autumn. Leaves drift down to cover the churned-up ground below.
Further inside the site an excavator digs into a pile of debris and I watch it through a gap. The shadecloth that blocks the view has sagged in places and it’s here I look through at the piles of rubble that once were houses. Although the destruction makes me uneasy the demolition site is fascinating, how quickly familiar places can be reduced to nothing. The excavator claws up another bite.
Last year I went to Shanghai, a city which has been transformed by large scale demolition and reconstruction. I’d pass by huge blocks where hundreds of old houses were in the process of being torn down. One of the blocks where this was taking place had a fence around it made up of front doors, each a different colour and shape. Though the demolition was on a much greater scale to what occurs in Sydney it provoked the same feeling, a mixture of melancholy and curiosity, a tangible sense of time and change.
So much of what we know of cities are buildings. Even in Sydney, where the waterways divide up the land and the city’s natural setting is strongly apparent, we traverse the city by its structures. In the suburbs, the view out the car window of house after house becomes a memory game, a rehearsal of particular details. Most powerful are the signs that mean you’re almost home: mine are a fruit and vegetable shop with garishly painted signs, a weedy vacant lot, an apartment building with a big guava tree out the front. It is easy to regard these things as permanent and a shock when they are shown not to be.
The demolition site changes a little every day, but there’s one constant. At the western corner of the block a house remains. It is a solid red brick with white ironwork railings along the veranda. The lawn is meticulously kept, and along the front fence there are dahlias and rose bushes. The roses are flowering and large dark red blooms weight the ends of the branches. Here the concrete and plaster smell of demolition disappears underneath the scent of the roses.
Buildings are demolished, new ones are built. The process continues. The development takes shape and the construction site is busy with workers assembling the new apartment buildings. Once finished the blocks have a raw look, but with time the stark new surfaces take on a comfortable patina. They have an established look and there’s little reason to imagine what might have been there before. Until the cycle begins again. The run down apartment blocks are vacated and a fence surrounds the empty buildings. They quickly turn to disrepair. Then, one day, they too are gone.
Most Sydney suburbs have some kind of public clock. There are the clocks atop of old post office or council buildings, there are clock tower monuments, there are less intentional civic timepieces, wall clocks in shops at the right angle to be visible to people passing by. Although almost everyone carries the time with them on phones or, for the traditionalists, a watch, there’s something unifying about a civic clock. The clock face draws our attention. We glance at the angle of the hands and for that moment are connected to a public sense of time. Even if, in the case of some suburban clocks, that time is a constant midnight or 3:45.
The most well known of Sydney’s suburban clocks is a relatively recent addition: the Oatley clock. Constructed in 1983 for the suburb’s 150th anniversary, it commemorates James Oatley, Sydney’s first clockmaker. In 1814 Oatley was found guilty of stealing two feather mattresses and for this was sent to Australia, where he would be soon pardoned and become the city’s first Keeper of Clocks. In 1833 Oatley was granted an area of forest in south Sydney, which he called Needwood Forest and which later became the suburb of Oatley.
150 years later crowds filled the Oatley streets as the new Oatley clock, housed in a brick tower in the centre of Frederick Street, was inaugurated. The Oatley Clock Festival was the culmination of months of celebrations which had included many events, among them a family bush dance, a Pageant of Bridal Gowns, bus tours of Oatley and a regatta on the Georges River near the Oatley Pleasure Grounds. Of all clocks in Sydney, the coming of the Oatley clock must surely have attracted the greatest celebration.
Since the festival in 1983 the clock has been the centrepiece of Oatley, although the annual Clock Festival has since changed its name to the Village Festival. Driving into Oatley, past the disused bowling greens alongside the railway line, and over the single lane bridge that crosses the tracks, there is a sign pointing to the shopping centre. The vinyl letters on it are curled from years of sunlight, but it still points the way to the Oatley shops and the clock.
Oatley is a suburb of parks and pleasure grounds, the enigmatically named Neverfail Bay, bakeries on the main street with jam rolls and finger buns in the window. It’s one of Sydney’s middle suburbs, its 20th century cottages slowly being replaced by much bigger houses, its trees grown up tall. It’s a quiet place, bounded by the Georges River, not a place passed through to get to anywhere else.
