There’s an hour or so of the day left, and the birds are darting high overhead, calling out, on their way back to their roosts. The sunlight is fading and its low angle against the horizon elongates my shadow along the pathway. The path curves towards a concrete structure that looks like the turret of a castle, marooned among the grass and the trees.
Beyond the turret is the aqueduct, which spans the valley in a succession of brick archways. Built in 1888 as part of the network that conveyed water from the Prospect Reservoir, the aqueduct was only used for a few decades before it was superseded by a syphon system. But the arches remained, and since the 1990s it has been a cycleway, part of the Lower Prospect Canal Reserve. From where I’m standing beside the aqueduct, every so often a helmeted head is visible, as a cyclist speeds along the path on the top of it.
Although the aqueduct crosses a valley, Greystanes is high land, rising up towards Prospect Hill. Greystanes and Prospect are names which maintain its colonial history: Greystanes (Stane is the Scottish word for stone) was the name of a 19th century estate; the name Prospect was given to the area by Watkin Tench. But of all the names given to this area on the map of Sydney, the most resonant is Pemulwuy. A leader of Aboriginal resistance to British settlement, Pemulwuy led raids on settlers from this part of western Sydney, as he fought for his people and country.
I walk underneath the arches, over towards the far side of the park. The aqueduct is within a stretch of bush and parkland between two residential streets. This land was subdivided for housing in the 1960s, and the houses are the solid, brick family homes that make up so much of Sydney suburbia. They have a square, uncomplicated look, solidly inhabiting the blocks of land. At the edge of the park, a patchwork strip of Colorbond fencing seals off the backyards of the adjacent houses. The smell of dinners cooking drifts through the air. I hear the roll of a sliding door being pushed closed. This is a time for returning home, turning in.
On one of the fences is a metal plaque set down low, small as an envelope, but it catches my eye from afar and I go over to read it. Etched into the roughly cut aluminium of the plaque is a memorial: “Here lies Charlie, our first best friend”. I follow the fence-line for a while, passing underneath a pomegranate tree spilling over from a backyard, with fallen pomegranates on the ground beneath it. At the lowest point of the valley is a creek, crowded by the trees that grow around it. I duck under branches and carefully pick my way over the narrow eroded path from which two terracotta pipes poke out, dribbling water.
Walking between the back fences and the aqueduct I am moving between two atmospheres: the suburban world of 6pm dinnertimes, alongside the breathing-space of the urban bushland. The aqueduct, marching through on its concrete legs, has a weathered look, stained by water and weather. Over time, it has softened into the landscape, as much as brick and concrete can. Like the Annandale aqueduct that passes over Johnsons and Whites Creeks, the Greystanes Aqueduct has the look of an architectural puzzle. It expands and diminishes in size, the arches aligning differently with each change of aspect.
From the top of the aqueduct, where the cycle path runs across it, there’s a view across backyards and rooftops. The scene below is animated by small movements, and my eyes move across them. A grey cat sits watching a white cat prowling across a back garden. A cricket team walk off the field at the sportsground, their game over, their white uniforms bright against the green. The lights of the petrol station on Merrylands Road glow. Up here, on this path that leads above the valley, I can see all this with a bird’s eye view. I can almost imagine how it would be to be flying across here, as the light fades, and the shadows lengthen, and a dog’s bark echoes across the valley, and is echoed soon after by another.
In the permanent shade of the elevated railway the murals appear like dreams. They are a jumble of city memories, scenes from the past of this place. The forest, the working harbour, protests for land rights and against the redevelopment of Woolloomoloo in the 1970s. In the centre of one mural protesters march under the Green Bans banner, arms linked, feet mid-step. Surrounding the mural is the suburb they marched to save.
Elsewhere in the city are fading images of dinosaurs and people waving from the balconies of terrace houses. A woman with a parrot in a cage looks down from a trompe l’oeil window, a tiger chases a bird from behind the real trees that have grown to obscure the painted wall behind it.
These community murals are more than thirty years old, painted in the early 1980s by artists and locals. As well as the histories of people and places they retain the traces of a time of optimism for art and social change. They were works that celebrated resistance and the potential of collaboration, and capture a particular era of activism, energised by the culture of protest of the 1970s. Through actions like the Green Bans communities had successfully opposed the destruction of the urban environment for development. Activism carried over to the arts: post punk gigs in abandoned buildings; the political posters produced at the Tin Sheds in primary colours and bright fluoros, protesting nuclear testing and showing solidarity for workers’ and women’s rights.
Though they were painted over 30 years ago a surprising number of 1980s murals can still be found around the city and suburbs. Some have been restored, others are now much faded. While there is no shortage of new murals these days the 80s ones have a particular energy and atmosphere that distinguishes them from the mostly decorative recent murals. The 80s murals are time capsules with a gentle and surreal presence suggesting other ways of being and thinking in the city.
In 1982 The Mural Manual was published, a guide to community murals by David Humphries and Rodney Monk which documented new mural projects across Australia and provided practical information on how to organise and paint them. Humphries and Monk, both mural artists, had established a mural company, the Public Art Squad, together in 1978. In the introduction Humphries wrote that murals provide “a release from drabness in the city, a splash of colour in the country, a shiver of unexpected pleasure wherever [they are] found. It allows ordinary people to communicate in unaccustomed ways, to put a personal stamp on their chunk of the world”.
With The Mural Manual as a guide, and after a few years of mural searching, documenting, and information gathering, here is a tour of Sydney’s 1980s community murals. I have noted the principal coordinating artists in the credits, but all were painted by a team of artists and community members.
1. Macquarie University Library (1978, David Humphries)
Its sheltered position in the walkway underneath the old Macquarie University library has kept bright this oldest of the remaining community murals. The Mural Manual describes its theme as “the effects on Aboriginal land rights and the environment by the media, nuclear power and intellectual training”. Like many of these murals, it’s a mix of the serious and the surreal: the university campus is pictured like a moon base among a desert; a superhero graduate couple rise up above a forest of televisions which form heads for an army of muscular charging figures.
