Essay: Stephanie CobonCaitlin Doyle-Markwickon Marrickville

A Temporary History of Marrickville

‘Burn it to the ground. The Haunt’, the text message said.

A demolition party is an act of willful but joyous destruction, an attempt to exercise agency in a process that’s out of your control. The revellers that night were getting to the business of destruction before the developers did.

The party marked the end of one of Marrickville’s seedier warehouses. The building had been bought by a developer to build apartments. When Caitlin went to inspect a room there years ago, she fled in disgust. She had gone because the rooms were cheap. Dirt cheap. But the re-purposed warehouse and its parties had also given life. It was one of the last unregulated patches of Sydney and its inhabitants made the most of this.

Sitting outside another warehouse party in Marrickville around 3am in July 2016, we had our first conversation. We were perched next to a reservoir, in a garden that sloped precipitously towards the grey water, talking about Trump’s election and the eerie orange glow in the sky to our east over Botany. It was here that we established our mutual fascination with deepest, darkest Marrickville. The sprawling, semi-industrial, no-frills Sydney suburb – with its breezeblock walls, fading industrial life, and swampy foundations – borders seven others and is unlike any of them.

Neoliberalism is writ-large in Sydney, with its privately-run infrastructure and protected areas increasingly laid bare for development. It is a city where bus lines are quietly privatised and train breakdowns throw the whole city into chaos until overworked transport staff find a solution.

The zoning inversion that’s been happening in Sydney over the past fifty years – the old industrial centre of the city becoming sought-after residential land, heavy industry moving to the fringes – is now complete. Most of the tiny multi-million dollar homes in Surry Hills were once flea-infested workers’ terraces, immortalised in Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. Heavy industry has left the inner city now, but the residential centre, and the gentrification that comes with it, continues to expand. Marrickville sits right at the frontier of this expansion.

In 1935, Mayor Henry Morton boasted that everything you could want was made in Marrickville: chocolate, guitars, fishing lines, saucepans, shoes, radios, machinery, margarine, bathtubs, and boots. Most of this manufacturing disappeared in the 1970s, and much of the light industry that was left began to move to cheaper suburbs, leaving behind empty commercial buildings. After Sydney house prices and rents skyrocketed in the 1990s and early 2000s and never came back down, Marrickville’s large, empty warehouses became an attractive alternative to sharehousing – especially for artists in need of space. The warehouses sat like empty dioramas, ready to be filled in with as many or as few walls as needed, in whatever arrangement suited the needs of their motley residents.

The interiors of these otherwise unremarkable buildings resemble storybook pictures: cubbies tucked into nooks, loft beds with ladders and staircases, rooms filled with objets d’art and op shop detritus, salvaged paintings hanging alongside genuine masterpieces painted by their residents. These were the kind of rooms we all would have built as children if we’d had more say in the renovation plans.

Most of these ‘warehomes’ were set up as impermanent dwellings, their ever-shifting internal structures reflecting the impermanence and instability of their inhabitants’ lives. But over time many of these dwellings have become more established, more homelike, less derelict. Pot plants and vegetable gardens are cultivated, insulation added, rainbow stuck-together walls painted in muted, respectable colours. An enormous amount of effort and heart goes into making these homes comfortable. But they will never be stable. Any of their inhabitants could, legally, be ejected at any moment.

The low-flying planes over Marrickville, a nuisance to developers, have become an unofficial symbol of the suburb. In some buildings it sounds as though the passing planes might land on the roof. Just when you think it’s going to fade, it goes up a few decibels. No conversation can continue in these moments. This is what is known as a ‘Marrickville Pause’.

Last Christmas, the residents of one warehouse converted the building into an imitation airport for a party. There was a metal detector made of cardboard and the DJ table was a cockpit. One person came dressed as a suitcase, others as sniffer dogs, tinfoil planes, and rich hippy backpackers. When the flight curfew ended with the party at 6am, the revellers sat on the roof, bedraggled and happy, to watch the real planes fly in.

That same building was home to a toddler for his first two years. His favourite game was to stand on the bench next to the toaster and watch the lights of the planes emerge in the distance. He would wave at the steel underbellies as they went over and then wait for the next plane to appear, over and over.

The eclectic warehouses of Marrickville and their ‘bohemian’ inhabitants have not escaped the attention of the real estate agents. An article in Domain on 4 May, 2018, referenced our friends’ studios:

Every Saturday morning, a small group of artists meet in a former mousetrap factory in Marrickville for life drawing sessions.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, there’s a warehouse where people can use metal, ceramic and other equipment (Makerspace &company), artist-run community spaces (Join the Dots), a collective of self-publishers (The Rizzeria) and a growing band of galleries and studios.

