In Sydney I’ve only ever lived in the inner-west, but it took me a while to find my way to Newtown. I had short stints in Redfern and Balmain in 1970 before going overseas, returning to Canberra, surviving two years in Victoria and then heading to Sydney. In late 1975 Jean Bedford and I lobbed into Glebe, then just beginning to gentrify.
We stayed a few years, enjoying the ambience, and then got the sea-change itch and went to the Illawarra. After some sturm und drang we were back in the inner-west, though separated, in Annandale. When we reunited it was in Petersham and then Marrickville – almost as if we were circling the target area.
After a spell in Queensland and Byron Bay, more stagnation on the Illawarra coast, we moved as renters to Hordern Street, Newtown, to find that Whitlams front man Tim Freedman owned the house we were renting and also lived next door. It was a street with an almost village-like atmosphere. Neighbours became friends.
That atmosphere was strongly left-leaning, bookish, emotionally collective. This was real inner-city life; we had parking problems, and noisy neighbours; we were robbed, but we took it all on the chin. We liberated council witches’ hats and blocked off the street for a boozy Christmas party.
When an auction was held in the street and the auctioneer described it as ‘one of the best streets in Newtown’, Tim Freedman shouted, ‘The best street.’ It felt like it.
Hordern Street was followed by Watkins Street. Then a rent-forced interlude in Dulwich Hill and a final, we trust, return to Newtown.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s friends like Axel and Allie Clark and David Marr moved to Newtown and we wondered why. The houses were cheap but the area was run down. Shops in King Street were boarded up (and are again, sadly). There was a lot of street crime and the air in those days, before unleaded petrol, was unbreathable. All that changed.
Oxford Street Paddington, stylish, sexually heterogeneous, with a bar and bistro culture, imploded under the impact of its trendiness and high rents. The scene moved to King Street, Newtown – raffish, comparatively rent-friendly and easy to get to and from by rail and bus.
I have my super-hot flat whites in the coffee shops, drink in the pubs and browse in the bookshops. We do take-away at least once a week from a variety of restaurants and eat out occasionally, with the Thai Pathong being currently most highly regarded. But you can also eat cheaply – I’ve had a few enjoyable quiet, bookish lunches when our funds were low with Michael Wilding in the vegetarian Chinese eatery the Green Gourmet.
You could do this in many different places, you may say. Yes. But not in quite the same style. A great advantage to living in Newtown is that friends are eager to visit. The variety of people in King Street on any given night is extraordinary, from the freakish to the most chic. The street is lively from dawn to at least midnight. I remember, when I first arrived, asking in the early evening at a Lebanese place when they closed. The man behind the counter gave me a look John Wayne would give a tenderfoot, ‘We don’t,’ he said.
There is still crime, passion and distress in Newtown. We had a pizza parlour murder quite close to us not long ago, and we hear shrieking girlfriend/boyfriend fights and see drug-induced collapses. But, as we emerge from the Dendy or Better Read Than Dead or the Italian Bowl (where we take our grandsons) into the thick throng and decide whether to go to Kellys or the Coopers for a drink or Gelatomassi if we’re with one of the boys, we are tolerant of the irritations, appreciative of the diverse mix of humanity and cheerful. We’re glad to be here.