An Obituary to the heart of South King

Capstone project for UTS Journalism, August-October 2019.

A portrait of a suburb in flux after years of gentrification and a move to recession hits the small businesses of South King, and becomes a struggle to survive on the changing street.

For decades, the south end of King Street has been the bohemian block for Sydney’s artists and outcasts. Too far from the station for the comfort of tourists, and too obscure for even the hippest influencers, South King’s residents have meandered along on a steady diet of fresh pastizzi and left-wing propaganda posters plastered to the windows of now-empty shop fronts.

King Street diverges at the train station moving north to become Enmore road, towards the affluent suburbs of Petersham and Leichardt and to the southern end of King Street, which divides Newtown and Erskineville. Follow South King to its very end, to the Sydney Park Hotel and an old theatre turned into a multi-level gym, and the rumbling of long-haul trucks and bulldozers quickly removes any sense of the romanticised Inner West. Gentrification is well and truly alive on the end of a street known for its eccentricity, where a terrace house will sell for over a million dollars but are residents are regularly disturbed by the sounds of WestConnex works well into the night.

The general consensus is that South King starts past the Townie Pub but for many locals, South King starts past the fading ‘south of the border’ mural, where op shops don’t charge more than $5 and coffee will still cost more than a house deposit – but at least the baristas know you by name. Walk along the southern end and you’ll pass an anarchist poster declaring that if ‘we don’t pay rent, they can’t evict us all!’, right next to a ‘vote greens’ sticker and a fading poster for a long-gone gig at a pub a few hundred meters down the road. Over thirty shopfronts sit unoccupied, adopted by rough sleepers seeking safety in the stoops with their sparse belongings packed neatly in a corner away from prying passers-by and wandering hands

Street Art plastered to the walls of South King. Images by the Author

The sheer volume of businesses with ‘For Lease’ or ‘Auction, Prime Location!’ signs above their shop fronts are impossible to miss. Newtown institution, Pastizzi Café’s warm glow is overshadowed by a hulking board which reads ‘FOR LEASE’ in oversized letters that can be read far before you can spot the Maltese cross adorning their own sign. This doesn’t deter residents from streaming in and out of the café late into the night, with the sounds of chatter and the occasional clatter of cutlery heard down the street, it is a sign of life in a rapidly changing suburb that some have come to regard as dying, including the café’s owners. Gentrification in the Inner West has been an inevitable prospect; it’s close to the city centre and is one of the rare suburbs where homeowners can purchase a property with a garage, garden, and room to fit a growing family. Change always has its casualties, and for the small businesses on the south side of King Street, gentrification brings uncertainty for a future already affected by a stagnating economy. From cafes to cultural hubs, nobody can be sure what the next day will bring, and whether they’ll be back in business or out of pocket when their lease ends.

Nestled into the corner of Alice and King, staff and patrons shout to hear each other over the rumbling sound of planes heading to the Sydney airport runway. Debbie Ross and her husband Lenny sling fresh pastizzi to a steady flow of customers pouring through doors in desperate need of oiling, the same doors that have been open on South King for almost fifteen years. Coins clatter onto the metal utility bench, with a gentle nod when it doesn’t quite add up to the $2.90 needed to pay for the puffed pastry. Nobody is turned away for being a bit short on change. Nestled into the corner of Alice and King, staff and patrons shout to hear each other over the rumbling sound of planes heading to the Sydney airport runway. Debbie Ross and her husband Lenny sling fresh pastizzi to a steady flow of customers pouring through doors in desperate need of oiling, the same doors that have been open on South King for almost fifteen years. Coins clatter onto the metal utility bench, with a gentle nod when it doesn’t quite add up to the $2.90 needed to pay for the puffed pastry. Nobody is turned away for being a bit short on change. 

While out the front of the store business is thriving, in the backyard the mobile cool room is the latest target in a string of dramas for the family-run business, as a visit from the Inner West Council deemed it unsuitable for use.  With fresh ingredients, including meat and fish, needing refrigeration, Debbie’s still unsure what the council wants her to do about it, as their most recent development approval to build a cool room on the premises was rejected.

“The crazy thing is, they tell us that we’ve got to get rid of our mobile cool room, but we can’t build a cool room. What are we supposed to do? The Council came out and they said, ‘you can’t have that,’ and I said, ‘Well, you won’t let me build a cool-room!” The mobile cool room still sits in the backyard, safe, for now, from the ire of council officials.