The clock is on its own island in the centre of Oatley, a garden of shrubs behind it. Parked at the kerb nearby is a man sharpening knives on a rotating stone mounted on the back of his motorbike. This small part of Oatley is place of clocks and tinkers. As I approach the clock, it chimes to announce 12:30, an electronic chime like there is someone inside playing a tune on an electronic keyboard.
Upon inspection the clock tower shares a number of features with the old suburban houses in the surrounding streets. It has a corrugated metal roof and iron lace panelling near the top of the tower. At the back is a screen door locked with a padlock, and behind it a surprisingly ordinary door with a round aluminium doorknob, for the Oatley Keeper of Clocks to gain access for maintenance and daylight saving switchovers. The clock has a face on each side of the tower, modest white circles with Roman numerals marking out the hours. As large as it is, it is the kind of clock that I can imagine in the living room of a house, softly chiming out the time to the rooms of the house around it.
Start looking for suburban clocks and, like anything you focus attention on, more will appear. A few days after visiting Oatley I was heading along Victoria Road, a road I have travelled countless times, when I passed by another prominent, but less celebrated, suburban clock.
The Gladesville clock arose from its concrete island near the corner of Victoria Road and Wharf Road in 1941. It was dedicated in the memory of Alderman James Sheridan, who had died during the clock’s construction, although according to the council website it was primarily constructed as a “traffic separation device”. It’s much less grand than the Oatley clock and has never had a festival in its honour, but it is seen by the tens of thousands of people who travel along Victoria road every day. Like the Oatley clock, there is a small garden of shrubs at the foot of the tower, and in the tower’s base a padlocked door, just big enough for a person to climb in and attend to the mechanism. Near the Gladesville clock is an almost empty corner building with a fading chalk sign reading “Save Our Suburbs”. An old neon on the roof advertises “amusements”; almost certainly this will soon be the site of a new development.
Gladesville has another civic clock only a few hundred metres away. This clock is a Seiko with a face like an oversized pocket watch. It is in the centre of Trim Place, the town square, planted within a circle of bricks on the pavement. At the centre is the plaque for the time capsule that is interred underneath. Buried there in 1986, the capsule is due to be opened in 2036, revealing, no doubt, the antique newspapers, floppy discs and paper currency that passed as everyday objects only fifty years before.
Not all suburban clocks keep good time. Some, like the Burwood post office clock (9:30) and the Newtown post office clock (3:45) are notoriously defunct. In 2012 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article about the “curse” of “dead clocks and their message of hopeless neglect”, including among them the surf club clocks of Manly and Cronulla and various post office and church clocks. It’s not so much a case of neglect for the church clocks, however. “The parishioners are getting older and can’t get up into the tower and they can’t wind them up any more,” explained a master clockmaker called upon to give his opinion on the situation.
In Paris in 2006 Untergunther, a chapter of the underground group UX, secretly restored the clock in the Panthéon. Unknown to the administration or security of the building they set up a workshop high up in the dome and over a period of months set about restoring the clock. They were successful and the clock chimed out the hours again – only to be stopped again by the building’s management, who took great offence at the clock being fixed in secret and took Untergunther to court over their actions. In the UK there’s a group dedicated to finding and fixing all of Britain’s stopped clocks. Tentative plans for a Sydney chapter have been put forward too. Perhaps Sydney needs to reintroduce a Keeper of Clocks.
In the Wired article about the Panthéon clock restoration, the clock is likened to a heart. It’s a common metaphor; there is something deathly about a stopped clock. Sydney’s stopped suburban clocks don’t quite seem dead to me though, more obstinate, confusing the unwary and revealing the apathy that can arise about old things and familiar places. Clocks, like gardens, are animate things that need our attention to keep them in order. The stopped clocks give us a glimpse of a Sydney in ruins, without anyone to impose time upon it. The gardens have run wild and the clocks have stopped. A city where is no one to unlock the padlock and climb up into the tower, and start everything going again.
