Image courtesy of Dirty Shirlows. Photo credit: James Brown.
Today was the first time in my 18- year career as a creative practitioner, venue owner and arts advocate that I woke up feeling defeated.
I have been a vocal and staunch Sydney supporter my entire career, as others escaped the trials, tribulations and looming house prices of Sydney citing irreconcilable differences, I determinedly, firmly and loudly refused to leave. I was the eternal optimist, you need to be one to work in the arts in Sydney.
I have had a career that has spanned being an actor and being rejected because of how I looked, being one of the few female live music venue owners in town and justifying my place at the table, to being at the helm of the largest independent arts festival in NSW and having to validate my sector’s existence and eligibility continually, yet I never once felt defeated. I never despaired, despite gentrification, archaic planning regulation, over-policing, plummeting venue stock, low incomes, lock out laws, increased commercial rents, increased outgoings, a big end of town mentality, lack of funding, lack of appropriate venues, lack of ‘vibe’ I persisted and did not despair.
I progressed in the hope that things could only get better, that we had seen the worst of times and that we would surely see the best of times. Even when Sydney repeatedly gained a top place in the most expensive cities lists and a place at the bottom of the most liveable cities lists, I believed we could do better. I believed this because I am fortunate to be at the forefront of advocacy for the cultural sector in Sydney. Daily I attend meetings with
Government, sector stakeholders and industry, contributing to what I believe is lasting change and I have seen changes coming. Changes from across the border in Victoria, changes by our colleagues in South Australia, the appreciation of the value of culture in Tasmania and so on and so forth. Over the past five years I have contributed to numerous sector round-tables, government task forces, driven landmark pilot projects while running my two venues, an arts festival and balancing time away from my children, time away from my creative practice never losing faith that change was just around the corner.
Five years ago, sector consultation was initiated by the former Marrickville Council (now Inner West Council) to investigate a new creative hub in an industrial area of Sydenham. A plan was formulated that was designed to achieve Council’s vision for the Sydenham Creative Hub as a vibrant entertainment and employment precinct where live music venues, small bars, restaurants and cafés thrive alongside traditional and creative industries.
This would support established creative businesses, as well as, “retaining the existing IN1 General Industrial zone whilst expanding the range of permissible uses to include restaurants or cafes, small bars and business premises and office premises, but only where the consent authority is satisfied that the business premises and/or office premises will be used for a creative purpose such as media, advertising, fine arts and craft, design, film and television, music, publishing, performing arts, cultural heritage institutions or other related purposes”.
Having been endorsed unanimously by the former Marrickville Council, attracted overwhelmingly positive feedback from community consultation, and in-principle support from NSW Planning and Environment, on 13 February 2018 the Inner West Council of Sydney voted down the proposal for the Sydenham Creative Hub. This proposal, the result of five years of research, sector consultation and development was blocked in the final hour.
You may wonder why I’m taking this defeat so personally. It is not simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, it is unfortunately much graver than that. The ramifications of this decision are already being felt across the creative sector, and will have a lasting and significantly detrimental effect on our future and the cultural landscape of greater Sydney.
The area in question proposed for this creative hub was one of the last appropriate areas of our city to establish a vibrant, supported live music and creative industries precinct. It had:
- Substantial existing arts and cultural character developed organically over time
- Under the flightpath where residential development is restricted by noise levels
- Building stock that is compatible and affordable
- Directly adjacent to a major transport interchange
The timing of this was critical. This precinct is at the gateway to a swathe of new high-density residential developments now on track for the Sydenham to Bankstown corridor. The Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Strategy was identified in the 2016 AEC Group report commissioned by the NSW Government as able to provide 58,000 new high rise residential dwellings for the corridor over the next 20 years. In a very short time there will be well over 100,000 additional new residents living along this corridor in high rise apartments looming over the precinct, and the fabric and identity of the city will be transformed and changed forever.
The only provision for entertainment/cultural infrastructure or night economy referenced in the Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Strategy was… The Sydenham Creative Hub.
The East is moving to the West in Sydney. Creatives who used to reside and work in the eastern suburbs have long been displaced and priced out of the market, seeking solace in the Inner West of Sydney for many decades. They have built the existing vibrant and diverse cultural identity associated with this local government area that is now a completely ingrained part of its appeal and fabric. For many years this local government area in question has promoted itself as a creative, arts focused area. Diverse. Vibrant. Inclusive.