2. Seven Hills Underpass (1979, Rodney Monk)
One of the most prominent community murals in Sydney is in Seven Hills on the underpass beneath Prospect Highway where it crosses the railway line, making the mural clearly visible from all the trains going by. The mural has been repainted since 1979 but shows the same scene of green fields modified by development and factories and also a bizarre pop cultural lineup of Ginger Meggs, soldiers, and a man with a question mark for a head. Above them Superman powers up into the painted sky, fist aloft.
The blue sky of the mural meets the real sky; Superman looks ready to leave his painted world and go off on a rescue mission. Up close the surface is peeling in parts and there are patches where the paint has peeled off to reveal the original mural underneath and its slightly different landscape of outer-space pyramids, a guess at a possible Seven Hills future.
3. The Crescent Mural, Annandale, 1980 (Rodney Monk)
The Crescent mural is painted on the railway embankment wall that runs alongside The Crescent in Annandale, where traffic feeds back and forth off the City West Link. Before the mural this wall had been a long stretch of bricks with a spraypainted slogan across it protesting the Whitlam sacking: Kerr-ist Cocky’s got an election (Kerr being the Governer General who dismissed Whitlam’s government in 1975, often caricatured as a cockatoo). The slogan reappears in the mural if you look closely.
Like the Seven Hills mural, the Crescent mural has been repainted (this one in 2004) and the design somewhat changed: the stealth bomber became a passenger jet, for example. The looming plane at the centre of the mural is one of its defining features, as is the painted tree trunk that joins up with a real palm tree growing on the embankment above, but there are plenty of details for motorists stuck in traffic to ponder (including a traffic jam of trucks with numberplates like GIVEADAMN and BUGAUP).
In the 1970s, as elsewhere in Sydney, this area was threatened by plans for redevelopment and road construction. This faced strong community opposition and the mural is in part a celebration of this spirit, as well as an acknowledgement of local history and concerns. It’s also just plain surreal and funny.
4. CYSS Mural, Rozelle, 1980 (Michiel Dolk)
This is Sydney’s mystery mural, unchanged since 1980, although now much faded and for most of the year hidden behind trees. In winter, after the leaves have dropped, the mural reappears and is visible from the street. It takes youth unemployment as its theme as it was painted on the wall of what was then the CYSS (community youth support scheme) – the building still offers youth employment services, though under a different name.
The mural shows the frame of a house with people occupied in various jobs: a woman saws a plank of wood, a man washes dishes, another man makes a call from a payphone. At the top, one figure passes a yellow sphere to the figure on top of the mural, who is seated on the window frame of the real attic windows of the building. Now this sun is faded, barely visible. Lower down the colours are brighter, and if you look in among the trees, you will find the tiger.
In 1980 Dolk, with Merilyn Fairskye and Jeff Stewart, also painted the ACI Glassworks mural in Waterloo, which commemorates the suburb’s industrial past.
4. Surry Hills Murals: What Bird is That? (1981, Peter Day)
In 1981 Peter Day was the Surry Hills community artist in residence, and over this time he coordinated the painting of a number of murals. Of them one remains, a bushland scene on the wall of a terrace house that faces a tiny park. Repainted in 2012 the new design, like the old, tricks the eye, so for a moment, the wall becomes a forest.
The other two Peter Day coordinated murals in Surry Hills were the Bourke Street Park mural which had a similar trompe l’oeil appearance, where a wall opened out into a landscape of cliffs and the ocean. The other was the Welcome to Surry Hills map on the side of an electricity substation on Devonshire Street, now a block of apartments.
Randwick’s Proud of Our Elders mural includes six notable locals: Ollie Simms, the oldest Aboriginal woman in La Perouse; Miss Wilhelmina Wylie, swimming champion and daughter of Henry Wylie who built Wylie’s Baths in Coogee; Alice Gundry, founding member of the Coogee Ladies Pool; Doris Hyde, president of the Coogee Ladies Swimming Club who “taught hundreds of children to swim”; Harry Reed, ex-jockey; and Greta Fyson, who “feed the pigeons every day in the park on Coogee Bay Road near the nursing home where she lives”.
The mural was repainted in 2011 as the original was fading, and Doris Hyde’s wise gaze continues to observe the residents of Randwick as they make their way along Belmore Road.
6. Women and Work, Domain (1982, Carol Ruff)
Of all Sydney’s 1980s murals this is the most degraded, in a peeling, sorry state, mostly covered by graffiti and signs for the parking station. It makes me sad to see it this way as it is one of my favourites: every time I pass by I expect it to be gone, but for now you can still make out some of the figures. Painted in 1982 it was part of the landmark Women and the Arts festival in 1982, which included around 1000 events and generated much creative work by women across the arts.
Judy McGee from Pel Mel is still visible in her blue tights, playing her synthesiser, despite the door cut into the wall behind her. At the tallest end of the mural a woman stands in the kitchen with her dog, although she has now been imprisoned by an overpass.
Of all of Sydney’s 1980s murals the Woolloomooloo murals have perhaps the greatest status as political artworks. The pylons of the Eastern Suburbs Railway viaducts formed a gallery on which 16 murals about political and social issues – especially the Green Bans and redevelopment threats to the area in the 1970s – were hung. Eight of these have been preserved, although not repainted: the artists requested the works only be minimally restored to keep their patina of age.
The murals were the backdrop for the Midnight Oil video “The Power and the Passion” although, as related in this story of the making of the video, to the artists’ consternation the band didn’t ask for permission to film in front of the murals. Nevertheless, the video captures something of the atmosphere of these odd spaces underneath the viaduct, which itself carved up Woolloomoloo, although to nowhere near the extent of the planned developments in the 1970s which were halted by the Green Bans.
8. Redfern Bridge Mural/40,000 Years is a Long, Long Time (1983, Carol Ruff)
The 40,000 years mural, on the railway bridge above Redfern station, is named after the lines from the No Fixed Address song that are painted on the wall. It’s a striking reminder of Aboriginal land and history, and visually underlies the tall buildings of the city which can be seen behind it. The mural is currently undergoing a restoration with images this time being painted on panels rather than the wall. The wall mural is currently much faded, but you can still make out the silhouettes of the Indigenous All Stars, the first Aboriginal rugby team from 1973.
