Time has a habit of flying around here mysteriously escaping before I manage to grip hold of it. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an entire week has passed since I went to Newtown.
Last Monday, I met up with my friend Stephen at Sydney’s Central Station to catch the train to Newtown and leisurely wander and cafe crawl our way along King Street, past Sydney University and onto the Seymour Centre where we were supposed to be attending a talk by eminent science communicator, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki about stem cell research and the brain. Stem cell research could be something I’ll be relying on down the track with my lung and muscle troubles and my brain isn’t in top notch working order in some ways either. I was born with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain and have what’s known as a shunt managing the pressures and keeping things in working order. So, this lecture provided a great opportunity to find out more. However, in the meantime, it was a great opportunity to catch up with Stephen.
These days it feels like I’ve known Stephen beyond my own eternity. We were part of a group of friends who used to attend St Barnabus Anglican Church Broadway around 1994 before my hydrocephalus was dramatically diagnosed in my mid-20s and St Barnabas (or “Barneys” as it is known) was equally dramically burned down. Both of us thank goodness have both risen from the ashes and rebuilt. However, I wonder whether there was some kind of bad omen with my friends from Barneys, as I have not been the only one been dealt an atypically difficult hand. I’m not sure whether I believe in this from a Biblical, Christian perspective. It’s just pure observation and associating all our troubles to the physical burning down of a much loved and historic Church provides some kind of external visual for our hidden, personal suffering.
Anyway, getting back to Newtown.
Newtown is 4 kilometres South-West of the Sydney CBD and was established as a residential and farming area in the early 19th century. The area took its name from a grocery store opened there by John and Margaret Webster in 1832, who placed a sign atop their store that read “New Town Stores”.
The main street is King Street which winds its way along the spine of a long ridge which rises up near Sydney University in the North and transforms into the Princess Highway in the South. This elevated position gives King Street a imposing appearance and also explains why it’s tributaries (or side-streets) run down hill. As you walk along King Street, it’s easy to understand why its main shopping strip is the longest and most complete commercial precinct of the late Victorian and Federation period in Australia. The architecture really is quite different and a tad ghostly even compared to other areas populated by ancient terraces houses. After all, in this country with just over 200 years of European history, terrace houses assume a misplaced sense of history.
Although I lived in the inner city many moons ago long before marriage and mortgage took me over the Hawkesbury River Bridge and onto the Central Coast, I’ve never lived in Newtown. I lived in Chippendale and Glebe and my last haunt was a converted warehouse just off Broadway. I always knew that lifestyle couldn’t last. However, I never anticipated my catastrophic health problems and how you could literally be blown up and yet somehow still standing with seemingly no visual sign anything’s happened at all. Marriage and kids also brought blessings, change and challenges which were also unexpected and difficult to grapple with. My time in that converted warehouse in many ways were my last hurrah. Well, at least of the person I was before surgery.
So in many ways, while Stephen and I were walking along King Street we were walking along memory lane. The weather wasn’t great. So, I didn’t take my SLR and was photographing with my phone which is deeply unsatisfying. It just doesn’t have the same clarity and I’m sure it’s only a small step up from the Kodak aim and shoot I had as a kid. You know the ones where you shoved a cartridge in the back and dropped the thing off at your local chemist for processing. Humph. These days that all sounds so archaic, and I don’t feel that old even if there are additional lines I choose to ignore in the mirror.
Anyway, given that I was catching up with Stephen, walking down memory lane and didn’t have my SLR, my photos of King Street are hardly representative and I’ll need to go back and explore the place more fully. I guess what I’ve captured is more along the lines of street art, than architecture and there’s also a rather sumptuous photo of something which might be described as a biscuit sandwich although it was called a “birthday cake”. It was exceptionally yum and I’m needing to find a recipe to replicate these at home. Not good for the waistline, but pure indulgence for the soul.