Marrickville’s artists have become a selling point in the property market. Except you don’t actually have to go to the life drawing classes in the old mousetrap factory, it’s enough to just know that they are there, close to your property-to-be. The article doesn’t mention that these places are threatened by impending developments, either directly, when the buildings are bought up and flattened, or indirectly, when rents go up or the surroundings are swallowed up by construction zones.

For years, the Inner West Council has been courting proposals for ‘precincts’ around Marrickville. The blueprints reveal that most of these precincts will plough through homes and studios. In August 2019, a $48 million ‘Creative Precinct’ was approved around the corner from Caitlin’s home, on the site of a furniture warehouse that mysteriously burned down in 2017. It will purportedly accommodate 460 creatives, designers and start-ups. Who these spaces will be available to, and for how much rent, is still unclear. The ‘artist’s impression’ produced for the developer shows little digital people, all young and mostly blonde, relaxing in an open area in the soft light of dusk. Projected on the side of one of the buildings is a ballroom dance scene from a vintage film.

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes… A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.

– Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

In 2014, Google filmed an advertisement in one of Marrickville’s warehouses, paying its inhabitants a couple of grand for the trouble. The producers replaced the existing furniture with their own very similar, but newer, more expensive furniture. The ad depicts a dinner party under fairy lights, and featured actors that looked eerily like the real residents, as if Google had simulated their clothing and haircuts.

Two years later, over a real-life dinner in the same warehouse one night, we reflected on the artist’s role in gentrification. One resident compared it to a technique in permaculture called the ‘chicken tractor’, where chickens – artists – are brought in to till the fields before they are cultivated (a theory attested to in Samuel Stein’s ‘Capital City’, where he shows how American city councils deliberatey brought low-income artists into areas they planned to develop, displacing long-term, mostly working class communities to make way for those with more money and finer tastes). Another floated the artist-as-suburban-coloniser theory, suggesting that the individual artist is uniquely responsible for gentrification, especially the few who are able to cash in on the trends, turning artistic manifestos into real estate copy.

We’d all seen the emails from developers asking artists to exhibit in their new commercial spaces and known people to make a living by prettifying some of the more offensive developments in Marrickville. We all squirmed as someone read out a desperately verbose advertisement for a nearby boutique market offering ‘locally foraged mocktails and hors-d’oeuvres … crafted by artisans and makers’, and the ‘fusion of bespoke artisanal wares and an artist-run warehouse space heavy on the grit’. The advertisement’s repeated and strained guaruntees of ‘authenticity’ seemed promise the opposite. Buried within it was an offer to do what the market does best: sell things as stand-ins for experiences.

Gentrification feels like the large-scale expression of the commodification of seemingly every aspect of our lives. The geographical expansion of gentrification demonstrates the way the market swallows things up – pleasure, joy, art movements – only to sell them back to you as uncanny imitations of themselves. Post-industrial Marrickville parcelled into ‘small batch eco-luxe goods’.

The precinct, in turn, is a concentrated form of this, one particular to late capitalism; a simulacrum of urban life, a profit-oriented attempt to recreate what has developed organically in a place over generations in one fell swoop. Instead, precincts often end up feeling like the inside of an enormous display home, and inevitably come to be dominated by corporate interests and symbols (sometimes disguised as bespoke products) leaving little room for the vagaries that make a place unique.

No one person can be held responsible for gentrification, even artists trying to make a way for themselves in a wildly expensive city. But the commercial imitation of art and #lifestyles has a feedback effect. It makes the creation of art, of living your life, feel inauthentic and phoney in itself, reaching deep into our lives and experiences to make them feel like a pastiche. Of course, we continue to create – to write, paint, build, perform – because there is meaning to be found in creation that is so often denied to us elsewhere. But we do so with an occasional, creeping sense of inauthenticity – even guilt that we may be the unwitting handmaidens of our suburb’s gentrification.

There’s a sense of realness within Marrickville.’

On the corner of Marrickville Road there’s a real estate agency set up to look like a café. The office, owned by property giant Mirvac, is filled with local art, plants, and comfy booths where real estate agents sit and chat over artisanal coffee. Only the scale model of a new apartment building in the centre of the room gives the game away.

The model is the same basic shape as every apartment building that has sprung up around Sydney in the last decade, in shades of white and grey, with the occasional daring splash of orange. Only, this model doesn’t feature the multi-lane roads that often run right in front of the tiny, spacially-efficient balconies. Nor does it feature the crane that toppled into a similar building across the river in Wolli Creek in 2017, or the severe leakages and cracks that have appeared in many of these new buildings in recent months, their million-dollar repair costs borne by their residents.