* * *
Paris is a long way from Sydney, but there are plenty of Eiffel Towers in the Sydney suburbs. On the lower north shore there are three – the television transmission towers collectively known as the Artarmon Triangle. These tall, red and white pyramids at Gore Hill, Artarmon and Willoughby have been sending out tv signals since their construction in the 1950s and 60s.
The transmission tower on the Pacific Highway is one of the few remains of the ABCTV complex, most of which was demolished in 2007. The fences are draped in advertisements for Gore Hill business precinct, but for now the site is just mounds of earth, the ABC building debris long since swept away. Things are going on in there though, a surveyor peers through a theodolite and under the tower gardeners push lawnmowers over the grass.
It stands out from its surroundings now, so it must have been even more striking when it was built in the 1950s. This was long before the neighbouring dark brick colossus of Royal North Shore Hospital was constructed and the highway was still mostly lined with houses. Sydney’s first official television broadcast – which began with Bruce Gyngell in front of a map of the world saying “Good Evening and welcome to television” – aired in 1956. The towers were a symbol of this new era of technology.
Perhaps because of its highway position this tower is the smartest of the three, its paint bright and lawns neat. Its Artarmon counterpart’s paint is peeling, and it is packed in among water reservoir tanks, a substation and an apartment block, which must get either the best, or worst, television reception in Sydney.
It stretches high up above the tree-lined streets below and the brick apartment buildings on Hampden Road. Like all the towers it is best appreciated from a distance. From the shopping strip across from Artarmon station with its endless variety of sandwich bars, the tower lifts your gaze skywards.
The third tower is the tallest and at 233 metres is the sixth highest structure in Sydney (the Eiffel Tower, by comparison, is 324 metres). It’s tucked away at the corner of the Channel 9 studios in Willoughby but is most often seen from the expressway below. It’s at the end of a dead-end street, surrounded by cyclone fencing with a warning against electromagnetic radiation on the fence to deter explorers.
Apart from the roar of the traffic there’s little sound or movement. It’s hard to believe the tower is sending out signals across the city. Up close it’s a jigsaw puzzle of metal shapes, decorated with satellite dishes and flimsy stairwells for workers to ascend it. Beside it are cottages converted into offices for Channel 9, which have the odd character of homes where no one lives.
Across the street there are signs in every front yard, protesting the proposed development on the Channel 9 site. There are plans to relocate Channel 9 and convert the site into a residential development and current residents object to the density and height of the proposed buildings. Although the Channel 9 buildings would be demolished under the plans, the transmission tower would stay.
The towers once signified a new era of technology, but times have changed. Unwanted televisions lie discarded on footpaths across the city. Mobile phone transmission towers have appeared throughout the suburbs and the air is full of unseen signals. The analogue tv signals which have been broadcast for almost 60 years are to be switched off on December 3rd. Despite these changes the Artarmon Triangle towers remain, rising delicately into the sky from the suburbs below.
The Pacific Highway is a ribbon of road that curves through the northern suburbs of Sydney. Between Gordon and Pymble the highway follows the slope of the land downwards, reaching its depths at the Mona Vale Road interchange, where multiple lanes of traffic roar towards each of the compass points.
The centres of Pymble and Gordon are peaceful north shore suburban kinds of places, with shops in old brick buildings, gyms retrofit into 70s offices, and the barbers, newsagencies and chicken shops that have existed for decades in various forms. The zone in between them, with the interchange at its centre, is a wilder place with roof rack shops and rug emporiums, car dealerships and the sombre headquarters of Gregory and Carr Funeral Directors. Among all of this one building stands out – the A-frame.
I’ve passed the A-frame thousands of times and observed its various incarnations: as a sandwich shop, then a caryard office and now empty as the site awaits redevelopment. As a child the A-frame was to me one of the most magical buildings in Sydney, a scrap of whimsy among the serious, functional highway buildings. It seemed right that it was a sandwich shop for so many years, as it was rather like a sandwich quarter itself.
