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Excavating St Peters

What stories do the places we live, write and work in tell? This is the first essay in Writing NSW, a major Sydney Review of Books series devoted to place. We’ve asked seventeen writers to reflect on the shifting relationships between culture and place. The essays we will publish over the coming months are rooted in the geography, culture and social life of NSW; together, they explore new formal frontiers for the essay and map a diverse set of physical and imaginary places.

Featuring: Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Vanessa Berry, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Anwen Crawford, Peter Doyle, Tom Lee, Anthony Macris, Peter Minter, Mark Mordue, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Matt Thompson, Ellen Van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, Ed Wright, and Fiona Wright. We’re grateful to Arts NSW for funding this project.

Join the essayists on 12 November for a free day of discussion on writing and place at the Bankstown Arts Centre. Details here

Down past the entrance to the Hungry Jacks a giant set of Olympic rings, tall and wide as a house, leans up against a concrete wall.  When the Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000 these rings garlanded Martin Place. Now they mark the entrance to a salvage yard, backgrounded by a wall of shipping containers piled up like Lego bricks. Traffic provides a soundtrack, truck brakes gasping and sighing, planes roaring low overhead, coming in to land.

Olympic Rings, Metropolitan Demolitions, St Peters.

1. Olympic Rings, Metropolitan Demolitions, St Peters. Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Vanessa Berry.

This is a typical St Peters scene: unlovely, surreal, resistant to investigation. St Peters is an in-between place at the edge of Sydney city. The suburb is divided in half by the Princes Highway, a north-south thoroughfare of trucks and traffic. Narrow streets of low, brick houses are to one side of the highway. The shipping container yard and a stretch of wasteland is on the other, extending down towards the Alexandra Canal and the outskirts of the airport.

St Peters is a recent invention. For thousands of years, like much of what is now known as Sydney, this area was forest. Colossal turpentine and ironbark trees made up the canopy and the forest sloped down to marshland and a winding saltwater creek. The Gadigal, whose country is this place, walked the track that ran across the top of the ridge and hunted kangaroo in the forest. Then the land was invaded by the British, who stripped its trees and turned the earth inside out. The rich clay soil that once nourished the forest was found to be good material for brickmaking. From the 1830s brickworks multiplied, hollowing out the land with deep excavations. As the city climbed upwards and radiated outwards, its buildings took shape from bricks made of St Peters earth.

The brickworks have long closed, as have the rubbish dumps they went on to become, leaving a gouged, interrupted landscape. Peer through a gap in the corrugated iron hoarding along the Princes Highway and the ground drops sharply away into a bald, scraped pit, empty but for pampas grass and stray scraps of metal. There’s little to see in this state of temporary abandonment, but much to sense: the violence exerted over this scarred land, the forces of industry and waste that have shaped its recent history.

Over my years of writing about overlooked and forgotten places on the blog Mirror Sydney, I have become ever more aware of the radical potential of taking notice. Much of what makes up the city, and especially the suburbs, isn’t intended for close examination. Highway landscapes slide by the car windows, warehouses, petrol stations, and fast food restaurants on repeat. Yet there are always disruptions to order, details that hook, places that lodge in thought and imagination. Scrutinising these places and following their stories describes a different kind of city. This is a Sydney of margins and edges, of criss-crossing identities, a city of atmospheres and ambiences.

I follow Campbell Road, which runs between Sydney Park and the boundary of the former rubbish dump. It is narrow and the rows of houses on either side line it precariously. Most of them are obviously empty. Wires hang down from the roofs where the electricity has been disconnected. They are recently vacated, their gardens still neat, rooms settling into darkness and stillness. From one the bleat of an expiring smoke alarm sounds out in a forlorn Morse code. The same flyer sags out of each letterbox, displaying the acid blue of the WestConnex logo, advising the now-absent residents of the commencement of surveying, drilling and other geotechnical investigations.

Campbell Road Terrace Houses, St Peters.

2. Campbell Road Terrace Houses, St Peters.

WestConnex is a monster awakening across the suburbs of inner Sydney. The road construction project, described as the largest in the southern hemisphere, has been stamped over St Peters. The projects plans to convert much of the eastern half of the suburb into a motorway interchange, a coil of overpasses and feeder roads. In the promotional animated fly-through the wastelands are gone, replaced by grey roads which twist above patches of green parkland. The maps tell a different story, with thick blue lines carving through suburban streets. Further west in Haberfield and Concord these blue lines translate to stretches of cleared land with the remains of demolished houses behind banners proclaiming ‘Returning Streets to Haberfield Locals’.

