In this direction the Inner West ends at 426 New Canterbury Road, Dulwich Hill. At least, as far as I can tell. At the time of writing.
Since moving to Ashfield (the Canterbury end), I’ve been doing some Baudelaire-style flaneur experiments to try to determine exactly the geographical reach of that nebulous, compromised idea – the ‘inner suburbs’ with which I (most days) feel some affinity – as opposed to the proper car-dependent ‘burbs, which on my bad days I admit can actually confuse and terrify me slightly.
I’m sitting at a table in a cafe that seems to mark the limit of gentrification’s glassy-tendrilled extension out into Sydney’s southwest. I have several pieces of evidence to back up this theory, but the first one is that I’m currently eating a vegan pie. Which I will savour now because I have a hangover.
Wandering slowly back towards town from my singing lesson in Earlwood, I’d stepped through quiet streets gently and weirdly wrought around cliff-faces and sports fields; thick with big double-storeyed not-quite-McMansions garlanded by never-used balconies. Crossing a wooden pedestrian bridge over the Cooks River, I watched three pelicans patiently picking their way through the pools of brackish low-tide water and human detritus that littered the river-bed.
On the other side of the river the houses seemed that bit older, products of an older boom wearing the curves and bunched parallel lines of the Art Deco nineteen-thirties. I accidentally hit Canterbury Road and had to stick with it up the hill past the Hurlstone Park RSL complex, the neon signs advertising shows featuring old Oz-rockers I’d previously presumed long dead; or else shows featuring minor supporting characters from successful children’s entertainment franchises.
I took a right onto New Canterbury, past shops and businesses in various unpredictable quantum states of being neither definitively closed nor visibly open. Many had signs from those not-so distant decades when a last name was an occupation and an occupation a name – Baker, Draper, Mercer, Tailor…
Then a dusty electrical repair shop. Then an upholstery shop stuffed full of cloth, leather, cotton, chair legs… and an upholsterer. Greek community bilingual daycare centres clustered around an Orthodox church of the ‘diocese of Australia’.
But really mostly empty shopfronts, so many that it makes me think this must be the recession that I keep hearing so much about – but these places have probably been empty or close enough since the last recession, the bigger one twenty years ago that I don’t remember.
Around a bend and edging into Dulwich Hill proper, feet beginning to become sore now, and there are the new apartment blocks and coffee shops in frosted glass. These weren’t here even two or three years ago, these things of stainless steel and treated pine and off-white concrete, of newer money and more recent design. It seems portentous that just outside on the footpath next to the cafe where I’m sitting now you can see the top of Centrepoint Tower, or whatever name it wears now, there in the distance in the core of town.
At this edge of things, I can almost feel the real estate prices of the flats and shopfronts just back up the road gathering speed, ratcheting inevitably up through the higher limits of what the current tenants can afford. The young and hip and underemployed have been steadily pushing out here from Newtown for most of the last seven years (or whatever). Perhaps this block is pregnant with the seed of an organic supermarket, or maybe a cupcake shop budding beneath the concrete. And will it be next to or instead of that brothel across the road? And how, asks some sardonic part of my brain, do I feel about all this?
Location, location, genii loci. What happens at these peculiar geographic intersections of growth and decline is not always simple, does not necessarily have some overwhelming moral import that I can jump at. I don’t want to paint it for you as downright and uniformly ominous, because I’d feel dishonest. Something more subtle is going on, not easily described – it’s completely mundane and predictable, but on the right kind of autumnal Saturday arvo it can be entrancing, this dance of commerce and privilege and place. You stare at and through the neighbourhoods like they’re magic-eye puzzles until it’s all just things replacing things, no inkling of the lives being lived. I have my own part in this, cultures and people and places I’ve (yes) displaced. To disown or deny that as part of me makes as much sense as vomiting up the vegan pie and slamming down a Four’n’Twenty instead just so I can say I enjoyed the gristle. Today, for a spell, my hands are unwrung. I feel like it’s enough to want to bear perambulatory witness to the processes at work here, whatever they are.
If I walk around slowly enough, I can hear the decades slowly colliding, sometimes with a soft sigh, sometimes with a sick crunch and splinter.
If I walk around long enough, I can see different parts of the city lovingly devouring each other.
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