On the glass wall on the side of the real estate agency were the words: New Authentic Living.

Further down the road is the celebrated new Marrickville Library, with 85, 000 books, a café and community hub. The site, formerly home to the Marrickville Hospital, was purchased by the council in 1995, only to lie empty for twenty years while the council struggled to find the money to develop it. Local library costs were once jointly funded by state and local governments, but by 2014 NSW councils bore the responsibility of covering around 93 per cent of the costs. After going to tender in 2015, the $40 million project was funded by Mirvac in exchange for the rights to build the two apartment buildings that tower over it, containing 225 apartments, of which just 9 are designated for affordable housing.

After the name ‘Mirvacville’ was roundly rejected by locals, the company called the private development ‘Marrick and Co.’

“Community” feels wooden, as something out of a grant application’ – Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic.

An online search for Marrickville will bring up a series of websites describing the suburb as a cultural ‘melting pot’. The term has become a favourite for developers hoping to present diversity as a saleable aesthetic form, in which people and their lives become ingredients in a spicy cultural mixture that can be bought at $25 a serve or $30,000-per-square-metre.

As always, there is a more complex history behind the glib phrase. Marrickville was once known as the ‘Athens of the West’ after thousands of Greek migrants came here after World War II, many of them to work in the factories that emerged during the boom. Others set up small businesses like the Lamia Super Deli in Marrickville Road. Initially, real estate agents didn’t like to sell shops to Southern Europeans, so one man, Giannis Cordatos, gave himself the French-sounding surname ‘Revel’ in order to buy his milk bar on Marrickville Road. Many Marrickville houses, like the one Steph lives in, retain the distinctly Mediterranean features and renovations of the 1970s when this group of migrants – who had often arrived with nothing – found themselves with some disposal income for the first time, and set about installing patterned tiles, outdoor pizza ovens, plaster pomegranates, and bursting fig trees.

After the core policies of White Australia were officially overturned in 1975, Vietnamese and Chinese migrants and refugees arrived in higher numbers and settled in the area. But the ideology of White Australia still lingers. In 2006, Marrickville Council passed a motion ‘encouraging’ shops to use English on their signs. A walk down the mainstreet reveals that people have, thankfully, largely resisted such encouragement, and at Bloom’s Chemist you can still order your meds in Vietnamese, Greek, and Chinese.

Calvert Street stretches away from Illawarra Road, with its endless stream of vegetable delivery trucks and phở restaurants, towards Victoria Road. Along its sides are a series of houses that seem to represent most of the different historical and cultural epochs of the suburb.

No. 37 – brown brick semi, sweaty Mt Franklin bottles on lawn meeting garden bed with lettuce, garlic, tomato, zucchini. No. 44 – Federation cottage, pomegranate tree strategically out of reach, Corinthian columns, front porch with patterned orange tiles. No. 50 – faded yellow Spanish cottage with spindly cactus. No. 52 – Victorian Gothic, torii-inspired gate, frangipani tree over grey brick wall.

When Steph moved home from living in Guangzhou, a heaving garden of a city, she searched Marrickville for evidence that China could still be part of her present. She found it on Calvert Street, filled with Daoist symbols and religious oddities. One hot night near the end of Lunar New Year, Steph and her brother, Harry, walked down Calvert to study its particulars: the convex bagua mirrors; the crystal lotus filled with rainwater; the smiling tortoise with coins in their mouth; the woven bamboo.

Other icons appeared to them. Harry pointed out a Holy Mary above a door frame and the St Benedict rosary hanging off her, four crucifixes, a few bleeding sacred hearts, and two Our Lady of Fatima statues. Steph wondered aloud if the inhabitants living behind these statues ever visited Fatima Island in the Cooks River, or if they followed Fatima’s effigy when she was paraded down the Princes Highway by parishioners in 1951, unimaginably far from her home in Portugal.

Just past Calvert Lane was a tiny front yard pond aflame with floating tea light candles. The pair stopped at the pond to gaze at the Green Tara effigy sitting above the resident’s offerings of coconut, yellow and orange chrysanthemum, green bananas, and dragon fruit.

In 1857, Thomas Holt, a wealthy merchant from Yorkshire, built a residence (complete with an imitation Turkish bath house) called The Warren next to the Cooks River on Marrickville’s southern border. At Holt’s society picnics, guests would admire the pleasant, leafy banks of the river from canoes and swim in its cool waters. He had ambitions of turning the river into a major trade route, but his plans were thwarted by its unaccommodating twists and turns. So he packed up and returned to England in resignation. All that is left of the mansion now are two gothic stone pillars standing alone in an overgrown, damp park.