This is far from the first altercation between the family-run café and the Inner West Council. The past two years have been spent submitting and re-submitting development approvals to expand their premises to seat customers in the open-air courtyard towards the back of the terrace. After the approvals were knocked back due to what a spokesperson for the Inner West Council described as ‘substantially lacking’ reporting of acoustic and accessibility plans, Debbie and Lenny are more than $30,000 out of pocket, trying to make plans to move into a new location, and to a new council district.

A quiet Wednesday afternoon for Parliament on King. Image by the Author

Further south on King Street, Ravi Prasad counts himself as one of the lucky ones. Having purchased his terrace-house-turned-cafe, Parliament on King, eight years ago, Ravi’s avoided the rising rents that come hand-in-hand with a rapidly gentrifying part of Sydney’s Inner West. “Rent’s a big crushing issue,” he said, “It’s very difficult with the passing trade, the levels of passing trade are very low, and the rents here are incredibly high. We’re lucky we don’t have those forces.”

Parliament on King has established a name for itself as a social enterprise over its eight-year tenure, training people on the margins of society in catering and café management. Despite its relative internet fame and local acclaim, Ravi admits that the enterprise isn’t always profitable, “This cafe was never going to be a money maker. It never will be. It’s not the intention to do so. If it breaks even, I’m happy.” Much like Debbie and Lenny, Ravi relies on the loyalty of locals during the week to keep the business afloat, while hoping that the weekend wanderers walk far enough down King Street to find themselves in need of a coffee or pastry, preferably both.

The Inner West Council openly admit that the changes in the social demographic and rent prices are shifting the prospects of small businesses on South King. After meeting with business owners over the past weeks the council found that “there are some traders who are going well – one advised recently that she has been increasing trade by 30% every month. This is balanced by another who took just $60 last Thursday. Council’s Economic Development Unit advises that business levy money needs to be directed to south King Street,” said a representative for council. As for the amount of levy money directed to businesses, there was no clear amount proposed.

Ravi’s experienced the volatility of trading locally firsthand, pointing out towards the street, through the windows in creeping vines, with rainbow pride flags pinned to the window frames to let the sunlight in on the warm Wednesday afternoon. “Today, you just watch, in the time you speak to me you’ll see probably ten people walk past, and that’s it.” He sighs. “You’ve got to sustain a business, and it’s not possible. If you’re selling your coffee for $3.50 and you sell ten coffees, that’s 35 bucks. It’s not possible.” Taking pause, Ravi slowly sips a cup of murky brew in an oversized mug, surely something that must be good for you by the look of it. “Is South King living or dying? I don’t know, but it’s standing on the edge.”

During the twenty-minute conversation with Ravi, only six people passed by.

The South End of King Street has borne the brunt of gentrification in Erskineville and Newtown, divided down the middle of the street into two of Sydney’s largest councils, the City of Sydney on the Erskineville side to the left, and the Inner West Council in Newtown on the right. With commercial rental prices ranging from a bare minimum of $18,000 annually for a premise ‘perfect for a pop-up store’ all the way up to $98,000 annually to lease the south end café, Lou Jack’s, small business owners are being edged out of the property market before they can even begin. Combined with what the Inner West Council has described as a ‘retail recession,’ finding the funding to expand a business or keep one afloat has been a struggle on both sides of the street.

A spokesperson for the Inner West Council acknowledged the struggle that business owners and residents have in the face of gentrification, saying, “There is still a place for small business on south King Street. Newtown has been undergoing gentrification for many, many years. It is a highly sought-after suburb. Thus far, Newtown has managed to retain a blend of eccentricity and quality.”

Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, agreed that King Street “does of course face its own challenges” but believes that with the right support from government and locals, King Street can come back from the brink. “I love King Street. It’s one of our best-known high streets and we’re committed to building on its reputation as a diverse, welcoming and safe community and a centre of buzzing activity both day and night… King Street has plenty going for it – creative businesses, schools and universities just down the road, cafes, bars, cinemas, bookstores, wonderful parks and easy access to the train station – but King Street does of course face its own challenges.  The rise of online shopping has hurt its retailers. The lock-outs have threatened to change the dynamic of Newtown’s nightlife and increased traffic has made it a sometimes unpleasant place to sit or walk. Newtown, as with every other suburb in Sydney, is slowly changing but we’ll continue to do everything we can to support business across the suburb,’” she said.