9. King George V Mural, The Rocks (1984, Peter Day)
At around 2000 metres squared, this is one of the longest murals in the southern hemisphere. It is painted along the viaduct leading to the Harbour Bridge as a trompe l’oeil. The painted arches of the viaduct trick the eye into seeing a vista beyond of the harbour in front of which, most strikingly, a hot air balloon rises. In front of much of the mural is a recreation centre which obscures it somewhat, although provides an unusual background to basketball games: the full mural can be seen in this aerial photo from before the centre was built.
This is perhaps Sydney’s most high profile mural – literally as it is painted up above the city streets on the side of Pilgrim House. The mural was painted over altogether in 2001, before being reinstated two years later after the artists campaigned for it to return.
11. Think Globally, Act Locally, Redfern (1984, Public Art Squad)
This mural, another by the Public Art Squad, can be found in Redfern’s Reconciliation Park on George Street. It shares the dove motif from Peace, Justice and Unity, and shows the residents of the terrace houses and public housing blocks of Redfern and Waterloo, as well as a couple of dinosaurs framed by the outline of a demolished house.
Like many community murals, it includes groups of local people, long ago characters: my favourites in this one are the girl on the fence, and the man reading the newspaper which lists the painting’s credits.
Murals continued to be painted throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, among them notable works such as the Martin Luther King mural on King Street Newtown by Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken and the Tunnel Vision mural along the Domain Express Walkway by Tim Guider. Other iconic murals have disappeared, such as those that used to line the Devonshire Street tunnel at Central Station (Public Art Squad): now replaced by dull digital images of trains.
Others have disappeared completely, without trace, such as the oil tank mural of Matraville, painted in 1978 in a project co-ordinated by David Humphries and Rodney Monk. This mural was striking, rising up behind the headstones of the Eastern Suburbs cemetery. Across the tank was painted a blue landscape of ships and planes and dolphins, faces and structures, public memories mixed up into a dream landscape familiar and surreal.
It’s a testament to the work of the mural artists of the 1980s that so many of their works remain, although in some ways its not surprising. They have become iconic images from an era of protest and community engagement and the majority of their messages are as important as ever.
The theatre is a surprising sight on a corner of long, straight Blaxcell Street, which is mostly lined with cottages and small apartment buildings. It rises from the street corner like a magnificent coral, pale pink with letters curling across the roof. They still spell out “Crest”, although it has long ceased to be a cinema with that name. The Crest is now the owned by the Blouza Association, a Lebanese community group with origins in the town of Blaoza in North Lebanon. The roundels that once spelled out Hoyts on the front fin of the cinema now spell out Blouza, and the hall occasionally hosts the group’s functions. Most of the time, though, the hall is closed and only glimpses of the elegant foyer can be had by peeking through the doors.
In the first half of the twentieth century Sydney had a proliferation of local cinemas. Of these only a few remain, like the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne and the Randwick Ritz. In the 60s and 70s many were demolished and replaced by shopping centres, petrol stations or carparks, others remain in new guises as furniture barns or crumbling ruins. The Crest’s persistence is a rare thing. Perhaps its longevity is partly due to it being built rather late in the suburban cinema boom. It was one of the few to open in the 1940s, and while it ceased to be a cinema in the 60s, it has remained faithful to its art deco origins.
The hall is not often open to the public but one Sunday it was the venue for a science fiction and collectables fair. While my companion eagerly awaited the crates of comics and Dr Who paraphernalia I was curious to see what lay inside the hall. The foyer with its pink plasterwork details and aluminium-clad art deco bar I’d already seen from peeking through the door, but not the hall itself. After paying my entrance fee I stopped in the doorway in surprise. The hall was like a pale pink seashell, the ceiling patterned with little anemone-like circles and the walls had plaster details like trails of delicate seaweed. It was a Botticelli Venus kind of place, even with its tables of He-Man figurines and Star Wars merchandise.
As people browsed the stalls – a cosplay girl dressed as Poison Ivy, father and son figurine enthusiasts, an elderly woman holding a just-purchased Chucky doll – I sat on the stage steps and imagined the Crest’s various incarnations. In the 1950s it was a cinema showing westerns and romances, then it was a bingo hall and a ballroom, hired out for functions and weddings. In some ways it seems strange that so much detail was lavished on a cinema interior. Wherever a decorative detail could be included in the design it had been, the air vents with “H” shaped grilles over them and every doorway framed with fronds and curls.
The streets surrounding the Crest are a suburban grid of 20th century cottages. Some have neat gardens with tall cacti and hydrangeas, others weeds and the sunken frames of cars not destined to drive anywhere ever again. On one corner is a solid red brick house with a sagging but still intact paling fence. I can see through the slats that the garden is a quarter acre block of lawn which stretches out like a carpet. Only a few small mango trees interrupt the expanse of green.
Each garden has a specific detail to distinguish it, whether a pristine lawn or row of statement conifers. The houses are the kinds of places that are animated on Sunday afternoons when families come to visit grandparents, or early in the morning when it’s the best time for watering the garden. In the heat of the day there are few people out. Two kittens tumble in a driveway, pausing to stare at me as I pass by. Mango trees are covered in small, green fruit. Here are there are 50s suburban flourishes, a concrete swan or an ornamental letterbox. The Belle View mixed business on Blaxcell Street has a sign offering provisions, smokes, sweets, drinks and ice creams, but the shutters are down and have been so for years.
Granville is a curious mixture of details, reflecting its industrial heritage, its suburban environment and various communities. It’s the location of union headquarters, the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia, and the mysterious R.A.O.B G.L.E meeting hall (the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes Grand Lodge of England – antediluvian is not a word you expect to encounter on a suburban wander). This version of Granville is one of societies and allegiances. There are many other versions: a place where every second shop sells Lebanese bread from the Beirut Bakery, a place that at times has been known as run down and dangerous, once described by the local mayor ‘the most urban decayed area in Sydney’. I walk past a big old burnt out apartment building and this seems true for a moment, but then around the corner the Veterans are setting up for their Christmas party, people walk back to their cars with boxes of chicken from El Jannah and the cottages on Mary Street have roses in their gardens. All of these versions coexist.
