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PacificEdge | October 1, 2020

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Same but different

Russ Grayson

IN THE BRIGHT LIGHT of an early afternoon in the summer of 1970 I stood atop that long flight of stone stairs that connects the valley of Woolloomooloo to the ridge of Victoria Street. There I stopped and looked out onto a city that then seemed full of skyscrapers.

A long way up… the stairs from Woolloomooloo to Potts Point have been worn smooth by the passage of generations.

Those days, I lived with an eclectic bunch of people in Cathedral Street, a long, straight thoroughfare connecting the heart of the ‘Loo to the city. Then, the ‘Loo was still the seedy, grey, working class enclave it had always been…a roughhouse, a refuge, a low income depression between the ridge of the CBD and that of Potts Point.

Our crew were social aberrations in this place, middle class refugees from the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs and one or two from the city’s West who had drifted east in search of a new life amid the inner suburbs favored by the youth culture of the time. Did they find it? I think they did but, like all things if this type, what they found was a variable experience.

We didn’t have all that much to do with the ‘Loo or it’s traditional inhabitants, though a few of us established loose connections with people nearby. We were well aware of our social difference but for us that old Victorian era house was a dormitory-come-social-centre from which most of us left for and returned from work to the company of our fellow inhabitants.

Leaving and returning

By 1971 we had left Cathedral Street, drifting away in ones and twos to other parts of the city or to other cities in other states. There, wherever it was that we ended up, we set about creating new lives, some of us as parents, all of us as entrants into adult working lives. Quickly, we drifted apart until years would pass between hearing of what one or the other was up to and where it was that they were up to it. Occasionally, we would connect as we travelled to the cities the others had settled in. These were good reconnectings and were times to renew the friendships of youth that had formed us and that still remain vivid in memory.

It was in the middle if that decade, the 70s, that Charmaine and I made a return visit to Sydney and to that old house in Cathedral Street. Yvonne was with us that day and so was someone else, though who I don’t recall. We had wandered down to the ‘Loo to see what had become of the house, even whether it was still there for the ‘Loo had gone through something of a transformation not so long before.

Sure, there it was, still much the same, the gravel patch below the Eastern Suburbs railway viaduct next door still much as we had left it. Five or six years hadn’t brought much change. We sat on the street front verandah and that unremembered person took photo which I still have…three people in front of an old building from which the wrought iron verandah railing had disappeared during our absence.

The old buildings have been done up since I first walked that steep flight of stone steps from Woolloomooloo to Potts Point. One day, perhaps in 1970, I remember looking down into that same small yard below the arches and watching as a woman – was she old or did it just seem that to me? – hung washing on an old clothes line.

Years pass

Years would pass and even when I returned to Sydney it was seldom that the old house came to mind…usually only when I was in a train traversing above the ‘Loo.

But in more recent years I have had reason to visit the ‘Loo and, out of curiousity, I would diverge to pass by that old building. But whereas other old buildings in the ‘Loo have had a facelift and something of a renewed life, not so that house. Sure, at some time it had received a coat of new, rather reddish and dull paint, and it had been put to new purposes, but steadily over the decades I witnessed it going downhill.

It’s the number of homeless that irks the locals, themselves residents of the social housing that dominates the ‘Loo

And so it went. My work now takes me into the ‘Loo more frequently and that enclave, once a working class roughhouse and refuge for those of lesser means, has become a roughhouse of the down and out. Next to the old house on Cathedral Street that neglected, dusty space was some time ago converted from gravel wasteland to social wasteland through the construction of Tom Uren Place… and has become a homeland to the homeless.

It’s the number of homeless that irks the locals, many of them residents of the social housing that dominates the ‘Loo. They are tired of finding homeless people dossing in their doorways, fighting each other, walking around drugged, those with mental problems screaming their way through the night, the abusive. It’s not that they lack compassion for some of the homeless, they are the first to say that some are decent people, it’s just that they feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. And those with children are concerned for their future too.

What made some locals angry was the story that leaflets had appeared on poles at some outer urban railway stations advising the homeless to go to the ‘Loo. Who was to blame? The Baptists, the story went, because the more homeless clients they had, the greater the grant they received. In these social circumstances, stories like this thrive and spread virally by word of mouth and it becomes difficult to separate urban truth from urban myth.

To walk down Cathedral Street from the city is to traverse a socioeconomic profile visible in the state of the buildings

What is to become of this place, this Woolloomooloo? There has been a minor infusion of middle class people attracted by the ‘Loo’s proximity to the city, however they are not socially dominant nor have they changed the place as they have done elsewhere. Still, their presence is resented by some social housing tenants.

To walk down Cathedral Street from the city is to traverse a socioeconomic profile visible in the state of the buildings. New apartments mix with old apartment buildings made new and all have the gloss of orderliness. There are cafes where people sit and talk and there’s the occasional small business. Trees shelter the footpath. Conspicuously, there are no homeless dossing on the footpath in this stretch of Cathedral Street.

Then, you come to the great social divide. It’s found at the end of the block after Toby’s Estate coffee shop and training centre. Cross Bourke Street and you’re in another part of Cathedral Street, another Wooloomooloo. The buildings have suddenly become tackier, there’s an atmosphere of social decay, and there are the homeless.

The city from Victoria street… so different now, the skyline.

Signs of change

There’s now a community garden in the ‘Loo where locals, mainly those middle class types, grow veges and fruit though some of the less affluent participate, which is surely a good thing. And there was a heroin dealer who used to hide his stash in the sweet potato patch which, when some gardener set about watering, caused him not a little consternation and panic. Like much else about the ‘Loo, he’s disappeared too.

So, some elements of this place change while others do not. Those things might reconfigure over the years but they retain the essential elements that have persisted in this grey, concrete valley between the ridges.

It’s only two or three times since that distant year of 1970 that I have made that climb up that long flight of stone steps from the ‘Loo to Victoria Street… to stand at the top and to turn and look back over the city. Now, of course, it’s a city transformed, a city more cluttered and vertical, a city whose early evening lights sparkle like some minature Milky Way. And some of those old Woolloomooloo buildings I pass might be cleaner than they were back in 1970 and might have a new coat of paint, but stop to look and you see the old below the new facade, thought whether that’s a trick of memory or of actuality I’m not certain.

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