Despite my many years of admiring the A-frame I have never stopped to visit it, never stopped to buy one of its sandwiches. Recently I decided I’d break my Pacific Highway journey and view the A-frame at close range. This part of the highway has a desolate feeling about it and is one of those zones that feels alien to pedestrians. I walk past the empty lots that were once caryards. Across the road from the A-frame is a car wash cafe. Outside it someone in a bear suit waves a sign for the $15 Car Wash Happy Hour at the passing traffic.
The A-frame is marooned in the centre of an expanse of cracked, weed-ruptured concrete. Although it has been empty for some time it has a curiously tidy appearance for an abandoned building. When I get up close to it I can see the patches where graffiti has been painted over, and the ghost of the sign for the car dealership, the Korean company Ssang Yong, over the entrance. The windows facing the street have been boarded up to prevent them being smashed but I can peer in the windows at the side. Here, abandoned on the steps, there is a laundry basket full of household goods – floral print plates, a wok, white ceramic mugs – all filled with water from the recent rain.
I look through the side windows at the abandoned office equipment inside – desks, a chair, a water cooler – which are haphazardly arranged and have a visible layer of dust over them. Nearest the door is a white laminate desk with a faded Daily Telegraph in the centre of it. The headline, “Island of Lost Souls” accompanies an image of people among a landscape of debris from the 2011 earthquake in Japan. To one side of the newspaper is an unopened letter, on the other, a green work glove. The room has a number of these tableaus of once useful objects, now lying forsaken. An unmarked CD. A brochure. Sheets of blank A4 paper. In the centre of the room a spiral staircase leads to the upper level and there is a glimpse of more deserted office furniture up there.
The traffic rushes by on the highway but the atmosphere of the A-frame and the cracked concrete lots that surround it is one of stopped time. As I explore I occasionally look around to see if anyone is watching me, but there is no-one nearby besides the bear across the street, busy shaking its sign at the traffic. The cars rush past and I feel invisible.
Sydney has few A-frame buildings and the majority of them are larger constructions, often churches, no doubt built in this style as they point in the direction of heaven.
A-frame construction was popular in the USA during the 1950s and 60s for vacation homes, and Australian versions can be found here and there in seaside towns, or as ski lodges in the snowfields, or in other holiday house locations such as the Blue Mountains.
Yet metropolitan A-frames are a rarity, and every time I travel along the Pacific Highway I expect the Gordon A-frame to have been demolished. But it remains, at least for now, a moment of eccentricity on the highway north.
Sydney’s first wishing tree was a Norfolk Island Pine, planted in 1818 in what was to become the Royal Botanic Gardens. By 1905 it was 30 metres tall, and the most popular tree in the gardens. People would begin the spell by walking around it three times forwards, then walking three times backwards, before making their wish.
In the 1930s, the wishing tree was found to be dying from old age and decay, and a replacement tree was bought with funds raised by the Farmer’s Childrens’ Radio Birthday Club and planted nearby. By 1945 the original tree was removed and its wood turned into souvenirs, sold to aid returned servicemen from World War 2.
Yet the new wishing tree failed to attract the wishing public as its predecessor had done. It was much smaller, with a kink in its trunk and lacked the magic of the original, which had come in a tub from Norfolk Island in the early 19th century, and had its planting overseen by Elizabeth Macquarie.
On the site of the original wishing tree now is another tree with magical properties, the Wollemi Pine. Once known only through fossils and thought to be extinct, it was discovered in 1994 growing in bushland in the Wollemi National Park. Knowing its ancient status, it is easy to envisage the Wollemi pine as part of another time, with its dark, shiny foliage nibbled upon by dinosaurs.
People stare at the Wollemi Pine and imagine dinosaurs, as they once stood in the same spot and made wishes. Further down towards the Harbour the replacement wishing tree grows. The plaque at its trunk apologetically states: “The tree in this bed will never attain the same grandeur, because soon after it was planted its crown was damaged in a violent storm”. The photograph of the original tall, straight wishing tree is printed as a comparison.