Long before Newtown was the home of pop up stores and interior design consultancies, Debbie Ross says the south end was nothing. “When we first moved here, fourteen years ago, there was nothing. It was really quiet. As we picked up, more businesses started opening, and we got busier. You saw more and more people coming to this end of town. There were more cafes, more shops, more people in general. If you come here on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it’s got a real good buzz about it.” 

Making a profit on weekend trade alone can’t cover all the costs of running a business, and Debbie and Lenny have noticed the area change as more and more businesses close in the face of rising rental prices and the uncertainty surrounding the WestConnex M5 Project. “All the shops are emptying and moving, it’s going to affect it. There’s still talk that there’s going to be a clearway, which is really going to affect a lot of businesses. If your lease is up, you’re going to think twice about renewing. There’s so many that have closed already. I think there will be more.” she said. When asked whether concerns about the instability of the future affected the choice to move, Debbie shook her head wholeheartedly. “We pushed for so long not to move. We have a fantastic landlord here. He was asking, ‘What can I do to make this work?’ We didn’t want to have to move.”

As the Inner West Council knocked back the final development approval by Pastizzi Café, the City of Sydney Council granted Parliament on King funding to run workshops in their communal space and provided a grant for MoshPit to expand into an empty lot next door. Despite the financial concerns in expanding businesses, both MoshPit and Pastizzi Café’s teams are willing to take the risk but have experienced radically different outcomes.

Newcomer, Pete Dures, has capitalised on the cultural legacy of Parliament and Pastizzi, opening a small bar on the southernmost tip of King Street. Pete opened MoshPit as his first foray into the hospitality scene and shrugged as he admitted, “We’re not from the hospitality background, so we never knew what was really down here in the beginning.” Two and a half years later, he’s still considered new by some but is well established in the South King scene. “Everyone, all the cafes, restaurants, are really supportive. Locals come grab a beer in the afternoon and it’s great… everyone wants to get involved because, well, everyone down here struggles.”

The tiny location is perfect for those brave enough to wander far past the Inner West train line, where 90s band posters plaster the chipped black walls between Christmas lights and gig guides that all seem strangely out of place when the house lights are turned up all the way, and the back door is propped open to let the coastal breeze in. Sweaty and covered in a sheen of dust from propping up walls in the vacant lot to the back of the venue, Pete can’t help but offer a cheeky bev when he opens the door. It’d be inhospitable not to offer a cold one on a stinker of a spring afternoon.

Far from the reach of the city lockout laws, the bar technically closes at midnight, but taped to the front door a sign reads “If you go home early, we go home too.” Pete puts the establishment of MoshPit as a venue for live music down to word of mouth, explaining, “For us, we never intended to be a venue. We opened up just as a small bar, just be a cruisey little bar and maybe have acoustic shows on Sunday. I suppose it was a couple of months in when we had some mates playing a Sunday afternoon, got a good decent crowd. And then just from that crowd, people just started asking us if they could play, and it just sort of evolved.”

Evolve it did, with the 60-person venue filling every Thursday-Sunday with music ranging from punk to country, folk tunes and everything in between. Walk by in the evening and you can catch the music pouring onto South King. The venue doesn’t always reach capacity, and after a particularly quiet few months, Pete’s more than happy to be the recipient of some much-needed funding to cover the costs of ‘the reno.’ “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have the council grant. When we put the grant in, we thought ‘Oh, we’ll be doing a lot better,’ and it just hasn’t happened.” he said. After struggling to cover costs in the bar, Pete and his team are hoping to leave a tough season behind them as they push to expand the venue to fit a hundred people by the start of the summer gig season. “This winter’s just been shit, which I was really surprised by – it wasn’t that cold! They say if you get through the first year without shutting down, you’re doing alright. If you can get to five, you must be doing something right. Fingers crossed we can get there We’re halfway there.”

Knocking out walls and creating a significant level of noise, even on an already noisy street like King Street, requires a development approval from the local council. The development approval, or DA, requires extensive planning including providing proposed floor plans, environmental impact statements, and consultation with a town planner if development is taking place in a heritage listed building. Pete admits he had it easier than most when applying for MoshPit’s DA, shrugging off plaster dust as he brings the venue’s approval down to luck; “Well, we’re lucky. I know an architect. I’m a cabinet maker so I have a bit of an idea too. I’ve dealt with a lot of architects, so you know, I get the gist of it. We knew what we were up for pretty much straight away. It was just about designing it to find out how it would work best.”

