Sole Survivors

When the building across from the Crystal Street intersection was torn down, the Boot Palace came back into memory. Tall black letters, carefully painted, announced that this was the Leichhardt Branch of the City Boot Palace.

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In the 1890s branches of John Hunter’s City Boot Palace were so widespread that their advertisements needed only to give the address as “stores everywhere”. Travel around Sydney and soon you would come across a Boot Palace, with a window display of shoes and slippers, showcasing the durable and elegant goods to be found within.

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For a time in the late 19th century Sydney was well supplied with palaces. You could buy a pair of boots at the City Boot Palace, put them on to walk over to visit the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace, and afterwards take refreshment at the Sydney Coffee Palace. Palaces were not some kind of fairytale dream, they were places of everyday magic that could be browsed or entered.

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In 1885 a writer for The Bulletin was so overcome by the “magnificent edifice” of the central City Boot Palace, at the corner of George and Market Streets, that mere words could not do it justice: “as the interior is fitted with carved cedar showcases, wherein the best and handsomest productions in boots and shoes are displayed, the effect can be better imagined that described”. Bulletin readers could give free reign to their wildest footwear dreams, and the palace that housed them.

The Boot Palace is long, long gone, and the building with its sign is now a fabric store and one of Parramatta’s Road plentiful wedding dress shops. But I can readily imagine the smell of leather and fabric that must have greeted shoppers. A clue to the Boot Palace’s atmosphere can be found in the 1911 novel Jonah, by Louis Stone, set in Sydney city and inner suburbs. The main character opens a shoe store, and describes how the shelves were packed from floor to ceiling and how “boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit”.

Another feature of Jonah’s fictional shoe store was a four metre long silver shoe that hung above the entrance, gleaming in the sun, the “hugest thing within sight”. For a time its present day equivalent was the oversized Blundstone on top of the sign for Hylands Shoe city on Victoria Road in Rozelle. But Hylands closed, and while the sports physiotherapy place that replaced it kept the boot up for a while, it was eventually taken down. Now the city’s big boot is the oversized Dr Martens painted on the wall at the top of the escalators to Kings Cross station, outside Raben Footwear.

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In the 1990s, for a certain type of rebellious teenager eager to assert their identity, Raben was the place to buy boots. It’s still something of a punk shoe store, with its cluttered displays of cherry red Docs, platform Converse sneakers, and every possible available colour of canvas shoe.

As for suburban shoe stores, most have long gone the way of other independent retailers, closing down as the proprietors age or the competition from chain stores became too great. Dicksons in Rockdale is one of these, recently closing after 55 years.

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There is still Forbes in Hornsby, however, which has been around since 1940. Inside its shoeboxes stack up to the ceiling, and ladders are propped up against the shelves for staff to scamper up and down as they fetch pairs for customers to try on.

If shoe stores are mostly homogenous these days, shoe repair shops still retain their idiosyncracies. Many have persisted, unchanged, for decades. The best known of Sydney’s shoe repair stores is Roger Shoe Repair in Redfern. Roger is a kind of rock star of the city’s cobblers, known equally for his conversation as his skills in shoe repair.

Every one of these old shoe repair stores has a distinct character, like the Bankstown shop that is as small as a ticket booth.

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Con’s Shoe Repair at Hurlstone Park has shoe lasts stacked up to the ceiling, and polystyrene crate of basil plants out the front (click on the link to go inside the store via the magic of Google – see if you can spot Con’s white cat). In Fairfield, Rapid Shoe Repair celebrates the amicable rivalry between shoes and keys (keys mentioned 10 times on the exterior, shoes 7).

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Despite the skill of these craftsmen, there is one Sydney shoe that is beyond repair, so much so I was surprised to find it still in place. It has been almost five years since I visited it. At first, as I drove slowly along Hollywood Drive, I thought it gone, but then it appeared through a clearing in the trees, a little worse for wear but as dreamlike as ever.

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And, elsewhere, if you look closely there are still palaces to be found, here and there.