Newtown has changed a lot since I was living in the area from 1988 through to around 1996. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it’s been for the best. The place has been gentrified and the grungy, crumbling edifices along King Street have been spakfillered and restored. Of course, these buildings look clean and beautiful but when you know what went before, there’s that same sense you get when you see an old face without lines…too much character and personality has been removed. I look at these buildings and wonder where they went, although they’re still standing and I know from a popular aesthetic point of view, they look so much better, even if they have been given cosmetic surgery. Yet, that doesn’t deny something’s missing. History is important. It shouldn’t be whitewashed away.
Back in the day, Gould’s Book Arcade wasn’t quite the epicentre of Newtown, but it definitely made a significant contribution to its intellectual, bohemian yet working-class character. Walking and talking, I wasn’t scrutinizing every shopfront we walked past. Yet, there was this awareness that Gould’s could well be missing. Lost. Gone. Obliterated. Along with it, this dejected sense that a wrecking ball had gone through Newtown’s heart and wiped it out. Fortunately, a quick Google search revealed that Gould’s is not dead. Rather, due to rising rents it was forced out of it’s traditional location to 536 King Street on the Southern side of Newtown Station, which meant we missed it. Meanwhile, an interview with Mairi Petersen, the first wife of bookshop founder, the late Bob Gould is enlightening:
“Books have little place in the lives of people moving into Newtown these days…Once Newtown was students and the working class. No more. Now they are paying millions to buy in and when you look at real estate agent photographs of houses for sale there is not a book to be seen.”
I’d be interested to explore the homes beyond these real estate photos to see if that is true. Mind you, a lack of books, doesn’t mean the locals are not reading. Space is these ancient terraces is at a premium and even a Kindle-reject like myself who’ll one day be found buried under piles of books in our place can understand the possible need to make the switch.
By the way, if you saw our house, you’d say that it has a certain Gould’s feel to it, especially after the roof leaked like a sieve last night and we’ve had to shift close to a hundred books and these were just the stacks and not the contents of the shelves.
Anyway, we kept walking passed Sydney University my former stomping ground. Indeed, I was the third generation of my family to study there and belong to the place. Clearly, there’s a lot of history there, but not for today. We couldn’t be late.
We arrived at the Seymour Centre and the place is empty and the theatre still locked up. We were half an hour early to avoid the stampede. However, my antennae have gone up. Something’s wrong. Very wrong and when they tell me nothing is on that night, panic sets in. As person living with hydrocephalus, it’s not uncommon for me to screw up dates and appointments. Turned out we were a month early.
Above: We walked past the contemporary Barneys (where Stephen and I first met) on our way to Central Station Barney’s as we knew it looked more like the 1872 version. This part of Sydney is known as Broadway and the sign in the footpath is a tribute to the sign battle between Rector Rob Forsythe and the publican across the road at the Broadway Hotel, Arthur Elliott.
Above: Street art, Broadway.
While I hate making mistakes and chastised myself for not reading through the email I’d printed out before I left, I knew Stephen and I were meant to catch up. That we both needed to revisit our old stomping grounds. Not just in terms of place, but also the history we share from all those years ago. Given the profound changes in personality which may or may not have come about with the deterioration of the hydrocephalus and subsequent brain surgery, it’s a me who is difficult to resolve, not really knowing if I’ve ever been myself and what that ultimately means. It’s something I need to explore further somewhere beyond that stretch of King Street.
Do you have any memories of King Street Newtown or a similar street which seemingly has a life and character of its own where you live? Or, perhaps you’ve had something life-changing happen to you and grapple with what that means. I’d love to hear from you, although I may not reply promptly as I’m researching and writing a book at present, which is rather time-consuming.
For another take on changing Newtown, you might like to read this from the Sydney Morning Herald: King Street Is Dying
Photo of the current St Barnabas Broadway: By Sardaka (talk) 07:34, 19 March 2014 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31688133
Photo of “I Have A Dream” street art: Hpeterswald [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D