On the south side the legend JESUS SAVES is painted in large black letters on all sides of a church hall. On the north side is another, similarly large and stark painted text, though this one has message MONEY LENT. The Money Lent building is one of numerous Granville’s yellow buildings, which stand out like they’ve been highlighted: The Barn office furniture on Parramatta Road, Silly Willy’s $2 Man. At the backs of buildings ghost signs advertise chemist shops, lino and Presto smallgoods. On this sign slices of ham are cut from the side of a cheerful, chubby pig.
On the other side of the train station is another shopping street, Good Street. This is the Captain Cash MONEY LENT side, in close proximity to Parramatta Road and its stultifying effect on all but furniture stores and caryards. On this stretch of the street is a curious mixture of businesses, the Himalayan Restaurant in the old School of Arts Building, the Anawim Opportunity shop where a regular shopper deliberates over buying a large folding fan and the staff tease her about the fan dance she will be performing later that night.
Of all shops on Good Street, however, it is the Heaven on Earth Holy Store which is the most striking. Heaven on Earth sells religious statuary and catering supplies. On one side of the store are the saint statues, rosaries, and crucifixes, and on the other are stainless steel pans, glassware, and cooking contraptions, interspersed with more religious statuary and other giftware: carved wooden horses, ceramic chameleons. The store smells of incense and the shelves are cluttered with so many things that my eyes skip manically over them, from salt and pepper shakers to gift mugs with Porches on them, to pile of plates and giant rosaries. I’m not the first to discover the visual cacophony of Heaven on Earth; the store has many signs forbidding photographs.
Good Street crosses Parramatta Road and it’s here I cut through the corner lot. Like many of the lots in this area it’s a car yard, with rows of cheap cars lined up on the cracked and weedy concrete. This westernmost section of Parramatta Road is mostly car yards and furniture stores. The used car salesman stay in their air conditioned sheds until buyers appear, but no one much is around. Two boys walk along with Slurpees, a man dashes between caryards with a numberplate in a plastic sleeve dangling over his shoulder. Otherwise the road is a surging and cluttering stream of cars and trucks.
I head up towards Boral Concrete to see if the kangaroos are still there. They are concrete kangaroos, of course, few creatures venture to approach the busy road. Even as a human it’s difficult enough. I walk underneath the rail underpass, a terrifying 50 metres where there is only a thin pavement between a brick wall and the traffic. I pause at the edge of it like I’m about to plunge into a pool, waiting for the traffic to ease before rushing through. On the other side is a grim scene with police tape and scaffolding, the remains of a past accident. The garden bed where the kangaroos were is overgrown and it’s hard to see much through the fence. They are gone, perhaps, or buried underneath the long grass.
On the other side of the road is a more reliable mascot, Fiona the mannequin, who has been the guardian of RA Motors “Sydney’s Cheapest Cars” since 1983. It being late December she is dressed as Santa Claus. Above her black flags with skulls and crossbones in Santa hats flap in the wind and she is joined by a child-size mannequin dressed as a Christmas elf tied to a pylon. Now is the time to enjoy such spectacles, as there is in the planning 19,000 new high rise apartment homes for the Granville section of Parramatta Road by 2050.
If now Granville is the place to buy a cheap used car, in the past it was known for its connections to the railways. From 1905 Australian steam and diesel trains on Australian railways were built in Granville at the Clyde Engineering Company. This was one of the area’s major employers, and the largest engineering manufacturer in the country at the time. Clyde Engineering made everything from trains to agricultural machinery, planes and lawnmowers. In their heyday company ran a popular exhibit at Sydney Royal Easter Shows to showcase their newest contraptions.
Granville’s other significant railway story is one of tragedy. In 1977 the Bold Street overpass was the site of Australia’s worst train disaster. 83 people died and hundreds were injured when a train travelling from the Blue Mountains derailed and hit the supports of the overpass, causing the bridge to collapse . Photographs show the huge buckled slabs of the road on top of the tracks, the jackknifed carriages, crowds of emergency service personnel, and stretchers laid out. Crowds of people looked down from behind the wire fence along Railway Parade.
The disaster happened before I was born but was still very much in the public consciousness when I was child in the 1980s. My mother, still horrified by reports of the disaster many years on, would sometimes recall the story one of the last people to be rescued, a young woman who was a ballet dancer. The photograph of the woman being lifted, smiling, from the wreck after 9 hours trapped was one of the most well known images from the disaster and her story became of the best known of the survivors’. Her story was one of many tragedies, as her injuries were substantial and ended her dancing career.
Each anniversary of the disaster 83 roses are offered in tribute to the victims. Until his death this year, the same local priest who in 1977 pulled people from the wreckage blessed the roses. The roses, after being blessed, are dropped from Railway Parade onto the tracks below, their red petals bright against the gravel.
Every year there is an auction of items lost on Sydney trains and not reclaimed. These are the objects that have languished in the lost property office too long, the mobile phones, earrings, skateboards, cameras and violins that no one came in search of.
At Pickles Auctions in Milperra people follow the signs to the Sydney Train auction as, overhead, light planes quiver their way towards the Bankstown Airport next door. The caryards that surround Pickles go almost up to the edge of the airport. In the furthest lot is a section of burnt-out and damaged vehicles that I can’t imagine anyone buying. Auction houses can be a revelation in how anything can be useful or desireable.
A steady procession of people follow the path to the auction room, where rows of white plastic chairs have been lined up in preparation for tomorrow’s auction. Around the perimeter of the room are the lost objects, a pallet of prams shrinkwrapped in plastic, skateboards neatly divided into lots of five. One of the boards is decorated with stickers peeled from train carriages: “keep clear of moving doors” and “please vacate this seat for elderly or less mobile passengers”. Karma, perhaps, for it to end up here, beside the box of yoga mats and arrangement of fishing rods.
“How can you leave something like that on a train?” people say, staring at the guitars and sets of skis. There’s a cluster around the mobile phone cabinet, where lots of 5 iPhones have been bundled together with rubber bands. There are thousands of mobile phones, all displayed in a glass case. People peer into eagerly at the rows of dead, black screens.