No one stops at this wishing tree, but I wonder if this means its power is especially strong from rarely being called upon. I conjure up a wish and start walking around it. No one pays me much attention until I finish the three times forwards and start on the three times backwards. It’s hard to walk backwards and I keep colliding with edge of the concrete ring around the base of the tree. What’s more I feel terribly self conscious. A mother with a stroller pauses at the Macquarie gates and stares at me on my backwards walk, a man with a serious camera waits politely for me to lope out of the way so he can take a photo of a nearby tibouchina, which is flowering with bright purple blooms.
I’m ready to explain what I am doing, but of course no one asks, they just stare from afar. In the Wishing Tree’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century people must have had a more jolly attitude towards such antics as walking backwards. Walking feats were once regarded as good entertainment. In the 1840s one of Sydney’s most well known characters was The Flying Pieman, famous for his feats of “pedestrianism”, in which he would embark upon increasingly eccentric walking challenges, such as walking from Sydney to Parramatta carrying a live goat. Though people are no longer impressed by pedestrianism, they are still fond of wishing. Sydney’s centre of wishes has been relocated to Macquarie Street, and the dripping bronze snout of Il Porcellino.
I finish my backwards circuit around the tree and make a wish, holding onto one of the tree’s fronds. Norfolk Island pines are often found near beaches and as children my sister and I called them “monkey tail trees”, and search for the longest and most impressive of their tails. Having wished I go in search of the Swamp Oaks on the nearby lawn, which have grown from the roots of the Swamp Oaks that grew in the area before British settlement. They have long, green-grey leaves, thin as needles, and furrowed bark covered in pale green lichen.
Trees connect to a different kind of past to that of the built environment. The Botanic Gardens is as constructed as any other city structure, but there is a looseness of time in the gardens. No one besides the joggers is rushing. Girls sit writing postcards on the grass, eating through a packet of raspberry tartlets, a man in a suit lies under a tree, flat on his back with his palms facing up. A family pat the fat branches of the Queensland Bottle Tree.
Walking out of the gardens and back into the city, I ignore the buildings and look only at the trees. There are more of them than I have previously realised, although I do have favourites I always look for, like the row of plane trees along the sandstone wall of the viaduct on Elizabeth street. While plane trees are maligned by some for causing allergies, I appreciate their toughness, growing tall on city streets where it seems trees would not be able to grow.
When the British arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788 they immediately set about clearing the land and making it suitable for settlement and agriculture: although their early attempts to at farming were for the most part a failure. On the map of “hitherto explored country” published in Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, published in 1793, areas of land in the Sydney region are marked according to their perceived qualities: “bad country”, “swampy and barren”, “nothing but rocks”, “wretched and brushy”, with the occasional “patch of good land” here and there. It is a map of disappointment, although in many ways Watkin Tench was a curious and sympathetic observer of the Sydney landscape.
It takes some imagination to envisage the wetlands, scrubland and forests, the good and bad country, almost all of which was cleared to make way for what we now know as Sydney. In nineteenth century photographs of the city streets there are very few trees. The city is a cluttered, sepia place, defiantly man made. After all the clearing of land the new city would have wanted to celebrate its structures, rather than the natural world that so much effort had been put into erasing.
In the cheerfully nostalgic “Sydney Looks Back” by Isadore Brodsky, published in 1957 and recently withdrawn from the Sydney College of the Arts Library (where I came across it on the free books table) there is a chapter named
“Only a Tree is Left”, which views the changes to Railway Square from the perspective of a Moreton Bay Fig tree.
According to “ruddy faced Walter Rodd”, the tree (although the one pointed out in the pre-station photograph looks much larger) remained on the site, while the bones of the dead buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery were exhumed and conveyed to land within Sydney university, and the new station was built. According to more verified sources, these exhumed remains were actually transported by tram to a cemetery at Botany, on the Botany Cemetery line constructed specifically for that purpose.
Whether or not the Railway Square tree was indeed the same, the idea of a tree being a witness to events happening around it is an irresistable one when confronted with a tree of great age. The tree itself is no witness, but through the tree people are able to imagine time on a scale that exceeds their lifetimes. In the redwood forests of California, where trees can live for thousands of years, sometimes the rings of a fallen tree will be marked with historical events to accentuate the great age of the tree and the seeming insignificance of human time. Centuries go past in only a few centimetres of the tree’s trunk.