The state government is blunt about the need for the new roads and the sacrifices required to fix Sydney’s traffic problems. It is not the first of such proposals. In the 1970s the North Western expressway plan had promised a similar solution, involving mass demolitions across inner city suburbs from Pyrmont to Leichhardt. As a child I knew of it through the dotted lines slicing  familiar streets in the street directory. These lines exerted a fascination upon me. I’d open the directory to follow the lines of the ominous ghost road, etched across the city by a powerful pen. By then these dotted lines were all that was left of the plans, which had been abandoned due to widespread protests and a Green Ban imposed by the Builder’s Labourers Federation. With such past successes in mind, forty years on residents are fighting anew.

Among the voices of protest against WestConnex is that of Nadia Wheatley. Her 1988 book My Place, now a classic of Australian children’s literature, was based on the very landscape of St Peters now threatened by the interchange. Stepping back in time in ten year intervals My Place introduces for each decade a child who lived in the same area of land between the highway and the canal. The story begins with ten-year-old Laura who lives in a terrace-house after moving here from Bourke with her family, and ends in 1788 with Barangaroo, a girl who lives in a seasonal camp alongside the creek, close to the good fishing in the river and the bay.

My Place doesn’t identify its location as St Peters but it is instantly recognisable in the hand-drawn maps that form part of each child’s story. There is the railway station in the corner like a monogram on a handkerchief and beside it the brickworks chimneys. The canal forms the lower boundary. Every decade has a tall fig tree for the character to climb and look out over the topography of home. As the decades recede the lines on the maps simplify and the borders soften. Grids dissolve, canal becomes creek, streets return to tracks.

In speaking out against WestConnex Wheatley revealed Campbell Road as the archetypal neighbourhood for the setting of My Place. It is at first sight an unlikely place for literary inspiration, especially the eastern stretch with its former rubbish tip, truck traffic, and clinging rows of terrace houses. But writers are often drawn to such anti-monumental places, the sites of stories less often told. These houses on the edge of a hostile landscape have a striking presence, making you consider who might live here and how it might be to have this place as home.

These are the kinds of houses that wear their stories in details, in window decorations, bikes chained to fences and jade plants growing in pots on cramped balconies. ‘Our house,’ says Laura, the 1988 child in My Place, ‘is the one with the flag in the window. Tony says it shows we’re on Aboriginal land.’ Now at the end of the row is a painted banner, a parting gift from the last residents: ‘Our Homes are Being Stolen by Baird and his WestConnex Thugs. Will yours be next?’

Campbell Road, St Peters.

3. Campbell Road, St Peters.

Live with a place for long enough and your personal mythology becomes woven into it, and it was so for me and these Campbell Road houses. Twenty years ago, in the lot beside the entrance to the tip, stood a lone wooden house. Two storeys, peeling white paint, half-hidden behind trees. It was separated from the terraces further up the street by a yard of stacked-up metal barrels, their bright colours faded with rust and grime.

The memory has been layered over with so many retellings I’m no longer certain which parts are true. Vic and I walk past Crystal Real Estate one night — a real estate agency we favour for its incongruous name and bottom-of-the-market rentals — and notice the house advertised for lease in the window. ‘You know the one,’ I say, ‘on Campbell Road, the tip house’. We are fired up by the potential of moving our household to the edge of the world. Back at home we talk about it all weekend, so much so that this becomes our destiny. We will fly a pirate flag from the roof and make as much noise as we want. But when we call up to enquire it is off the market, already let.

After this episode the tip house was charged with additional meaning. An alternate version of my life was going on in there. If I looked hard enough I might catch sight of myself through the window, playing the drums or sewing a quilt or doing something else beyond the scope of my usual self. This went on for years; I’d detour down Campbell Road just to check in with my alternate self. Then one day I went by and the house was gone. I stopped to stare at the patch of churned earth as if by looking hard enough it might reappear.

The Campbell Road houses have stickers on their front windows announcing 24-hour monitoring, although there is no other sign of surveillance. This is an introverted stretch of road, deserted of people, only a willy wagtail dancing on a fence post, tail fanned out, movements hyperkinetic. Past the meat pie factory and the mega truck wash I turn into Burrows Road, which runs alongside the Alexandra Canal. The canal was constructed in the 1890s along the path of Sheas Creek, a tributary of the Cooks River. The intention was to create a shipping channel linking Botany Bay with Sydney Harbour, but the canal was never completed. It ends suddenly in Alexandria, behind Sloy’s Tipper Hire and the Swarovski head office, and trickles off as a stormwater channel.