Over the next century, the Cooks River turned to virtual sludge as industries upstream used it as a dumping ground. It had once been a vibrant river system – called Goolay’yari in one Dharug dialect ­– that had sustained people living along its tributaries for thousands of years, from the Kameygal and Bidjigal clans around Kamay/Botany Bay to the Gadigal and Wangal people further upstream.

Like many places around Sydney, the main walking track that led west from Gumbramorra Swamp towards the coast, later became a major arterial road; first called Swamp Road, then Sydenham Road. In 1881 a tramway was laid down over the Eastern part of the swamp as an incentive for development. Developers called the subdivision ‘Tram Vale’. They built 160 double frontages, which were rented out to working class families despite the fact that the estate lacked drainage and basic sewerage facilities. The area emitted a heavy stench and its inhabitants suffered a range of diseases. After days of heavy rain in May 1889, the banks of the Cooks River broke and Tram Vale flooded. Residents had to be rescued from their submerged homes and the area was soon flattened.

Drainage of Gumbramorra began in the 1890s, when it was diverted into a series of drains and channels that run underneath Marrickville. Locals have long found ways of putting the drains to use beyond water management; musicians used to hold concerts in the open sections of the drains where the tunnels created a strange acoustic effect, and the infamous Cave Clan clamber through the drains to enter Sydney’s underground tunnel system.

But no one has ever managed to fully contain the waters here. Occasionally, the Cooks River still bursts its banks and Gumbramorra returns, loosening the soil and making torrents of the gutters. When Mirvac was taking questions about the proposed Carrington Road Precinct, which would include 20 towers up to 150 metres tall, residents asked: how will you stop a flood zone flooding? They haven’t yet solved that riddle.

Hot days in Marrickville are around five degrees warmer than in the coastal suburbs. The heat rises up as you come down the hill from Enmore and descend into the ancient wetlands. In the south-west corner of Addison Road Community Centre there was once a freshwater creek that was a major source of sustenance for the Gadigal people. The ferns, grasses, and rushes around the creek attracted birds and divided the marshes of Marrickville from the ironbark forests to the east.

The Centre continues to be a place for gathering, and for resistance. Gumbramorra Hall is adorned with a mural by Palestinian-Syrian artist and refugee, Mahmoud Salameh, of a refugee boat being greeted by Aboriginal people. The hall is occassionally taken over by the Vogue Ball, where dancers from Sydney’s queer community float, drop, spin, and dip down a runway in front of hundreds of ecstatic spectators. During the Vietnam War, the Addison Road Centre was used as a conscription centre for the army. From 1965 until the end of the war, the anti-war mothers’ group Save Our Sons protested outside the Centre during every intake of soldiers, while ASIO kept an eye on them from across the road.

When the army packed up their bags in 1974, local residents campaigned for the grounds to become a community centre.

This was in the time of the Green Bans, when ordinary people were asserting their right to collectively enjoy the built and natural environment, to have some say over the shape of the city they had helped build. It was common sense that certain places should be in the hands of the community.

Fast forward to the current construction boom and the hope of the Green Bans era has given way to a sense of hopelessness at the possibilities for determining what will happen to our neighbourhoods. We look around and see Marrickville transformed; trees flattened, treasured buildings knocked down. The warehouses-turned-homes scattered throughout the suburb look nondescript from the footpath but have housed countless lives, tragedies, parties, and epiphanies.

For now, the planes and Gumbramorra have kept some of the development at bay, allowing us continue to churn away in the crevices and drains of Marrickville.

We look around our suburb now and wonder what will survive and what will become ruins, or a layer beneath the future city to be cracked open and explored, maybe even inhabited one day by people for whom the new city offers little in the way of stability or fulfilment.

Swamps are mysterious and enveloping, vital, and viscous. They are networks of creeks, mudflats, inlets, all separate but interdependent, neither totally land nor totally water, but places of dynamic transition. Maybe Marrickville, with its tenuous but treasured places and thrown-together parts, is still that swamp, one that continues to rise to the surface in some form, no matter how much stifling matter is poured over the top.

Works Cited

Maggie Richardson, The Sky’s Not The Limit: Talent Is Only The Beginning (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2013)

Chrys Meader, ‘Sydenham’ in Dictionary of Sydney (2008).

Chrys Meader, ‘Tramvale Estate’ in Dictionary of Sydney (2008).

Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (London: Verso, 2019).