There are no thousand year old trees in Sydney, but Sydney’s oldest trees provoke a similar sense of reflection on time. Of the great turpentine and ironbark forest that once extended across what is now the inner west of Sydney, only one tree is thought to remain, a twin-trunked ironbark tree in the grounds of St Johns Church in Glebe. From this one tree I can grow a forest. I imagine ironbark trees covering the park on the corner, replacing the roads and the buildings which are so familiar to me, the pie shop with the mural of the blackbirds and bats circling around a pie, the takeaway where my housemates and I would drive late at night to buy potato cakes in the 1990s, the corner post office that the Glebe community rallied to save to no avail. All of what I know and have known was once forest.
When considering trees, it is those at the extremes which catch our attention. The wishing tree and its magical powers, the one ‘witness’ tree that’s left, or trees of great age. According to the National Register of Big Trees, established in 2009, Sydney’s largest tree outside of the Botanic Gardens or Centennial Park can be found over the Harbour Bridge, in the region most known by the adjective “leafy”. Here on the north shore there is a higher concentration of trees than anywhere else in Sydney. On satellite images the north side of the harbour is much greener than the brown and grey lands to the south, and it was in the midst of this area, in 1930, that the Tree Lover’s Civic League planted a lemon-scented eucalypt near Gordon station. This tree has grown to be the largest Sydney suburban tree recorded on the register. Tree size is measured by a calculation of height, width, and spread, so while the Gordon tree does not look particularly tall, it spreads out wide over the surrounding streets.
Sydney’s second largest tree is in Killara, on a residential street which curves down towards a creek. It is a blackbutt tree of around 50 metres tall, with rough bark on its lower trunk and white, limblike branches stretching out above. Walking around the tree’s trunk, I step over its roots and the down the bank towards the creek. It is cool down here and water trickles over the mossy rocks. Through the gaps in the trees I can see the houses across the street, comfortable brick homes surrounded by gardens. On the other side of the creek the back fences of another row of houses is visible: bedsheets hung out to dry; a net enclosing a trampoline. Between the rows of houses the cool, damp atmosphere of the creek feels peaceful and secret.
I grew up around such pockets of suburban bushland, but it had been a long time since this secret feeling has come over me. The bushland near the house where I lived as a teenager was crisscrossed by paths but I rarely came across anyone else when I went on sulky walks through the eucalypts. I would walk until the path ended in a cliff and sit on the big rock there, imagining I was lost and would stay out there forever, while knowing that home wasn’t very far away.
There is plenty of tree lore in Sydney that is less to do with history and more to do with neighbourhood dynamics. Disputes about trees blocking harbour views, protests to save fig trees when they are scheduled for removal, tree poisonings, spite hedges.
Trees divide allegiances and stir passions. As living things, they are somewhat out of human control, a fact which, as well as causing urban discord at times, gives us another way to imagine time and place. Trees have their own life that is very different to ours.
My favourite suburban tree is in a back lane in Annandale. It’s a camphor laurel, a introduced species of tree once planted widely but now classed as a weed. Camphor Laurels grow to a great size and were once planted readily in parks and gardens for shade. Knowing it is a weed doesn’t make me like it any less, and in some ways it is the perfect suburban tree, planted to beautify the cleared land. With the piecemeal corrugated iron fence below it, and few indicators of the present day besides the street signs and cars, I like to imagine that the tree is the key to another time. The tree is at the beginning of a network of irregular lanes and pathways that snake down through Annandale, following Whites Creek and ending at the harbour. Though the creek is now a concrete-lined channel, in the strips of parkland and the waterways there is a sense of how the land once might have been long before the houses and streets were built.
* * *
If the old side reveals the shape of the past, the new side takes the form of a vast concrete block with a red Westfield insignia atop it. Cars funnel in and out of its entrances like the traffic of ants in and out of a nest. Inside it is as unspecific as any mall, the same ubiquitous set of businesses, inspiring the same sense of disorientation as one makes for what they hope is the direction of the exit.