As long as there have been trains people have been leaving things behind on them. In the 1940s 500 pairs of women’s gloves made their way to the lost property office every month. This description of lost items from the railways in 1909 is still accurate: “Apparel of all kinds, from hats to socks and boots may be seen there; watches and chains, and more or less valuable trinkets of every description; whole forests of walking-sticks, umbrellas and parasols innumerable… bags and purses, tools of trade and domestic utensils…”
In these earliest reports of lost property there is a familiar disbelief as to the number and range of objects left behind. In 1909 the Evening News reflected “no one would think, for example, that so bulky an article as a shovel could be conveniently mislaid by its owner”. In 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a similar sense of bewilderment about a fibreglass boat in the lost property that year. The bemused auction manager that year had no explanation, only that it was “more the sort of thing you would row out to” than leave on a train.
Next to the endless iPhones in the cabinet are two stacks of vinyl records, one pile topped with Nana Mouskouri’s 20 Solid Gold Hits, the other with the soundtrack to On Golden Pond. Closer inspection of the LP spines reveals Tchikovsky, Val Doonigan, Transvision Vamp, and the artist that every op shop has in abundance, Phil Collins. The records are behind glass but the CDs and DVDs are stacked in boxes in the musical instruments section. Poking out from a box of DVDs is the film “The Great Escape”, a fitting title for a lost item.
Seal top bags full of earrings and watches fill another glass cabinet, along with cameras, which a man is inspecting one by one. Some of the people viewing are seriously buyers, others merely curious, wanting a look at what people leave behind. A tall guy in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt takes notes on a ring-bound notepad as he examines the prints and paintings, which fill six tables. Landscapes, lacquered puzzles, a framed poster from the 1980s warning against the perils of improper film classification. It is hard to imagine how anyone could leave such items on a train, unless perhaps they were deliberately getting rid of them.
In the book section, on top of one of the pallets of assorted books, is a book with a bookcrossing sticker. While incarceration in the lost property office is probably not what the person who set free “Daughter of the Crocodile” by Duncan Sprott intended, it does provide something that is lacking from the other items in the auction, a bit of backstory. Looking it up on the Bookcrossing site reveals it had been last found on the Sea Princess cruise ship.
Out of all the objects, it’s the unusual ones that attract the most attention and speculation as to how they came to be here. Not claiming a phone or a Nana Mouskouri record seems like a reasonable thing that might happen. Leaving your chainsaw or your melodion behind forever seems a little more unlikely, and how come so many hundreds of bikes are abandoned? People walk from table to table, wondering and discussing. The musical instruments can perhaps be explained by kids leaving them behind so they won’t have to go to lessons anymore, although some, like the 1865 Franz Diener violin left on a Countrylink train and auctioned in 2011 (selling for $11600), will remain forever a mystery.
Tomorrow morning the room will fill with bidders and by the end of the day buyers will be found for these boxes of sunglasses and bags of silver jewellery, the boxes of hats (from it a man picks up a top hat and holds it for a moment, a questioning look on his face). The skateboards will find riders and the clarinets, flutes, harmonicas and ukeleles will sound out notes again. Someone will buy the “pallet of assorted umbrellas” and never need feel a raindrop again.
I’ll be reading a story based on the Penrith Arcades Project this Saturday, July 13th, at the Penrith Regional Gallery, as part of Penguin Plays Rough, from 3pm – come to hear stories and pick up a copy of this map to begin your own High Street adventure.
There are two areas to shop in Penrith, the grey hulk of the Westfield shopping centre or High Street, a long, straight street of shops with arcades leading off it like secret passageways.
Westfield has the predictable atmosphere shared by mega malls the world over: a repetition of chain retailers in a climate controlled environment, sealed away from the world outside. The businesses that don’t fit into Westfield populate High Street.
This is the part of town with the op shops, party supplies and hobby stores, the new age shops, bargain stores and independent retailers. Along High Street there are at least 14 arcades, making it the most arcade-heavy shopping area in greater Sydney. They are not the Victorian-era arcades that might immediately come to mind upon hearing the word, but rather their 1960s and 70s equivalents, built at a time when the boundaries of Sydney’s suburban sprawl were stretching towards the west. Large malls were new on the scene and slowly began to appear around Sydney, but small suburban shopping arcades sprung up all over the suburbs.
If there is one person whose name will be forever linked with arcades and what they represent it is Walter Benjamin. His unfinished Arcades Project is a vast collection of ideas, aphorisms and fragments gathered about and around the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century. When Benjamin began the project in the 1920s the Paris arcades were well in decline. It was their anachronistic, mysterious presence that attracted him, and in his earliest writing on the arcades he refers to them as “a past become space”, full of mysterious signs, strange objects, “antiquated trades” and vacant stores containing only few traces of their previous occupants. Despite the differences in time and location, Penrith’s arcades share something of this mystery and link to the past. What kinds of signs and objects do they contain?
A Penrith Arcades Project must begin with Memory Mall, which has round neon signs spelling out its name in cursive above each entrance. The arcade derives its name from Memory Park across the street, with its war memorial, palm trees, and annual dawn service on Anzac Day. Memorial parks are a fairly common civic place, but a memory mall isn’t so clear a connection. What kinds of memories come along with malls? Memory Mall makes me recall my 1980s childhood and visiting shopping arcades with their potted plants (which I’d test to see if they were real), little specialist shops, and atmosphere of extended domesticity: there was something about these arcades that was almost like a house in their mixture of public and private, interior and exterior.
High Street Penrith has long been a shopping street and in some ways it isn’t so different today from how it was in the 1920s, when tea rooms, barbers, bakeries and estate agencies lined it. By the 1950s there were Greek milk bars and a movie theatre and electricals stores where people would cluster to watch the televisions through the windows. By the 1970s, Penrith had a Penrith Plaza, a shopping mall that was the precursor to today’s Westfield, and the High Street shops had been tunnelled through with arcades.
In 1985 High Street was blocked off to traffic and made into a pedestrian mall. The slogan of High Street Mall was “It’s bright, it’s friendly, it’s yours”, and a series of brightly coloured canopies were erected between the stores. This was to only last ten years, and by 1996, the street was open to traffic again, although the arcades remained.
While some arcades, like Memory Mall, are populated with businesses others are ghostly, such as the Nepean Walkway Arcade. The Nepean Walkway and the now unsignposted Carvan Arcade across from it are the easternmost of the High Street arcades. Nepean Walkway keeps its roller shutter partially down and its entrance is flanked by a tobacconist and a funeral parlour.
