by Laura Neill —
“In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave; the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Along New Canterbury Road in Hurlstone Park there is a Federation Bungalow, not unlike others in the suburb. The house is in a state of natural decay; the brick exterior is aged and dirty and tiles have fallen off the roof in patches, giving it the appearance of a half-picked scab. An old taxi is parked at a haphazard angle across the driveway and bedsheets are hung out over a makeshift clothesline strung out between the front gables. It’s a normal suburban scene, except for one thing: the house is clamped between two seven-story concrete developments. Against the starkness of the white concrete, the little house with its cluttered evidence of life looks like a clenched fist, defiant in its decay.
It’s 7:30am on a Thursday morning, and I’m loitering on the street beside the house, acting studiously casual. This house is just the kind of story I’ve been looking for, although technically I haven’t discovered it myself. A man called Boni Febrianda had photographed it, and his image had been selected for an open-air exhibition in Hyde Park. That’s where I’d first seen the house, strung up on steel cable, its unloveliness emphasised in saturated colour. I had no idea it was just a few hundred metres around the corner from my flat.
It’s strange these days, how we meet our neighbours.
I read about properties like these before, cases of tenacious owners turning down bids from property developers out of love or greed, only to have shopping centres, pits or highways built around their homes. They’re known as “holdouts’ in Australia, “nail houses” in China, and ”spikes” in America. The prospect of a story of principle vs capital compelled me both as a writer, and as someone who had spent the past few years bouncing from city to city. I want to know: What is it exactly that makes this place so important?
A simple cold knock would confirm or deny the David and Goliath narrative that’s blossoming in my mind but I’m hesitant to approach, being neither a local nor a journalist with the prestige of a masthead behind me. Maybe these occupants are living in a state of perpetual agitation, their everyday utterances bouncing like squash balls off the concrete walls. Maybe journalists – real ones – have already been knocking. Maybe these people are through with telling their story.
For that reason, I take a more indirect approach, a warmly-worded letter of introduction with my contact details, folded neatly in half and sealed with a pink paperclip. “Not Junk Mail” is hand-printed on the back.
I wait until the street is completely clear of pedestrians before scurrying forward and sliding the letter into the mailbox.
While I await a response, I contact the Hurlstone Park Community Action Group. It doesn’t take a Walkley level of journalistic investigation to find them; on every street there are laminated signs zip-tied to fences, bearing the well-worn “KEEP CALM” slogan finished with the somewhat arrhythmic “AND STAND UP FOR HURLSTONE PARK.”
Within an hour of emailing the group, a woman named Margaret replies. She invites me to her home, a well-manicured Queen Anne Federation house with a tinkling bell on the front gate. If a home is an extension of the self, the front door is the first impression; the handshake. Margaret’s front door is inlaid with stained glass panels and in the centre is a hand-painted blue kingfisher, the symbol of peace, prosperity, and abundance.
I don’t feel very peaceful standing here on her doorstep with my tape recorder, notebook, and an apple sponge cake from the bakery on Marrickville Road. My nerves are jangling.
Margaret welcomes me, and her husband Steven joins us in the kitchen. She serves everybody tea in gold-rimmed cups and saucers, and I sit rigid with politeness, explaining my project. I feel unworthy of all this hospitality.
When I ask about the Hurlstone Park Association, Margaret and Steven launch into a detailed explanation. The Association is one of the many formed along the western corridor in resistance to the Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal project. Their explanation is peppered with activist vocabulary and I struggle to keep up, scribbling words like “DA,” “up-zoning,” and “ICAC enquiry” down in my notebook and hoping their meanings will fall into place with context. I’ve only ever lived in places, never fought for them.
They don’t know anything about the house on New Canterbury Road, but they know the rest of Hurlstone Park like the lines on their own palms. Steven laments the loss of his local pub, Grumpy’s Hotel, a recent victim of the wrecking ball. They talk about the small shopping district on Crinan street and name each individual shop owner – Con the cobbler, Jack the picture-framer, Benny the newsagent, and the new free-range butcher Royalla Meats. They inform me, with a hint of pride, that the previous butcher was the sister of 1990s TV soap star Alex Dimitriades.
“Dimitriades was great,” Steve recalls with a smile, “A real ‘meet the people’ kind of person.”
“And before that, there was that very Greek butcher,” Margaret reminds him.
“I haven’t spoken to the woman in Royalla, actually,” Steve admits.
“She’s nice,” Margaret says, “I think she’s there on Fridays.”
Watching the conversation, I smile and nod. I cannot even remember the face of the last person I bought meat from. Until now, I hadn’t considered it to be important.
After leaving Margaret and Steven’s house that afternoon, I wander down to Crinan Street. The “Hurlstone Park CBD” sign at the top of the street doesn’t fool anybody – the small parade of shops running down the hill is reminiscent of a time before supermarkets and Westfields, when suburbs were their own self-contained community hubs. All the staples are here: the butcher, the baker, post office, and a Friendly Grocer, the kind that looks as though it might still sell red frogs and musk sticks at two for five cents. At the top of the street, there’s a curious Marble Art/Dry Cleaning store with white lion gargoyles snarling in the shop window.