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Magic Kingdom

After the rows of houses is a wild, overgrown lot. At the corner, where Hollywood Drive turns a sharp right is a section of pale blue fence. The fence is a pattern of square and hexagonal bricks, and along the top is spraypainted in neat black letters:

                         HAUNTED FUNPARK DEMONS GHOSTS

Then the fence crumbles into rubble, with only an S and a B visible of the rest of the warning. The fence does little but mark the boundary, as in many places it has collapsed or been pulled down. Beyond the fence is mess of broken furniture and fallen real estate signs with optimistic descriptions – walk to the Georges River, elevated site with good access, vendor wants it sold.

The Magic Kingdom Amusement Park closed a decade ago and the land has been for sale for a long time. The park owners sold what rides they could, leaving the giant slide, a giant concrete shoe, a few buildings, and the ghosts.

The warning on the fence - note the ghost appearing in the photo on the lower left

Sydney’s outer suburbs were once dotted with amusement parks like the African Lion Safari, El Caballo Blanco, Paradise Gardens, Bullen’s Animal World, and the Magic Kingdom. Their tv ads promised adventure, fun and magic, wrapped up in catchy jingles: the early 80s ad for the African Lion Safari culminates in the strange refrain, “it’s scary but nobody cares”. The ad for the Magic Kingdom was soundtracked by the song “Magic” by Pilot, with its ascending refrain: “Oh oh oh it’s magic” evoking the transcendence promised to visitors. The idea of these magical, extraordinary places embedded somewhere not so far away tantalised children from their suburban living rooms.

Most parks had a gimmick: concrete dinosaurs; live lions, tigers and bears; colonial re-enactments; Andalusian horses; circuses with Cossack riders; koalas, but the Magic Kingdom had no exotic drawcards, apart from being situated in Lansvale’s version of California. On Hollywood Drive, past the point where the houses stop, is the Magic Kingdom. Then Hollywood Drive turns and continues to a dead end at Chipping Norton Lake, a drowned quarry fed by the Georges River. The end of the Drive was once the entrance to Dizzyland, known for its cheap rides and the hillbilly nights at its Hollywood Country Music Club. Dizzyland had salvaged some of the Luna Park rides after the 1979 ghost train fire, and herds of old carnival horses were stored there.

There is no sign of Dizzyland today, just a neat golf course with figures in white trousers strolling the green. Opposite these well manicured lawns of the Liverpool Golf Club lies the remains of the Magic Kingdom.

Stepping in through one of the holes in the fence and into the Magic Kingdom I feel a sense of trespass, half thrill, half fear. On this side of the fence the grass has grown high and thick, and the gum trees trail curtains of Balloon Vine, baubled with pale green seed capsules. The palm trees and cacti that were the amusement park plantings mix in with the weeds, and burrs cling to my clothes as I stamp through the long grass.

The grass encroaches on it from either side, but the road that leads around the perimeter of the park is still visible. I follow its faded arrows and traffic directions until I reach the rusty scaffolding of the giant slide. A desire path of flattened grass leads away from the road and down alongside the slide. Viewed from Hollywood Drive, the slide sticks out from the trees like the rippled yellow tongue of a giant. Close up, the scaffolding that supports it is a lacework of crossbeams, an intricate cat’s cradle. High up in the scaffolding two white cockatoos look down at me silently, with none of these birds’ usual boisterousness. There is a temptation to regard them as spirits.

In these abandoned places it is easy to imagine oneself to be one of the last humans alive, picking over the remains of a civilisation. Modern ruins are the delight of urban explorers, who enjoy the sense of finding value in what others have discarded. Abandoned theme parks are particularly resonant places. Empty houses are still domestic, even when they are in ruins. Amusements parks were dreamlike from their conception, and in their abandonment they provide a different kind of fun. To explore the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is to be inside a metaphor of lost childhood innocence.

Other explorations are less philosophical. At the foot of the slide is a pile of plastic bread delivery trays, used in place of mats to ride down the slide by the teenagers who visit the park after dark. The Magic Kingdom has never ceased to be a playground for some. Their names are spraypainted on the edges of the slide, Jared 4 Mel, Ash, DEBT. For local teenagers the slide is a mystical structure, and to climb to the top of it at night and look out across the dark kingdom below is to feel like its monarch.