“Council’s getting better, but you do have to realise that they’re not fast. If you could have someone come out to the site before you start and see what somebody is planning on doing and be really upfront, tell them ‘Look, you’re going to have to do this, or have to do that,’ it’d really help. The whole nanny state had gone berserk at one stage so it’s good to say that it’s come back a bit.”

Debbie and Lenny aren’t as lucky. After their fourth development approval was knocked back, they started considering the possibility of moving rather than expanding. “The first two the builder put in, and he said we shouldn’t need to get town planners, or anything involved… then the third time council said we should get a town planner, and it’ll go through.” The role of a town planner is to work with council and with a business to help both sides find an amicable way forward that ticks all the boxes but Debbie claims that even the town planner couldn’t help their situation.

“We paid for a town planner but there are acoustic reports, and an environmental report, and they turned back the DA anyway! Two years of trying, and each time being knocked back. The reasons were just ridiculous. Two years of everything on hold. Everything was in limbo. We bought new furniture. We thought, we’ve been here for 14 years, might as well take a bit of wall out, and that seemed to make it bigger! Two years wasted, and a lot of money and stress.”

When asked about the DA process, a spokesperson for the Inner West Council said that “Council has had unprecedented numbers of DAs since the amalgamation and some internal issues also related to the amalgamation of three councils into one.” Previously, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils each managed development approvals for their respective local areas before a forced merger brought the three together to manage an area of over 180,000 residents, making the new council the 14th largest in the state. This wasn’t news to Debbie and Lenny, being told by one town planner to expect significant delays.

With the out of pocket costs for their development approvals becoming a significant financial concern, Debbie and Lenny started looking into alternative arrangements. “We didn’t want to move, but we needed more seating. I went straight on the internet and thought “I’m just going to see what’s available out there.” Their new location, on the northern end of King Street is nearly triple the size of the homely café, and despite the perfect size, losing the South King community is what Debbie is heartbroken about. “We’ve been here for a long time, we support the theatre, we support Camdenville Public School, we donate gift vouchers and pastizzis, we do a lot for the community…it’s very community oriented down here. That’s why we pushed for so long not to move,” she said, “I’m really going to miss it.”

The sense of community is what seems to hold South King together, according to Ravi. “There’s no one instigating activity or action locally, except for us!” he said, gesturing his slender arms widely across the café and pointing to the businesses surrounding the small café. It’s not unusual to catch the eccentric owners of 535 Antique, the store across the street, jaywalking across four lanes of traffic to stop at Parliament for a glass of wine, or for Ravi himself to head over to a ‘rival’ café, Khamsa, which he describes as ‘the best vegan restaurant around.’ When asked whether other businesses are reacting to the success and failure of the other, both Debbie and Ravi believe it’s a truly collaborative effort. “It’s the matrix, the next level of economics when you see all these guys, it looks like competing cafes, but no, it’s not freakonomics, its trickonomics! They say the best place to open a Chinese restaurant is next to a Chinese restaurant and the next place to build a Chinese restaurant is next to the other Chinese restaurant. Instead of having one Chinese restaurant alone, you have a destination for Chinese food. What you’ve got when you got a café here here and here,” (again, more excited pointing from Ravi) “is that you have a destination to go for coffee on the street. I think there’s an innate understanding that the presence of each other is good for each other, good for community. So if another café opens next to me, I’m like, I’m glad you’re here, I’m really glad.”

The sense of community is what seems to hold South King together, according to Ravi. “There’s no one instigating activity or action locally, except for us!” he said, gesturing his slender arms widely across the café and pointing to the businesses surrounding the small café. It’s not unusual to catch the eccentric owners of 535 Antique, the store across the street, jaywalking across four lanes of traffic to stop at Parliament for a glass of wine, or for Ravi himself to head over to a ‘rival’ café, Khamsa, which he describes as ‘the best vegan restaurant around.’ When asked whether other businesses are reacting to the success and failure of the other, both Debbie and Ravi believe it’s a truly collaborative effort. “It’s the matrix, the next level of economics when you see all these guys, it looks like competing cafes, but no, it’s not freakonomics, its trickonomics! They say the best place to open a Chinese restaurant is next to a Chinese restaurant and the next place to build a Chinese restaurant is next to the other Chinese restaurant. Instead of having one Chinese restaurant alone, you have a destination for Chinese food. What you’ve got when you got a café here here and here,” (again, more excited pointing from Ravi) “is that you have a destination to go for coffee on the street. I think there’s an innate understanding that the presence of each other is good for each other, good for community. So if another café opens next to me, I’m like, I’m glad you’re here, I’m really glad.”