I walk past the shoe repair shop where Con the cobbler is resting behind the counter, smoking a cigarette as he watches the street. It’s a cramped little workshop smelling of old newspaper, leather and grease, with shoe lasts piled high to the ceiling. He greets me with open hands, telling me I’m “as tall as Athena” and proceeds to question me with village-like curiosity. My name’s Laura. Yes, I live here, but I’m not from here. Well actually, I’ve lived in a lot of places. Yes, I’m studying…writing. Yes, sort of like writing books. He asks me about all the cities I’ve lived in, then he draws some black and white photographs from an envelope and shows them to me: a picture of him at sixteen learning his trade, then one with his brother in Greece, then one with his wife. He’s been repairing shoes in Hurlstone Park for fifty years, and later I learn that he’s equally famous for his life advice as for his workmanship. When it’s time to leave, he grinds his cigarette out in a metal cup behind the counter, clasps my hand and presses it to his cheek in a grandfatherly fashion.
“Make a nest for yourself,” he urges me.
It’s a rare, old-world exchange, one that would be impossible in a supermarket or shopping centre kiosk. While the rest of Sydney hurtles forward at highway speed, this little pocket of the city, with its one-kilometre radius, retains an intimacy that has elsewhere been forgotten.
In his novel Cloudstreet, Tim Winton pays respect to such old places stating, “It’s not that old buildings are simply handy prompts and useful artefacts to help us feel connected to those who came before us. Over time, they become ecosystems… and just as a house retains the embedded energy of the wood or the stone from which it’s constructed, it also absorbs and embodies the yearnings of those who live and work and die within its walls.”1
Such stories are in the streets of Hurlstone Park. They present themselves in layers: century-old houses bearing their original name plates, pride flags hanging in windows, a pair of fold-out chairs and abandoned coffee cups on a veranda, a hand-painted letterbox, a pushbike flung down on a lawn.
I turn the corner to New Canterbury Road and approach the site where Grumpy’s Hotel once stood. I peer through a hole in the construction fence to see a crater of churned earth, construction workers in high-vis labouring amongst a mess of debris and raw scaffolding.
For two weeks, I scour real estate websites, local government and State Library archives, looking for something about the holdout house on New Canterbury Road. The house was built in 1910 and sold in 1994; I stop myself one click short of purchasing a copy of the title deed, not wanting to officiate my fascination with the ownership of a legal document.
I read about other holdouts in Sydney, of which there are plenty. In Surrey Hills, an 80-year old single-storey terrace house is wedged between two office blocks. In St Leonards, another home is walled in by six-storey and ten-storey high rise developments. In Lewisham, half of a brown brick semi-detached clings like a limpet to a five-storey apartment tower after the owner of the other half had caved to a developer’s offer of 1.6 million. “You can’t stop progress and you can’t stop people from doing what they want to,” the owner of the remaining half said.2
Nothing is written about the Hurlstone Park holdout, nor the plight of its occupants. I check my email feverishly, but my letter receives no reply.
On the landing page of “Heritage Hurlstone Park’ website is a modest disclaimer by its author, Marie Healy:
“I have lived in Hurlstone Park for more than 12 years. I have no qualifications in the areas of architecture or building.”
Marie, a GP, had been out on a neighbourhood walk one hot day in January 2015, when she noticed a development sign lodged in a freshly-razed block of land. Feeling ashamed at not being able to remember what had been there before, she began walking the streets of the neighbourhood with her bum-bag, water bottle, and camera, photographing and documenting the heritage significance of 45 streets in 1004 photographs.3 The photography alone took four weeks.
I email Marie, and she replies almost immediately with enthusiasm for my project, inviting me to her house. Standing on the doorstep of another glorious Federation home evokes Margaret and Steven’s generous invitation, and I feel a stab of guilt—this time, I didn’t have time to pick up a cake.
Marie welcomes me inside and introduces me proudly to her home, showing me each room, including her daughters’ room and her study with vintage 1920s wallpaper.
“You can set your laptop up there,” she says as she bustles in the kitchen. “Have you eaten? I didn’t think so.”
She gives me some herb bread, a generous wedge of brie, and a bowl of salad with herbs from her garden. As I tuck in like a hungry schoolkid, Marie tells me all about the history of Hurlstone Park in the 1900s, about the subdivisions owned by dairy farmers, land speculators and brickmakers who sourced clay from the Cooks River nearby. She talks about the old steam tram that ran along New Canterbury Road and the shopping district that blossomed alongside with butchers, tobacconists, blacksmiths and, decades later with the European migration, Greek cafés and milk bars.
I mention the holdout house, wondering aloud what the owner might be fighting for.
“It’s just a bit of a dead area up there, you know?” she says.
“We’ve sort of almost given up on New Canterbury Road and we’re just concentrating on the heart of the suburb now.”
The heart of the suburb.
As I leave, I ask Marie about the laminated poster zip-tied to her screen door. It’s a picture of Darryl Kerrigan, a character in the iconic Australian film The Castle which chronicles a family man’s battle against the compulsory acquisition of his home. ‘You Bloody Ripper, Hurlstone Park!’ floats in a thought bubble above his head. She tells me they were designed, printed and distributed by another member of the community.
