Local Travel in Sydney: Been to Chippendale?

It's easy to overlook the reminders of history when they're pinned to the ground.
It’s easy to overlook the reminders of history when they’re pinned to the ground.

SYDNEY’S HISTORY FOLLOWS the development patterns of many of its North American counterparts, especially in the first half of the 20th century.  Initially, the inner ring of the city was home to the working class, close to factories and warehouses.  With the advent of suburbs, these areas naturally followed down the same paths of urban decay.  But fast forward to the present-day and we see a dramatic turnaround in urban renewal – boosted by the presence of two universities.  And in Sydney’s inner suburbs, the future embraces the past in quirky ways.

As most find their amusement on the main road directly into the city, uncannily named ‘Broadway’, most of Chippendale’s history is somewhat pushed aside by the glitter of the main road.  In fact, the name ‘Chippendale’ is hardly mentioned, with ‘Broadway’ becoming somewhat of a synecdoche among locals to refer to the area as a whole.  But while you may find the concoction of trendy and modern on Broadway, the streets behind have much more to offer: most so much lights; yet so much history and culture.

The relics of culture in Chippendale are not visible at face value; many hide behind painted facades or in completely overlooked places.  In fact, take a stroll and you might just find yourself on one marking the spot: and the building you see in front of yourself may not be what it seems.  In this case, I found myself standing among blocks of contemporary walk-up flats, tightly packed together; but embedded into the pavement in front is the mosaic of ‘CHIPPENDALE DISPENSARY, 1871’, the true, original intention of the building.

The sort of people you find here also tell a story:  ‘walk-up, tightly packed’ flats don’t necessarily conjure up images  of the most fortunate or successful types of people.  In fact, only a few blocks from here I visited some people in public housing, telling me stories of their neighbours hitting the skids or struggling with mental illness. The last remnants of the working class, toil-the-soil battlers who once lived in these old traces are now relegated to run down flats, though perhaps sometimes by choice. Yet nowadays, Sydney’s cosmopolitan side follows different criteria, and with three universities within a kilometre radius, a new generation of cash-strapped individuals are making Chippendale home. The difference is that they’re living alternative lifestyles, open to new hobbies and experiences, and attracting a tasteful blend of food and arts, not only in Broadway but on Cleveland Street to the south, where the Seymour Centre attracts up-and-coming avant-garde and contemporary talent in music and performing arts. As friends of mine in university often opt to share flats with friends off campus, refurbished factory buildings tick all their boxes to give them new leases at life: not as working man’s housing or toil but as funky bachelor pads.

And it seems like local planners are preparing for the probability that many of them, becoming established here, won’t go anywhere when they graduate.  With inner city land becoming hot property, many students would stay given the opportunity.  The occasional mother and her pram, though sheltering their newborns from the bustle of Broadway, can be seen strolling the laneways here, now lined with tea to give a more pleasant feel, and one factory has been demolished altogether to give them breathing space – and the playground for the kids to grow.

The Seymour Centre: an injection of the arts - and modernity
The Seymour Centre: an injection of the arts – and modernity

Yet urban renewal of Sydney would not be complete without new mixed use development.  Unfortunately, planners couldn’t accommodate the historic Carlton & United brewery to retain the culture of place for more than 20 stories of Central Park condominiums.  But go check it out nonetheless: they’ve compromised by keeping the factory’s chimney – a centrepiece providing a striking contrast to the ultra modern shopping and dining complex around it; an apt way of enshrining inner west Sydney’s industrial past.