Yet Hornsby’s new side has not been completely remodelled and there is life beyond the mall. I enter the new side not from the shopping centre carpark but from the train station via the concrete bridge. The bridge is so familiar to me I have not before noticed its disrepair, the awning clouded with spots of lichen, the smashed panels, and the sticky grime on the poles from the removal of countless notices. Nobody loiters on the bridge for long enough to register its details, and few would ever stop to read the plaque on the stairs, commemorating the bridge’s opening in 1980. Stopping to read it was like opening an old, dusty library book, the same feeling of paying attention to long-neglected words.
The shopping mall was constructed in two halves, retaining the town square at the intersection of Florence street and Hunter streets, both of which are closed to traffic. At the nucleus of the square is the water clock, an unusual contraption, as misunderstood now as it was upon its construction in 1993. The clock’s sculptor, local artist Victor Cusack, initially described it as a “cacophony of movement and flying water”. A thrashing, sloshing monster, the clock is equal parts steampunk nightmare, garden ornament, and folly, yet I find it hard to dislike; I respect the clock for its preposterousness.
When the clock was unveiled at the “Rock around the clock” festival in 1993, official descriptions praised its iconic presence, and likened it to landmark European civic sculptures. After Big Ben, it was said to be the world’s second largest pendulum clock but local conservatives were having none of it: “Many pensioner ratepayers would rather eat than tell the time,” wrote a reader of the Hornsby Advocate, one of the many protesting the cost of the clock. “Maybe the council could recover some of the funds spent on this monument to monstrosity by hiring it for any future version of the Addams Family,” another reader suggested. Others predicted it becoming a receptacle for rubbish, or soon to be sabotaged by vandals with detergent. When the clock stopped repeatedly over its first few months, the culprit was found to be the chicken bones flung into the water by littering onlookers.
Local residents may not have liked the clock, but they did find it inspiring, one contributor to the Advocate letters page even penning experimental poetry about the structure, culminating with a verse linking it to wider social and economic problems:
Devoid of humanity, time keeping or
Unsustainably pricey, ecologically dicey
Satanic, pretentious and glum.
Marie Antoinette hurriedly beget
A tear for the poor but too late!
Insipidly following, councils commerce is
A splurge of the very first water.
An edifice should raise in pure wholesome
ways. A no-frills renaissance of spirit,
best the thirst of the soul is made bourgeois
by toil (in)
Cross purchase, contrivance or merit
Yet like the hearts of our brave, lonely and
This monument weeps by the bucket
Timed to clank and persuade by robotic arcade (the)
Resplendence of Ugly Recession
(P.A. Holmes, Wahroonga, published in the Hornsby Advocate, June 1993)
I had no reason to enter the robotic arcade, so I hung about its entrance, watching the clock. The clock’s principal movement is the filling and tipping of a couple of long perspex buckets. Periodically the larger bucket spills out a jet of water into the pool below, and at times the whole contraption emits a hoot like a far away steam train.
These hoots punctuated the singing of the two girls set up at the shopping centre entrance, busking. They wore fluffy jumpers and shorts, despite the freezing weather. Both sung and one of the girls accompanied on acoustic guitar, which she had collaged with postage stamps – during a lull in their performance I went over to ask her if she had done it herself. She met my enthusiasm with polite distance, and I dropped a dollar into her guitar case. The song my dollar inspired was a vigorous performance of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”, a song especially calibrated to trigger a sense of wild, emotional freedom. I went back to staring at the water clock with their urgent voices bleating,
Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back!
The dog days are over!
To which the clock uttered another hoot.
The new side was the site of some of my own teenage musical adventures, which were centred around my version of the 100 Club, the Hornsby Police Citizens Youth Club. Around the same time the clock was being constructed a series of all ages punk shows were held at the PCYC. These shows attracted the kids with nose rings, Manic Panic hair and band t-shirts, who I yearned to be one of. The first show I went to was held in a small, concrete basement room under the club. My discovery of this world inspired feelings of such joy that I flung myself towards the knot of people dancing. I was jabbed by punks’ elbows and shoulders, and when my face entered the thick black web of a goth boy’s hair and I inhaled the hairspray smell of it I felt I had been initiated.