“We love it here,” she says simply.
An essential part of the human experience is to belong somewhere. The concept of “place attachment,” widely studied in environmental psychology, is defined as “the emotional bond between a person and a place.”4 I’d lived in many cities and grown superficially attached to some of them. But here in this community, this sense of attachment runs deeper. Here, there is a community that leaps up and cheers in the Land and Environment court when Development Applications are overturned, that knows generations of shopkeepers, that can recite zoning laws or discuss the hand-painted tiles on the original shopfronts on the shopping street, that knows the full names of the men who built their houses over a century ago.
That night, I dream that I’m on a dual-carriage steam tram lumbering up New Canterbury Road to Wattle Hill, hugging my laptop and resting my head against the clouded glass window, my skull rattling with the vibrations of the locomotive on the tracks.
My research of the holdout stagnates. The occupants haven’t responded to my letters, so I decide to knock on their door.
Standing on the front doors of strangers isn’t getting any easier, despite my experience. While I wait the eternity that stretches between the first knock and the sound of footsteps approaching, I try to memorize the detail around me: the pansies overflowing from hanging baskets, the succulents and staked tomatoes in terracotta pots that line the path leading to the front door, the green Coles bag peeking between the curtains in the front window. Then the bolt clicks. This is it. Finally. This is my story.
The door swings open. A man greets me. Slight and sandy haired, he looks no older than twenty-five. His name is Zac.
“Um, do you live here? I mean, is this your house?” I stammer awkwardly.
Zac smiles apologetically, explaining that he’s only the tenant, he’s been living in the house for a little over a year, and his landlord doesn’t speak English. I smile through my disappointment as the facts fall like dominoes.
Zac agrees to help anyway, however he can.
“Oh look, my hanging baskets!”
Zac and I sit together in the courtyard of a café on New Canterbury Road. He is holding a picture of his house, strung up in Hyde Park – the picture I’ve carried folded up in my notebook for weeks. He has no idea about the exhibition.
Zac isn’t a local either. When he’d found the house, he was single and needed a place to store his burgeoning collection of art supplies. More importantly it was cheap – perhaps due to its position; the buildings on either side keep the place in shadow after 10 a.m. and the wind tunnel caused by the proximity of the high wall often blasts his washing clear off the clothes line out the back.
“I felt sorry for it, this dwarfed little thing,” he says. “It feels a bit warmer now, but when I first moved in, there was rubble out the front, a burned mattress. Out the back was the [junk] of the family who lived there before me. Boxes of VHS tapes and crystal ashtrays, magazines. A rubbish tip behind the garage. Someone’s life just got dumped there and forgotten about.”
He’d had fun with curious passers-by, admitting to sticking a Home Alone-style cardboard cut-out in the window. “It was an art piece of mine, a pastiche of Victoria Beckham as a sinister nun. She was backlit, staring out the window. People would jump as they walked past.”
This was no David and Goliath story, no tenacious tale of belonging. On the contrary, the concrete walls that surrounded him had severed him from the neighbourhood. His house wore giant blinkers that blocked the community from his periphery.
On the walk home, Zac stops at the vacant block beside the sewing machine repair shop and points out something half-hidden in the overgrown grass and dandelions—the remains of a concrete step and a patch of terracotta and blue hexagonal tiles. In another time, there must’ve been a shop here; I’d noticed the same tile designs on the entrances to the shops on Crinan Street.
With the thrill of discovering another fragment of history, I’m overcome with an urge to tell Zac everything—about his street, about the tram to Wattle Hill that once lugged past his house, the ghost-signs and derelict Greek milk bars further up. I want to tell him about Margaret and Steven’s kitchen table, about Marie pounding the streets with her bum-bag and camera, about Con’s advice. I want to describe the entire village, right down to the Federation tile rises and the kingfishers on front doors. Most of all, I want him to know that his house initiated all of it, and that I’d thought he was someone else entirely.
But there isn’t time for that now.
Instead, I point across the road to my apartment. From here, my balcony is visible, complete with the row of ant-sized black pot plants perched on the edge.
“Look,” I say, “we’re neighbours!”
“Oh, natural light!” he laments with a laugh. And with a wave, he turns to walk home.
1Winton, Tim. Cloudstreet.Pan Macmillan, 1991
2Duke, Jennifer. “Five-storey tower springs up next to adjoining semi in Lewisham.” Domain, https://www.domain.com.au/news/fivestorey-tower-springs-up-next-to-adjoining-semi-in-lewisham-20161024-gs97su/
3Healy, Marie. “Hurlstone Park Heritage Study and Pictorial Survey”. Heritage Hurlstone Park, http://www.heritagehurlstonepark.org
4Hashemnezhad, Hashem, Meidari, Ali Akbar and Hoseini, Parisa Mohammad “Sense of Place and Place Attachment (A Comparative Study)” The International Journal of Architecture and Urban Development, vol. 3, no. 1, Winter 2013