In coastal Sydney, a city shaped by rivers and creeks, water is a connective force, operating outside of an urban sense of time. Even the gloomy waters of the Alexandra Canal, the city’s most polluted waterway, have an elemental presence. In the years before she wrote My Place Nadia Wheatley would walk with her dog along the path of the canal. It led her to peel back the years to its days as a creek, to consider who might have walked its length and contemplated its waters before her.

Alexandra Canal, behind Burrows Road, St Peters.

4. Alexandra Canal, behind Burrows Road, St Peters.

In 1896, when the creek was being widened into a canal, workers discovered the skeleton of a dugong with cuts to the bones, and fragments of stone tools among the sediment. A photo exists of the team from the Australian Museum overseeing the excavations, Victorian gentlemen with bowler hats and pocket watches, a black umbrella spiked into the mud behind them. Thousands of years ago people were hunting dugong here in the warm seas. Their gestures, conserved by these bones, return in this moment of overlapping time.

The canal flows behind warehouses and factories and the Burrows Road Industrial Estate. It is Sunday and the estate — two adjacent 1970s office buildings — is deserted, the roller doors pulled down. A motley row of chairs is on the lawn beside the canal, where the people who work in the smash repairs and technical support systems businesses sit for their lunches and smoke breaks. I go to the canal’s edge and sit there watching the skin of the water ripple with the wind. The water is moving, alive with tiny fish which flip up out of it like silver exclamation marks. This surprises me: I’d regarded the canal as a dead waterway, a kind of moat between the inner west and the inner east, not traversed by craft nor creature. But this isn’t so. As the fish settle back under the surface a cormorant glides down the centre of the canal, irrespective of the waterway’s toxic sediments and industrial pollutants.

Out on Burrows Road again I pass a woman zipped into a puffy jacket, walking a big, plodding brown dog. We cross paths alongside the former premises of Rebecca Taxi Base, where an earthmover is positioned askew across the grid of parking spaces. Scuffing towards each other through the tide of disposable coffee cups and pie wrappers on the footpath, we nod at the moment of passing with the camaraderie that comes from walking in an unlikely place.

I turn into congested Canal Road, where the air is thick with fumes so strong I can taste them. I pull my scarf up over my nose as the diesel exhaust puffs from the trucks accelerating out from the shipping container yard, loaded with cargo. Above me a plane shrieks from the airport, angling up and away as fast as it can go. This confusion of traffic, industry and noise is as much Sydney as any other place within its boundaries, I remind myself as I trudge through it.

Back on the highway the Dynamo Auto Electrician has moved from the corner block. A St Peters icon, Dynamo sat on the edge of Canal Road like an oversized gift box, with domed parapets and a red lightning bolt painted at the apex.

Dynamo Auto Electricians, Princes Highway St Peters, April 2016.

5. Dynamo Auto Electricians, Princes Highway St Peters, April 2016.

When the building was acquired by the government for WestConnex the Markellos family, who operated the Dynamo here for 50 years, had no choice but to move. Soon after they had packed up the racks of engine parts which lined the walls, and taken down the framed photographs of the business through the generations, the building was boarded up. It was painted all-over white, the lightning bolt erased. Then a high fence of grey panels trapped it inside the WestConnex works zone like a fly in a web.

The Dynamo was a local landmark, a shorthand for St Peters and its semi-industrial, edgeland identity. In 1986 it appeared on the front cover of an album by John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong, a band known best for two patriotic, ‘urban and western’ odes to inner west suburbs. “Miracle in Marrickville” describes life among the factories where romance and mystery survives alongside struggle. “King Street” enshrines walking down King Street, a place that to Kennedy is home and “hub of the universe” (a nod to The Hub across from Newtown station, once a vaudeville theatre, but at the time of the song, an adult cinema). On the album cover John Kennedy with his quiff, suit, and black sunglasses poses with the Dynamo in the background, declaring that such everyday places, too, are worthy of celebration.

John Kennedy's Love Gone Wrong, From Woe to Go, Red Eye Records, 1986. Cover photograph: Tom Takacs.

