A Blessing Served on a Paper Plate
After the falafel I part ways with Mitch. King Street is a strip of the Princes Highway running southwest from the university to the fork at Newtown train station. At that junction the strip splits to the right down Enmore Road and left towards the retired smokestacks of St. Peters. I feel the tug of my caffeine addiction. I should have had coffee with Mitch back at the take-away. By now, 11pm, there’s nothing open along the street. In fact, there’s hardly anything open anywhere in Sydney. Newtown has lost most of its late night greasy spoons and coffee shops and dodgy curry joints in the process of gentrification. These days it’s all hipster cafés and wine bars and Thai restaurants that close early. After all, it’s a school night, and Newtown is now largely populated by little kids and their upper middle-class parents.
But maybe they haven’t switched off the espresso machine at Cinque.
I walk faster down the nearly-deserted street.
Tonight an old man busks with a ukulele. A harmonica and mic are gaffer-taped to the neck of the uke, and the old man leans over occasionally to wheeze on the harp. The uke is painted the same shade of pink as his jacket. There have always been street buskers along King Street – there’s the funk band that sets up under the Martin Luther King wall, the carny trio (banjo, euphonium, standup bass) with goatees and waistcoats, Julien the German ‘Tux Guy’ who croons Sinatra standards, the bearded bluesman with his Dobro (he’s “like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”), the Aboriginal woman who plays nothing but ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, the skinny red-haired girl with the accordion (“ease the squeeze”), and Bukhu the Mongolian throat singer who bows a horsehead morin khuur. Sometimes Trio Apoplectic or a loose collective from the Con jam in the alcove outside the News Café.
I think about my years living in the Inner West. Most of the food here is still pretty cheap because of the competition between restaurants, and in the poorest months there have always been ways to get by. The Hare Krishnas regularly spoon out hot lentil and chickpea mush near the Hub, a defunct porn cinema. Folks from the swelling ranks of Newtown’s 40-something million-dollar mortgagers, pushing strollers built like little SUVs, are pleased by the boho novelty of free food but too cautious to even think about eating it. I mean, is it safe?
But back when I was a casual agency waiter barely paying the rent on my sharehouse room in the Newtown backstreets, this prasadan was truly a blessing. It comes on a paper plate. You sit on a brick wall as the sun goes down, eat with students and the poor and the homeless, and forever after cheer the Hare Krishnas when they dance by in their orange robes. And on days when you have a few bucks you can walk up the street and buy a broccoli and potato pie. Lunchtime is the best time to eat cheap. King Street still offers enormous and nutritious $6 Thai meals.
Earlier tonight I’d passed the crowded Cinque coffee shop and seen actors in conference, anorak-wearing weirdos, yuppies, tourists from the North Shore. There were patrons of the Dendy Cinema about to see some middlebrow Weinstein-produced junk posing as an arthouse movie or (with a grim sense of cultural duty) the latest state-subsidized eucalyptus-gazing Australian suicide drama. But now the chairs in Cinque are upside-down on the tables and the floors swept clean. The waitresses have turned off the lights. Everybody has gone to bed.
Welcome to Sydney, international city of 4.5 million inhabitants, where you can’t buy a cup of coffee after 11pm.
The Inner West
Zoom out for the bird’s-eye view: the Inner West of Sydney lies southwest of the Central Business District below the Parramatta River, a big body of noxious water that flows into Sydney Harbour. The Inner West is divided into north and south segments by the heavily-trafficked Parramatta Road, which begins near Sydney University on its long journey west. On the north side of Parramatta Road you find the relatively dense residential neighbourhoods of Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt, and Haberfield; further north, poking into the harbour, are the Balmain and Drummoyne peninsulas. On the south side of Parramatta Road, an area well-serviced by rail, you find Camperdown, Newtown, Enmore, Stanmore, Petersham, and Marrickville. I’ve lived on the south side for the last five years.
Parramatta Road remains a wonderfully archaic ribbon of blight, a massively overused traffic artery – or ‘varicose vein’ in the words of a former local mayor – that trickles cars between the increasingly expensive neighbourhoods of the Inner West. Sydney used to go shopping on Parramatta Road, but these days you find the ruins of an obsolete commercial landscape. There are still numerous car dealerships as well as upholsterers, piano tuners, tailors and bridal wear designers, anarchist bookshops, antique furniture warehouses, brothels, commercial kitchen suppliers, secondhand record shops, pizzerias with arched brick windows, and old pubs.
There is the legendary Olympia Milkbar, with its taped-over broken windows, run since the beginning of time by its unwelcoming proprietor. Retro-minded tourists come to see the faded, decades-old ice-cream and chocolate bar advertisements still tacked to the walls. The milkbar is barely illuminated by a single flickering bulb way over in the corner.
But many of the shops along Parramatta Road are bolted shut, gutted, untenanted. Westfield Shopping Centres, the boxed fiefdoms of Australia’s richest man Frank Lowy, squat across sprawling Sydney. These malls stand as an aggressively authoritarian reorganisation of the city’s traditional commercial space under centralized power and total surveillance. An unlikely coalition of leftwing activists and Not-In-My-Back-Yard yuppies have so far prevented the Westfieldization of the Inner West’s commercial landscape in defense of the traditional main street. But whereas business thrives along Newtown’s King Street, Parramatta Road has been more or less abandoned. Countless cars clog the road each day, but few people shop there.
After World War II, the suburbs of the Inner West housed Australian and immigrant working class communities. In some ways the immigrant neighbourhoods retain their identities: Leichhardt is still Little Italy and Petersham is the place to find smoky Portuguese chicken and pastéis de Belém. When the area’s industrial and manufacturing infrastructure was abandoned, the out-of-fashion Inner West became home to students, artists, the gay community, punks, junkies, environmentalists, and revolutionaries. In the ‘70s, Balmain was Sydney’s bohemia. Newtown held the title in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. Now things have changed. There are few inner urban enclaves that have not priced-out the poor.
Australian Property Monitors reports that the median house price in the Inner West has jumped 318 percent since 1993 (from AU$208,000 to $870,000). Across the rest of the city it’s a mere 233 percent rise in those 17 years. Baby-boomers with property have made fortunes, but the next generation has been screwed. Only hard-slogging corporate mules can ever expect to buy a house in this city. Nevertheless, suburban house ownership is still the Great Australian Dream, and a lot of young people have locked themselves into crippling long-term mortgages. The slightest rise in official interest rates causes panic as people move closer to bankruptcy. Interest rates have become one of the central political issues in Australia, vastly more important to most of the population than our participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
There’s a major housing shortage and very low rental vacancy rates across Sydney, particularly in the Inner West. It’s hardly surprising that rents are rising. The upshot? Urban-loving people wanting to work part-time while pursuing their own projects, to study, to participate in the cultural life of the city, find it impossible to stay here. So if not Sydney, where else can people live? Hard choice. According to a Bloomberg report of 5 July 2010, Australia has “six of the ten most unaffordable cities among the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.” And how many big cities do we have? Only Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide have more than 600,000 residents.
After working and writing in Sydney for years, after rent hikes and no sign of relief, I’ve started to wonder about my future here. It’s one thing to work yourself to the ground to survive in an unaffordable place like New York City. After all, it’s New York. But sacrificing everything for Sydney?
The Amphibious Quartet live at Venue 505, Sydney, 23 November 2010 - Photo Credit: Matthew Asprey