The experience of the Marrickville warehouse venue & gallery Dirty Shirlows 2008-2012 is a case in point as to why so much work was put into the development of the Sydenham Creative Hub policy over the last five years.
Ultimately forced to close, this DIY artists’ run space was in place well before the industrial chicken processing company cited in Council as the case study for local industry needing protection from gentrification, (also posing the question about how we define industry).
DIRTY SHIRLOWS was an award winning, collectively run warehouse venue showcasing and supporting independent music from 2008 -2012. During its 4 ½ year run Shirlows hosted hundreds of events, parties, shows, performances, festivals and community events. They screened films, provided space for music clips and hosted shows week in week out, no matter what.
Because they didn’t have the prohibitive budget needed to legitimise Shirlows as a venue they were ultimately forced to close; their closure however was a driving force behind the conception of the Sydenham Creative Hub, an exploration on how we can safeguard the creative identity of the area.
No other businesses spoke in Council against the Sydenham Creative Hub proposal except for the industrially farmed chicken processing company, the very one who moved into a creatively vibrant and diverse precinct.
Community feedback to the extensive council consultation was overwhelmingly positive. The only residential use under consideration in the rezoning was to allow live work arrangements for specific creative business which is currently not allowed in the area, but this was previously removed to placate those opposing the policy. None of this is now supported by council across the precinct. Anyone wanting short term live-work DIY creative spaces in an area that has had a practice of this for some time under the radar will now have to find other alternatives.
This was a final stand, an opportunity for a progressive local government to acknowledge that our experience of the world as we know it is shifting. An opportunity to demonstrate that they value the cultural identity of their suburbs, their residents and the city. An opportunity to safeguard via a small amendment to the zoning, an area of the inner city for future creative and night time use. So that the people of Sydney and visitors to our Global city had a designated precinct that fostered and promoted arts and culture.
The live music industry of Sydney has no such designated area in our great Global city. Nowhere from which to base themselves, build their sector or heaven forbid make just a little sound. No place to have fun at night without residential development breathing down their necks. They are relegated to the shadows, clinging to the odd piece of land they can for as long as they can afford, often having to operate illegally, before someone closes them down. Despite the substantial contribution to the local economy, thousands of jobs and ancillary industries it supports, or the apparent goodwill publicised acknowledging the benefits a live music culture gives a city we are displaced. When a local government authority supports the unfounded claims for one industry over our industry yet again, I am prompted to ask the burning question that all Sydney artists have ticking in the background:
“Why should we stay?”
I’d like to ask our Government representatives, especially every one of the Councillors who voted against the Sydenham Creative Hub to provide me three reasons why local Sydney artists are better off remaining in their LGA than moving to Wollongong or Melbourne or Adelaide with their contemporary planning regulation that endorses cultural activity, or Brisbane with Fortitude Valley or Hobart with the recent explosion of cultural activity supported and valued whole heartedly by residents and officials alike.
Artists and creatives could unquestionably have a more comfortable, easier and sustainable life in any other major city of this country.
Let’s sit with that statement for a moment.
In ANY other major city of Australia, the creative sectors have better regulation, more affordable housing, greater audience development, collaborative marketing projects, less competitive funding pools, more affordable commercial tenancies, later operating hours, better work/life balance, designated cultural precincts. The list goes on and on and on.
I’d also like the Inner West Councillors to think about the top three things they love most about living in the Inner West as a resident. I would wager a guess that the existing culture of the area, the vibe, the engrained essence of this part of the city is on many of those lists.
We are fortunate to still have an incredible wealth of creatives in our city who thrive in spite of conditions placed upon them. They are a true asset of our city and to truly be a global city we need them. The Sydenham Creative Hub’s intention was to highlight the existing identity of the precinct and empower the natural growth of the precinct through supportive planning. It is time to be proud of the creative minds of our city and foster their growth. Time to safe guard space for the next generations or we will lose them from our city forever.
So, as I sit in my much sought after inner west property and consider selling up, I’ll watch the bulldozers and builders move in and more of my colleagues move out. I’ll sit back and watch the dream of a 24-hour city, that is vibrant, interesting, full of local stories and voices, an inclusive globally recognised city slip further away. I’ll ponder what sale price I might get that will enable me to start fresh in another city as the streets remain empty at night, and I’ll think of the councillors who promoted the cultural uniqueness of my suburb, that added value to my house, as the silence of future generations weighs heavy in the air… and I’ll sit… and I’ll think about the value of my house and I’ll feel defeated.