Debbie’s seen the ‘trickonomics’ play out with the neighbouring businesses from Pastizzi but is more concerned about what will happen after they close their doors. “Chris at the antique store says that if we get really busy, they get busy. So once we’re gone, I think it will leave a gap in the sense of, well, not putting it on ourselves, but we have brought a lot to the scene.”

Pete, however, isn’t relying just on the success and failure of the businesses that have come before him to get punters through the door and buying drinks at the bar. “We constantly push ourselves to promote, making sure we have all the gig guides on Facebook, and I suppose I’d ask any of those other businesses, how are they promoting their own business? Are they just sitting there asking why isn’t anyone coming in? That’s the first thing we learned, sitting there like, why isn’t anyone coming in? Well, no one knows we’re fucking here!”

When the bar first opened Pete got the whole family involved in a mass letterbox drop to local residents, announcing their arrival on the scene. A few hundred letterbox drops later, and Pete’s ready to start the next round of community engagement in the leadup to the summer. “We need to do it again, there’s more places down there and people move in and out so often. Just get another letter drop to say ‘Hi, we’re your local bar, come up to King Street – rather than Erskineville Road.’ We’re still Erskineville, we’re still Erskineville!” 

Pete’s love for the suburb extends far beyond just cultivating a bar in the leafy inner west, wearing an ‘Erko’ T shirt while he bemoans South King as a ‘bermuda triangle of failed businesses’. “Things sort of move in opposite, and everything that goes in there doesn’t seem to go well. I think the landlords just push the boundaries and they’re willing to have a place sit there for a year with no one in it. It’s not good for the street. We’re hanging in there. Plenty of people come in here and say ‘Wow, I love this place.’ For a lot of band players, it’s their second home! Some people are loving it but we need them to bring more people at the end of the day. If we ask every band member to maybe bring two people and the place is full! When you think, okay, there’s three bands playing and there might be four band members, there’s twelve people and they all bring two people each, in here that can be an okay crowd. A lot of the bands are good, and they say hey, buy a drink, it’s for the bar, to keep the bar alive – some people are really good like that, they’re in the know.’

Those in the know at Pastizzi are already planning for the grand opening at their new venue on the northern end of King Street, next to the Marlborough Hotel, affectionately known as the Marly, and close to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and University of Sydney. “We’re very nervous,” Debbie admits, “It’s a whole different ball game for us. It’s a bigger space, it’s huge rent, so we’re nervous but we’re going to give it a go.” The potentially illegal cool room still sits in the backyard of the cafe, while Debbie and Lenny wait for their final approval to close their café on the South end and begin celebrating a new start up North. The opening date isn’t set yet, but Debbie assures eavesdropping customers with a smile, “We’ll let you know!”

For businesses like MoshPit and Parliament on King, there’s still no clear answer on whether the old heart of south king is dying, or just in need of an update. “I wouldn’t say it’s dying”, Pete said, “I think people just expect growth a lot quicker. Yeah, hopefully we survive.” Ravi remains optimistic, in a nihilistic sort of fashion. “Sheer bloody-minded will from a bunch of entrepreneurs, that’s what’s needed. The continued will and energy of people who are here to innovate, to make the stores that are going to attract people who in turn will attract other stores and other people. What we need is what we’ve got, we just need more of that.”

There are now only twenty-seven businesses unoccupied on the South end. Painters are attending to a newly constructed pop-up location, construction workers are drilling the step of what used to be a toy store to install a wheelchair accessible ramp, and a craft beer company is currently taking submissions from the public for consultation on construction of a pub and hotel. The death of South King may be too early to diagnose, but for the old guard established on the southernmost tip of Newtown and Erskineville the warning signs have arrived. There may be life in the heart of South King yet and for both the residents and businesses it’s that heart that will, hopefully, keep them coming back from the brink.

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