6. John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong, From Woe to Go, Red Eye Records, 1986. Cover photograph: Tom Takacs.

When John Kennedy was being photographed outside the Dynamo in 1986 the Princes Highway was a stretch of car dealerships, motor mechanics and rundown old warehouses, surrounded by an industrial scene of rubbish dumps and gas storage facilities. It could be an eerie, dangerous place, and no time more so than on April Fools’ night in 1990, when a fire at the Boral gas storage plant on Burrows Road produced an immense explosion. A fireball rose 500 metres in the air, lighting up the surrounding area so brightly that it seemed to be daytime. Houses shook, windows rattled, car engines stopped dead in their tracks. Some residents fled, fearing a nuclear attack or a plane crash, describing it to Sydney Morning Herald reporters as ‘like the end of the world’. Others looked on in wonder, lining the Princes Highway and the hills of Sydney Park to watch the fires burn.

Living in St Peters then was to be in close proximity to the industrial edge of the city, the factories that stretched from here east through Alexandria and Rosebery. Residential St Peters is a grid of a dozen streets that run off the highway, tightly pressed rows of small, functional homes that have housed generations of workers from the nearby industries. In the 1990s St Peters also became home to punks and artists who had been priced out of rapidly gentrifying Newtown. St Peters was a tough place to live and the rents were low. After the opening of the third runway there was aircraft noise so intense that in 1995 four blocks of houses directly under the flightpath were demolished to be replaced by a bald park known as Sydenham Green. Added to this was the traffic, the waste dump, and the ominous presence of the ‘2044 boys’ graffiti sprayed on the empty buildings.

Post-Industrial, Holland Street, St Peters.

7. Post-Industrial, Holland Street, St Peters.

St Peters had space in abundance for the kinds of underground cultures nourished by discards and margins. Warehouses became rehearsal studio labyrinths, corridors of closed doors muffling the thumps and squeals from the practice rooms within. The Salvation Army op shop perched above Swamp Road, almost at the edge of the airport, fitted out many a St Peters house with brown velour couches and Corning Ware coffee pots. The 422 bus was commemorated as the archetypal bus route by ‘422’, a late 90s zine that collected stories from and of public transport. Compared to the other of the half dozen bus routes that ran through Newtown, the 422 was the route less taken. There were few passengers left on board by the time the bus reached the four brickworks chimneys that mark the start of the Princes Highway and the entrance to St Peters.

The brickworks closed in 1970 and after this the factory and kilns were left empty. In 1982 the band SPK performed in one of the abandoned buildings, advertising the show on a flyer which quoted from Vox magazine, describing their sound as ‘a barren wasteland of screeches, diseases, and most of all excruciating pain’. On the night of the show the audience entered a post-industrial space of decommissioned machinery. The masked band members swung hatchets and hammers, smashing out rhythms half human, half machine on iron bars and metal drums.

At this time the plans to convert the former brickworks to Sydney Park had just been announced. It was a barren park at first. For almost 30 years the disused brickpits on the site had been used as a municipal rubbish dump. Trees failed to grow, their roots burned by the methane in the soil. As more resilient trees were planted the park slowly came into life. It became a place for picnics and dog walks, and continued as a location for clandestine gatherings and marginal performances. In the 1990s Sydney Park became important in the free party scene with Vibe Tribe dance parties held here, between the four brickworks chimneys at the corner of the park and the green slopes of its artificial hills. These parties grew in size and popularity until 1995, when the ‘Freequency’ party was shut down by riot police.

Smaller events are still held at the park like the monthly Sunday Dub Club, or the annual Punx Picnic, which gathers mohawked, longneck-toting revellers around the former brick kilns. There are not so many differences between the punks’ picnics of twenty years ago and today. In the courtyard below the chimneys musicians and audience merge, people reeling up to the microphones to sing, temporarily part of the band.

Brickworks chimneys, Sydney Park.

8. Brickworks chimneys, Sydney Park.

Sydney Park, with its curved expanses of grass and pockets of trees, is a verdant moonscape, a constructed topography of rises and falls. From the top of the highest hill the park seems caught between the city skyline and Botany Bay to the south, where at night the airport glows with a sulphurous aura. It is a place to look out from as much as to consider what is underfoot. Rumour has it that somewhere in the park is the skeleton of a circus elephant, buried here during the park’s days as a rubbish tip in the 1970s, along with the polystyrene cups, milk bottles and broken toys that filled the city’s trash bags. Versions of the elephant story exist across generations. It was the reverse in the 1950s, with the story circulating that an elephant skeleton had instead been found in the park.