The majority of the shops are for lease, apart from Lorraine’s. The hand made sign for Lorraine’s describes the merchandise as “hand made baby’s wear and pretty dolls”. Peering through the window, as the store is shut, I can see this for myself. Lorraine’s sells hand knitted baby jumpers, devotional items, tapestries and 70s beauty guides. These are displayed on a series of long tables in a jumble of objects and bright colours. As I peer in, the beady eyes of a trio of nun dolls, wearing knitted black habits, stare back at me.
Further along High Street, past Memory Park, is another arcade, The Cottage Lane.
The awning displays the names of previous businesses – Floraison Design, Power of Beauty, Devine Creations – as well as the one remaining listed business, Prima Ballerina ballet shop. It is next to Behind the Mask Fancy Dress store, with a window display of masks and a leering Incredible Hulk on the sign at the back of the arcade. The Cottage Lane is Penrith’s fantasy arcade, where people come for their tutus, masks and costumes. Across from these stores is a mainstay of Penrith’s arcades, a new age store, this one offering psychic readings. A hand made sign spells out “please come in and say hi” in sparkly letters, with the rates for half hour and hourly readings.
I have no need to consult my fate, I know it, at least for the next few hours. I leave The Cottage Lane and take a few steps to the entrance of the NK Centre, the next arcade.
The NK Centre is a solid, brick building with arched windows on the upper storey, tinted so there is no clue as to what goes on inside. The NK Centre has a store which also offers psychic readings, but the most activity occurs in two shops at the back of the arcade, where the cake decorating store faces off against the wool shop. Which hobby will I choose?
Inside the Wool Inn, a queue of people wait at the counter for advice from women wearing hand knitted jumpers. The store is stacked with plump balls of wool and knitting patterns, in as much abundance as the cake tins and figurines in One Stop Cake Decorations across the arcade. I choose the cake decorating shop, never having been a knitter, and look through drawers of plastic decorations spelling out “Happy Birthday”, a rack of every imaginable shape of cookie cutter, cake tins shaped like ladybugs and monsters, and shelves of figurines: bowlers, ice skating couples, football players.
These stores sell small pieces of future. One Stop Cake Decorations contains the potential of celebrations yet to come, birthdays, successes and surprises, as the Wool Inn holds the potential of future jumpers. The neatly stacked balls of wool will be transformed into thick winter cardigans, or novice knitters’ first scarves.
To walk through the NK Centre arcade, under the yellow grid pattern light fittings which stripe the arcade’s ceiling every few metres, is to pass the inscructable black shopfront of “Your Best Life C3 Church”, counsellors’ rooms, and Buddhist statues in the gift shop. The NK Centre is the arcade of hobbies and spiritual guidance.
Back out on High Street, across from the NK Centre, is an old sign just visible behind the protruding boards advertising Nepean Pizzas and Charcoals above the awning. Words are painted in the arches above the three windows:
Pelmets. Blinds. Advice.
This is the sign of a long-gone store (a pelmet, for those who don’t know, and this included me until now, is the piece of fabric that goes along the top of the window to hide the curtain rail), I imagine this store as having the same kind of function as the psychic services in the arcades: their advice extending beyond curtains. Who better to offer advice than those expert in concealing and revealing what goes on inside buildings?
This part of High Street has the highest density of arcades. As I walk down the street I look for their entrances: some are more obvious than others. The High Street entrance of Elizabeth Arcade is an unassuming doorway with a few signs for the businesses to be found within. Every arcade’s entrance is also an exit, and each arcade has two faces, the face it turns to High Street and the face it turns to the carparks and laneways behind them. Even if people don’t shop in the arcades they use them as thoroughfares, and in the more dimly lit arcades the people at the opposite end look like advancing shadows.
Elizabeth Arcade is one of Penrith’s blue arcades. The High Street facade is painted pale blue and the carpark-facing side is royal blue, with round-edged signs that look like giant capsules with the names of businesses printed on them: Ye’s Shoes, Elizabeth Arcade Book Shop. Outside the bookstore people browse the cheap books on tables in the arcade, novels, guidebooks, pet owners’ manuals and gift books. Propped up among these is a copy of a book that every household must have owned in the 1970s, for there are so many of them secondhand: Dinkum Dunnies.
High Street’s other blue arcades are Broadwalk, an open arcade on the other side of the street from Elizabeths, and the Calokerinos Arcade, its angular blue roofline the same colour as the sky. Calokerinos is now permanently closed, shutters down, awaiting redevelopment, even though of all the arcades it has the most stylish facade.
One of the mainstays of Penrith’s arcades are hairdressers, and most arcades include at least one barber or hair salon. Of all of them, Rod’s Hair Shoppe in the City Central Arcade has the most ingenious signage. At the carpark entrance to the arcade the drainage downpipe has been painted to look like a barber’s pole. Rod’s Hair Shoppe, in which a couple of fidgety boys sit waiting for their haircuts, is next to another salon, Male Look Hairdressing, although on closer inspection, Rod seems to run both premises. Next to Male Look is yet another hairdresser, Afro Varieties, where a woman is having her hair plaited into many tiny rows.
In the Parker Arcade across the street there are more salons, Exquisite Hair and Beauty, with roses painted on the window and another men’s salon, Man About Town “gents hair stylist”. I imagine the clients of these men’s salons to be something like this man from Maxim’s Hairdressing, back in the Nepean Walkway. Hopefully if another business rents this shop they will keep him on the window.
Upstairs in the Parker Arcade is the college where you learn to cut hair before your graduate to working in the arcades, Active Career College. Many of the arcades have businesses upstairs, small colleges or solicitors offices, places which offer services rather than products and can hide away above street level. The stairwells leading to these upper levels, with their exposed bricks and worn steps, lead me to imagine 70s style offices with clunky telephones and secretaries wiping dust from the leaves of indoor plants.
On the corner of Station Street is the Penrith Centre, the largest structure of all the arcades, with pebblecrete rendering and shingle tile awnings. Inside the arcade the floor is made of alternate panels of brown tiles and linoleum, with parlour palms (real) in pots beside burgundy benches. Outside Polly’s Beads, yet another arcade hobby shop, there is a set of rigid-looking tables and chairs, painted in the same burgundy. Although the arcades have many stylistic similarities: strip lighting, brown tiles, ceilings made up of white striped panelling, each has a particularity – a colour, an atmosphere – to discern it from the others.