Across a stretch of matted grass is a derelict house, its windows dirty and smashed. It watches me with its broken eyes in the way of all destroyed houses, and I look away in case I see movement inside it. Its sinister appearance is somewhat tempered by my knowledge of an unusual happening that occurred there. A young man faked his own kidnapping in that house, to avoid telling his parents he had skipped work to spend time with his girlfriend. He called police emergency saying he was tied up inside the empty house and there they found him, bound and gagged by his own hand. Later, in the hospital, he confessed to have staged it all.

The grass twitches with unknown creatures and the sounds of racing motorbikes buzz like huge insects in the distance. A small waterslide choked with weeds is next to the slide, its sign still intact:

The proprietor accepts no liability whatsoever for any injury to any person or for any injury to any property (Howsoever caused.) That is suffered within this establishment.

The legalese of the sign contrasts with the pale blue fibreglass pool it guards, which looks too shallow to cause injury to anyone. In the years since its closure the park’s demise has been furnished with rumours, the most common the story of a child falling to their death from the giant slide. All amusement parks attract these sacrificial myths, but the Magic Kingdom claimed no lives. Its closure was due to the factors which closed the other Sydney amusement parks: dwindling visitor numbers and the rise of public liability litigation. Sydney’s sole theme park disaster has been the Ghost Train fire at Luna Park, an incident which, over time, has multiplied into a general myth and is attributed to other amusement parks also. The escape of lions and a bear from the African Lion Safari in Warragamba in the mid 90s could have been a disaster had local residents not taken it upon themselves to shoot the escapees. By contrast, the most exotic animal at the Magic Kingdom had been a goat that had the distinction of eating anything it was given.

The desire paths dwindle into mud which bleeds black water with every footstep. It soon becomes impossible to go any further. I turn back to the slide and climb through underneath it to get to the stage on the other side. On the broken boards piled underneath are spraypainted messages, “Mullets 4 Life”, a carefully detailed cartoon penis. The stage is rotted through in places and the Pepsi ads on the backboard have faded. A Ginger Meggs with holes where his eyes once were points to the centre of the backboard, which once said Magic Kingdom in fairytale gothic script. The “Magic” board has disappeared, leaving fragments: Proudly Presents…Kingdom’s…Entertainer. I climb up onto the stage as kids receiving prizes and teenagers, working their first job dressed as Batman and Robin for the superhero show, once must have. The wood feels spongy underfoot and I follow the beams as I walk across it, looking out over my audience of weeds.

The stage is small and I feel the confused sense of scale that one experiences returning to childhood houses and playgrounds. The Magic Kingdom in its heyday can only be imagined as it would appear in old photographs, always a little faded and paltry. These memories are only guesses, as I never went to the park when it was open. All I know of it is contained in this ruin, and the myths that circulate about it, which are mostly to do with the ghosts that inhabit it after dark, and the bad luck that will stick to you if you dare to explore it.

Of all of them, my favourite is the legend that it is impossible to approach the giant shoe and kick it. The shoe is the other major ruin, apart from the slide and a few rotting amenities buildings. I turn back along the path to try and make my way towards the shoe. As I do, among the trees I spot a small building with the tiles stripped off the roof. It might have once been a ticket office; a sign is still visible. HAVE YOU, it asks, before a list of suggestions about booking your birthday or Christmas party. Over the list, the words HAD SEX have been spraypainted, underlined ten times. Like the other graffiti in the park, it is strangely polite, almost innocent.

Beside the few scrawls of graffiti, an occasional beer bottle or faded Fanta can, and the trampled down desire paths there are few signs of anyone having been here. The Magic Kingdom is spooky mostly due to its emptiness.

The shoe, a concrete boot with fading red and yellow paint, is on an island in the middle of the lake at the centre of the Kingdom. The lake had been a major feature of the park, traversed by rented paddle boats and rowboats. Now the closer I move towards the lake the marshier the ground, until it is impossibly swampy.  The lake has leaked into the surrounding earth so under the grass is the same glistening layer of  black mud that stopped me before. I can only observe the shoe from a distance, derelict and inaccessible, unkickable. On the side of the tall, stocky boot are the fading painted figures of Mother Hubbard and her many children, and a cat dreaming the first verse of the nursery rhyme in a thought bubble.