There was a skeleton found in the park, although one much more ancient than a circus elephant. In 1910 a complete labyrinthodont skeleton was unearthed in one of the pits of the Austral Brickworks, and sent to the Natural History Museum in London, where it is still on display. The creature, which resembled a giant salamander, lived in the lagoons here in the Triassic period, 180 million years ago. Excavations often uncovered the fossils of fish and plants from these long-ago lagoons, delicate discoveries amid the harsh work of brickmaking.

In a grove of casuarinas beside the playground in Sydney Park I come across a series of sculptures, boulders patterned with labyrinthodonts. I follow the stepping stones out from here, across fields where people kick balls or fold over in yoga poses, then down through the wetlands, past birthday picnics and dogs happy from running, tongues long and lolling.

Beside the football oval the sports pavilion building has been hung with banners. ‘Save Our City, Save Sydney Park’ and a giant yellow lemon, hung with the legend: ‘Brainless Baird $17 million lemon’. Inside the pavilion it is crowded, with all the seats taken and people standing shoulder to shoulder in the remaining spaces at the edges of the room. On the far wall a long map shows the blue stripes of the WestConnex motorways across the inner east and west. The meeting starts with Uncle Ken Canning acknowledging Gadigal country and calling upon us to ‘respect every aspect of what is left’. WestConnex, he says, comes from the same colonial mentality that invaded this land 228 years ago.

Stop Westconnex rally, Sydney Park, 2016.

9. Stop Westconnex rally, Sydney Park, 2016.

After the rally I leave the pavilion, passing by a little girl spruiking lemons for sale by donation. Lemons have become a symbol for WestConnex protesters, a token of the scheme’s ineffectiveness. ‘Home grown in the inner west’ she tells me as I hand over two dollars. The lemon is small and underripe. I hold it up like a crystal ball, thinking of the back lane orchards of the inner west, the lemon trees that grow over fences for anyone to pick as they walk by.

I walk down to Euston Road, which in the WestConnex plan will become a six-lane highway, carrying 50,000 more cars per day. To achieve this the edge of the park will be sliced off and the paperbark trees that line the road removed. Each of these paperbarks, like all of the trees threatened by WestConnex, has been wrapped in a strip of blue cloth in protest. Across St Peters hundreds of trees wear these blue ribbons, marking their condemnation.

At the corner of the park, the intersection of Euston and Campbell Roads, I stop. The lemon feels heavy in my hands and I set it down as a kind of offering. When it touches the soil I hear a sound like an echo. It opens up into more sound, an industrial noise band playing in an abandoned factory, or the repetitive beat from a secret dance party. The park is different when I look up. The green hills are transparent. Behind them is another scene, of brickpit craters, and then another, of an old growth forest, and another, a lagoon and ferns. Labyrinthodonts cruise the waters, a scene overlaid by tall turpentine trees and kangaroos. A circus elephant walks up from out of one of the pits and lumbers away into the distance. Smoke trails up from the brickworks chimneys. It merges with the clouds that move over and across this complicated landscape, all that has and is taking place here.

 

What stories do the places we live, write and work in tell? This is the first essay in Writing NSW, a major Sydney Review of Books series devoted to place. We’ve asked seventeen writers to reflect on the shifting relationships between culture and place. The essays we will publish over the coming months are rooted in the geography, culture and social life of NSW; together, they explore new formal frontiers for the essay and map a diverse set of physical and imaginary places.

Featuring: Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Vanessa Berry, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Anwen Crawford, Peter Doyle, Tom Lee, Anthony Macris, Peter Minter, Mark Mordue, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Matt Thompson, Ellen Van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, Ed Wright, and Fiona Wright. We’re grateful to Arts NSW for funding this project.

Join the essayists on 12 November for a free day of discussion on writing and place at the Bankstown Arts Centre. Details here

References

“Inferno: Fuel Tanks Explode”, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1990, pp. 1-2.
Ringer, Ron, The Brickmasters 1788-2008 (Dry Press 2008).
St John, Graham (ed.) FreeNRG: Notes from the Edge of the Dance Floor. (Common Ground 2001).
Wheatley, Nadia, My Place, 20th anniversary edition (Walker Books 2008).