Skipton’s Arcade, across from the Penrith Centre, also features pebblecrete but differs from the other arcades in that it has an atrium in the centre, letting in the daylight. Pebblecrete stairs lead to the upper levels and the real estate coaching business, as well as the Penrith Guitar School. This must be the place to go to learn classical guitar, judging by their elegant logo of an acoustic guitar resting against an open book of sheet music. The G4 Guitar School back in the City Centre Arcade teaches a different style of guitar.
The final arcade on High Street is Riverlands, at the end of High Street.
Across from Riverlands the grey wall of Westfield stretches out, seemingly endlessly, behind a screen of eucalypts. There’s a quilting store, Hair Fanatics “fanatical about your hair”, and The Shoe Shed, with a window display of one of every possible kind of women’s flat shoe: leopard print with bows, fluoro yellow with black studs on the toe, pink with a decorative buckle. Next to the Shoe Shed is Derby Skates, a Roller Derby supply store, the doors decorated with a large image of a group of sneering Derby women in skates, making it impossible to look through and see if anyone was inside.
I walk through Riverlands Arcade to the carpark, where a sign listing the businesses inside (some still there, some not) is moored among the rows of cars. It includes three hair salons and a sewing shop, a bowls shop and a “coffee house”. Has the roller derby store replaced the bowls shop? I ponder this for a moment, then turn and retrace my steps to High Street, at the end of my arcades adventure.
Having zig zagged my way through the tiled and pebbled interior of High Street, I look back along it. The buildings are a patchwork of different facades with landmarks standing out from the rest: the Penrith Centre, the bright blue fin of the Calorkerinos Arcade roof, an old ad for Reuben F. Scarf Hand Tailored Suits, the serifed letters of SUITS golden in the afternoon sun. People walking down High Street disappear into arcades, to have their hair cut or buy cake decorating supplies, or just to walk back to their cars, past the pretty dolls in Lorraine’s and the temptation of a psychic reading, and the For Lease signs that make them remember what used to be there, or imagine what might be.
Most of the water I’ve drank in my life comes from Warragamba Dam, or more accurately Lake Burragorang, the lake behind the dam which holds a vast supply of water, enough to support a city. Its rising and falling water levels are monitored like vital signs, yet to many people who live in Sydney, Warragamba exists only in the abstract. It’s far to the west, surrounded by farmland and bushland, and doesn’t seem part of the city at all. Although it is roads that are usually regarded as the cities circulatory system, it is the hidden networks of pipelines underneath it that truly keep it alive.
At the entrance to the dam is a water tower, or “spheroid reservoir” as it is referred to on the map, which sprouts up from the ground like a smooth concrete mushroom. Other unusual structures lie inside the gates. At the entrance to the visitor’s centre a large valve is on display, weird as a piece of space junk. It is one of the dam’s original valves, a three tonne contraption painted a bright, shiny green. It was once deep inside the dam’s machinery, holding back an immense force of water.
The dam’s concrete structure is familiar to me from its many appearances in the news, but when I started to walk across the dam wall it was the other, lesser broadcast side of it that captured my attention, Lake Burragorang, a calm, deep expanse of water. It stretches out between the hills and appears by all accounts to be a peaceful, natural scene. Yet Lake Burragorang was once the Burragorang Valley, a place with orchards and farms, and predating 19th century European settlement, it was the home to the people of the Gundungurra nation for thousands of years. In their dreaming story, the valley was carved out by a battle between the tiger cat Mirragan and the reptile fish Gurangatch. Now the valley, and the Gundungurra sacred sites and rock art, is hidden underwater.
Burragorang Valley was drowned to create the lake and provide Sydney’s water supply and to this end all the inhabitants of the valley were forced to move in the 1950s. Then all the trees in the valley were cut down and the timber used to construct scaffolding for the dam construction, and the workers’ houses in Warragamba. Some of the buildings in the valley were dismantled, others were left and are now underneath the waters of the lake: farmhouses, the guesthouse where visitors to the valley would stay on holidays. When the water level is low, parts of the town reappear, vehicles, bridges and buildings, although few get to see these traces as the area around the lake is inaccessible to the public.
It is surprising how peaceful it is to walk out across the dam wall. The air smells of eucalyptus and the drone of cicadas is the loudest sound. At the start of the wall is a pillar with plaques on all sides of it, commemorating the engineers and those on the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board, as well as the dedication: “With a tribute to those who devised and those who wrought, this structure, built by the grace of God, is dedicated to the service of mankind.” Another plaque on the side of the dam wall commemorates the workers who died in the construction of it.
Beneath me, under the roadway on the top of the dam, is the thick concrete structure that holds back the waters of Lake Burragorang. Inside the wall is a network of tunnels and chambers, used for monitoring and maintenance. Once the public were able to go on tours inside these tunnels, but they are no longer accessible.
Visiting Warragamba Dam today is a very different experience to how it would have been for the families and school excursions who visited in the decades after its opening in 1960. A suspension bridge, a remnant from the dam’s construction, crossed over the valley in front of the dam, and those who didn’t suffer from vertigo would walk across it and take photographs in front of the dam wall. The bridge was closed in 1987 because of termite damage and then burnt down in the bushfire of 2001.
The supports for the suspension bridge are still visible in the terrace garden, which too is much changed from the neat collection of flower beds, rockeries and ornamental conifers that used to decorate it. Now the garden beds are dry and choked with leaves and bark, and only the hardiest of the plants remain. It is relentlessly sunny and there is little escape from the shade. A guy wearing only a pair of shorts puffs his way up the terrace garden stairs, his little giggling blonde daughter on his shoulders, but otherwise there is only a security guard snoozing on a chair underneath a sunshade.
The face of the dam is the familiar row of gates and a steep, concrete drop. Far below is a pool of greenish water. It is strange to think of the waters of the lake being held in place by this steep wall. When the lake is full, the gates automatically open and water gushes down. The last time this happened, in March 2012, the dam received a record number of visitors to watch the rush of water. They also saw the strange sight of hundreds of eels sliding tail-first down the dam wall. Long-finned eels that live in Lake Burragorang have migrated thousands of kilometres south from their breeding grounds in the Coral Sea. The juvenile eels swim from the ocean into the river system, and have worked out a route to bypass the dam and reach the lake beyond it, where they live in its depths and grow metres long.