The suburb of Lansvale is a hook of land in between Prospect Creek and Chipping Norton Lake, and much of it was once swampland, the Magic Kingdom included. The swamp is the true spirit of the park, it gathers force in wet weather and softens the ground into black mud. The sturdy boot of the magical shoe is a fitting centrepiece for the swampland and the futility of attempts to transform it.   The houses on Knight Street, which back onto one boundary of the Kingdom, are all two storeys high. Residents live on the upper floors, as numerous times the river has broken its banks and floodwaters have swelled, rising to drown the houses’ lower levels. Newspaper articles documenting past floods record the residents’ despair, although some seemed perversely proud of it. “Lansvale is like Texas,” said Mr Stan Leszewicz, whose house was cleaved in two by a tree in a storm in 1990 and the story documented by the Sydney Morning Herald, “We have bigger floods, bigger mosquitoes, bigger everything.”

While Knight St upholds the last frontier of Lansvale civilisation, the Magic Kingdom returns to the wild. Saplings grow through the holes in the rotting stage. A grey heron roosts on Mother Hubbard’s shoe, ducklings swim in a pool atop buckled bitumen. The swamp and its creatures are the inhabitants of the Kingdom now, as it continue to decay.

As I turn back from the shoe I see the flash of a black shape behind some trees ahead of me, and feel a stab of fear. Is it a ghost or someone who lives in the broken house? I move quickly towards one of the gaps in the fence and back to the car. Two more cars are parked in the blocked off side road now, four wheel drives with ads for the Supreme Master Ching Hai on the back and exhortations to “Be Veg Go Green”. A group of people stand near the most recent real estate sign – Great Zoning, Great Block – deep in discussion.

The black shape resolves into a man who looks neither like a ghost nor a denizen of the Kingdom, just a normal man out for a walk. I ask him if he lives nearby and he says that yes, he moved back to the area recently. I point to the DEMONS, GHOSTS warning on the fence but he shakes he head as if it’s nonsense.
“The park closed because it kept flooding,” he says. “And there was a story about a child falling from the slide, and dying,” he adds, as if he feels he has to say it but doesn’t really believe it.

I point to the real estate sign and suggest that maybe the site would become a residential development, as it almost certainly would if it were in the inner suburbs of Sydney.

He laughs and says it isn’t likely. We turn our attention to the rolls of pigeon grey clouds in the north west and I wonder aloud if it is going to rain.

“It’s raining somewhere,” he says. But the rain has yet to reach Lansvale. The sun still glints off the lake inside the Magic Kingdom and illuminates the faded reds of the old electricity boxes that stand at intervals in the nearest corner of the park.

The Be Veg Go Green cars start up and slowly drive away. I say goodbye to the man, who continues his walk up Hollywood Drive. For now it’s quiet, apart from the birds. Occasionally a light plane flies over, on its way out from Bankstown Airport.

I consider the man’s response to my suggestion of a residential development, and realise that my head has been clouded by the narrative of struggle and speculation which surrounds Sydney real estate. The news version of the city casts it as a monster with a ceaseless appetite for land, having expended all which lies within its boundaries. But the suburbs include plenty of wastelands, the further from the centre you go, the more there are.

What was El Caballo Blanco in Catherine Field, near Campbelltown, or the African Lion Safari in Warragamba in the west remain vacant blocks of land, dotted with ruins, promising adventure to those who dare to explore them. Wastelands are sites of failure, but also potential, places to dream in.

Back in the car and on Hollywood Drive, I leave the wild swamplands behind and return to the suburban streets of Lansvale. An elderly man tends his lawn, watched by an immaculately painted concrete kangaroo. A flat green fibro box house is fenced like a compound, its garden decorated with frogs and gnomes. Every yard has at least one such concrete mascot, smaller, domestic versions of the great shoe that lies at the heart of the once Magic Kingdom.

Links:

Bring Back the Kingdom’s Magic in Lansvale

Buy the Magic Kingdom

Videos:

African Lion Safari advertisement from 1981

Abandoned African Lion Safari 

El Caballo Blanco – Abandoned and Forgotten

(Warning: I don’t understand why the need to soundtrack footage of abandoned places with bad music.)