While most teenage goths move on and become respectable citizens, others return to creep around their old haunts. I left the girls sending off the dog days and went in search of the PCYC, which is now squeezed in between an Officeworks and a tall apartment complex. The PCYC is a 1960s brick building with red and blue trim and a defunct neon sign of dancing feet for the “Stomp Cafe”. The nearby AMF bowling centre is also still there; I used to sit on the fire escape under the lanes in the breaks between bands at the PCYC, listening to the crash of the balls above and imagining the church youth group pizza and bowling nights that were going on in the alternate universe inside.
The everyday reality of these places didn’t quite match up with my memory versions, which cast them as secret, night places, settings for adventures. The bowling club was a dour blue and grey box, the PCYC building was shrouded in scaffolding. I stood outside it on the footpath as police officers rushed past me to get out of the rain. No one else was out walking on a day like this.
Despite its name, the new side of Hornsby is structured around its old bones. The wedding cake building of the high school, where my mother studied, is unchanged on the south side of the mall, although nearby Orara Street has been transformed by apartment buildings. The only old building left on Orara Street is at the far corner, the old shop that used to be a general store run by my grandparents, now a real estate agency. Despite my family’s history here, my mother never expresses nostalgia for the Hornsby of the past, beyond retelling the story of the drunks who would lean up against the side of the shop, singing on their staggering way home to their little houses on Orara Street.
About a decade ago all these little houses were vacant and fenced off, awaiting demolition, a scene which filled me with dread. I felt the incipient apartment buildings were a threat to my personal history, even though they were part of my mother’s story, rather than my own. All she said about the new buildings, as we drove towards Hornsby on one of our regular op shop excursions a few years later, was, “I’d hate to live in one of those”.
Past the new apartment buildings, on the other side of the high school, is a dilapidated shopping arcade, back from before the days of the Westfield. It is on the corner block at the intersection of the Pacific Highway and Edgeworth David Road, a place I have accumulated many hours in cars, waiting for the lights to change. The arcade, known as “The Walk”, has been host to more and more obscure businesses over the years. Once the rug sale businesses move in, a building’s fate is sealed.
The shopfronts of The Walk are angled, giving their front windows a jaunty appearance, and the upper level has a balcony that reminds me more of 60s holiday flats than a shopping arcade. Mounted on the roof is a sign for the new development for the site, already selling off the plan. A few businesses remain on the upstairs level of The Walk, Fortress Locksmiths, the Small Loan Company, and a couple of mysterious offices with names like Cognitive Pty Ltd. I’d never been up the stairs and onto this level before, and had the feeling few people ever venture up here. A man in one of the mysterious offices stared out at me as he stirred milk into a mug of instant coffee, as if I were an apparition. He looked similarly unreal inside his office with piles of papers stacked on every surface, my view of him sliced by the stripes of the vertical blinds.
His view is usually the inscrutable block of the Westfield across the street and the cars travelling past on the highway. To stand on the balcony of The Walk and look out is to feel invisible to all this present day life, as if looking out from the past. The chairs and the table with an ashtray on it at the end of the balcony must be where the remaining inhabitants of The Walk congregate to discuss their impending extinction.
Downstairs, apart from the wedding dress and luggage stores sticking it out to the end, many of the shops are vacant. In what was once a small loan company, a glass containing three toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste is the only thing left behind. Only one shop interrupts this pattern, the showroom for the new version of The Walk. A neat white box, with tiny figures glued here and there on the balconies, is on display. It is just a model, but soon it will grow to completely consume the old Walk, retaining only its name.
For now, at the corner of the old building, the sign for “The Walk” is still readable on the tiled wall, in cursive ghost lettering. This point is the nexus of the old and new sides of Hornsby. The Pacific Highway curves over the railway line, old becomes new and new becomes old. The Walk is on the wrong side of the tracks. Soon it will be sacrificed and reborn.
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.