Today only a few wide, slow trickles course down the dam walls, which are patterned in grey brown streaks. Over time the concrete has discoloured, giving it more the appearance of bark, or stone, something organic. Concrete is the city’s fundamental material, but wide expanses of it can provoke a similar feeling of awe to naturally occurring wonders. Despite the immense amounts of labour that went into constructing the dam, its presence is monolithic.
Beside the dam is a newly constructed spillway, which is designed to accommodate the excess water in case of a major flood. It too is a smooth field of discoloured concrete, a patchwork of panels slightly upturned at the end, to slow the rush of water before it plunges down into the gorge below.
The previous Warragamba Dam visitor’s centre included a 1:100 scale working model of the dam, which, the description of the new visitor’s centre explains apologetically, was too fragile and worn out to be transferred to the new one. The new visitor’s centre is above the edge of the lake and while the working model has been replaced with an interactive exhibition, there were plenty of oddities in cabinets, instruments used to construct the dam which, the exhibition informed me, was one of the last significant civil engineering projects designed without the use of computers. Instead they used slide rules and planimeters, examples of which rested reverently behind glass. There was also a cabinet of local wildlife, many of them in preserving fluid inside bottles and jars: an eel in a long, tall jar, red bellied black snakes and bandy bandy snakes in IXL jam jars.
Near the snake cabinet, footage of the dam under construction was being played on a screen. In the faded yellows of old colour film engineers examine core samples of rock and men pour the interlocking concrete blocks that make up the dam wall. Their industrious movements play on repeat and the dam is built over and over. It took twelve years to construct and during this time the dam workers lived in Warragamba, a small township with fibro cottages and numbered streets, a few kilometres away.
It is Australia Day and the town is quiet. The buildings that make up the shopping village are small with awnings that overhang the footpath. For every shop that is operating there is one that is for lease or boarded up: the old, pale green tiled butchery or the Lolly Shop with its wild west typography and 1980s brick facade.
Most of the shops in Warragamba are closed for the day, and the main street, which loops around a playground with picnic tables and gum trees, has a mood of deep stillness. Occasionally something happens to rupture the quiet. A woman gets out of her car, struggling with a bunch of green and yellow helium balloons inside a plastic bag, before disappearing into one of the stores. An old, arthritic white pit bull hobbles up the street and stands outside the takeaway shop, as if waiting for an order. The takeaway is one of the few stores open. It is the kind of place that sells chips, burgers and random grocery items, toilet paper: canned fruit, packets of plastic soldiers.
It is similarly quiet in the residential streets. The average house in Warragamba is a fibro worker’s cottage, constructed in the 1940s or 1950s. At the time they were built the houses looked stark in the newly cleared landscape, but over time gardens have grown up around them and each house has developed a character to reflect its inhabitants. Some still have concrete lawn ornaments that must have been there for decades, the kangaroos and koalas that were popular in the 1950s.
Under a big tree on a front lawn an Australia Day picnic is taking place. A family, all wearing Australia flag hats with temporary tattoos stuck to their faces and arms, sit languidly in the afternoon heat and follow my car with their eyes and I drive slowly down the street. Warragamba feels like a country town and I imagine that my unfamiliar car might immediately uncover me as a tourist.
While dam visitors still come through the town, Warragamba’s tourist heyday was in the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s. The dam was a vast, new piece of civil engineering and the source of much pride. Visitors to the dam could cross the suspension bridge and walk through the tunnels inside the dam wall. They could buy postcard folders of views of the dam and the town, souvenir rulers, giant pencils and souvenir spoons.
From 1968 visitors to Warragamba could also visit the African Lion Safari. Lions and tigers roamed free as people drove their cars through the park to observe them. The African Lion Safari was enclosed by a double layer of fencing and as people drove in they were warned by signs:
YOU ARE NOW IN LION COUNTRY.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN.
There were plenty of signs with reminders to keep the car windows wound up at all times and not to get out of the car, even in the case of breakdown. SOUND HORN, DO NOT GET OUT! At one of the highlights of the day at the African Lion Safari, feeding time, jeeps painted in zebra stripes distributed large hunks of beef (usually half a cow’s head) to the lions.
The African Lion Safari ran television ads designed to entice Sydney children. The park was a brush with the exotic in the outer suburbs, if only you could get your parents to drive you there. Every time the ad came on I would consider the terror of a lion’s vicious face appearing in the window of my family’s Ford station wagon, although I never had a chance to experience this for real. My parents were nervous about the idea of getting close to wild animals.
The block of land where the African Lion Safari once was is still there, overgrown, its few remaining buildings in ruins and covered in layers of graffiti. The double row of fences still exists, although now it is in many places penetrable. Urban explorers face the fear that there may be a gang of remaining cheetahs and step inside the fence to see what they can find. I think of the snakes in the jam jars at the dam, and I am content to stay on the other side of the fence this time.
Across from where the African Lion Safari once was, in the big corner lot, is a weird collection of objects, dotted among the trees. It’s a strange kind of graveyard. Concrete teepees, rusting playground equipment, the remains of a miniature passenger train, a wishing well with two concrete wizards standing beside it, concrete flowers and animals. Among the objects small bonfires are set up ready for burning. Further back inside the property are many old, grounded cars. The fences have hand painted No Trespassing signs hung from them, but there is no prohibition on speculating that these might be some of the remains of the African Lion Safari.
Among the concrete creatures is a headless lion, a plastic pipe sticking out where its neck used to be. There’s also a bear with one sagging, broken arm: there were bears as well as lions, tigers, and cheetahs at the park. Like many now-closed theme parks, the African Lion Safari has its share of rumours: the escape of lions, a bear that escaped and was shot by a local resident (this incident, reported in the media at the time, is at least true).
At the other end of the lot are decaying fairground rides, the central scaffolding of a small ferris wheel, roundabouts and a rocket, its red and blue paint fading and peeling. The grass and weeds grow up long around them.