Gentrify Me, Vanilla

I still haven’t decided if moving to Paddington six months ago was the right decision, or not. You see, on some days, all of the little ingredients of character here light up my face and my senses. But on other days, the sheer snobbery of the place seems to draw from me a frustrated and unfulfilled kind of growl.

In my opinion, there’s not an ounce of doubt about it. Paddington is one of Sydney’s prettiest suburbs. The charismatic terraces - with their Victorian chimneys, bespoke balcony balustrades and spectrum of colourful front doors - lurch over intimate streets and laneways that are a joy to get lost in. Jacaranda, Moreton Bay Fig and London plane trees introduce the shade with a quiet and swaying grace. Every street corner turned surprises you with a new and interesting aspect. Night time in the village is the definition of tranquility. And as the early morning sunlight crawls up the Paddington slopes, the entire suburb illuminates in colour.

However, juxtaposed alongside all of this charm, lives a pretentiousness in the culture that can often be palpable. You feel it in the straight-faced, straight-backed aversion of eye contact. You experience it in the rarity of familiar smiles and friendly hellos on an early morning walk. You see it in Paddington’s increasing preference for the sanitised.

Yes, I’m aware that Sydney is a big city. I know that warm body language and a constant smile is not the way that it always works. I can also hear what you’re thinking - “If that’s the way you feel about Paddington, why the hell did you decide to move there?” Friends had warned me about its snootiness beforehand.

I was attracted to Paddington because of it reminded me of the beguiling jumble of unplanned streets in London. A city that had been my home for a decade. Only minutes to the city, minutes to the harbour and minutes to the beaches - it’s location is perfect. Most of all though, it is Paddington’s undeniable sensory charm that seduced me.

So, upon settling in to my new abode, I became curious about how Paddington came to be and I began to read up a little on its past.

It seems that the layout of the village hasn’t changed at all since the 1850s. Originally housing those who built the Victoria Barracks, they were later occupied by the families of the soldiers garrisoned there. In the early 1900s, it became a working class suburb. After the Second World War, Paddington saw an influx of Italian and Greek migrants who dedicatedly restored the old terrace houses that had become dilapidated. Replacing their ubiquitous grey paint with bright, summery colours that reminded them of their Mediterranean villages back home - the community became reinvigorated.

The first gallery opened in Paddington in 1958. The sixties and seventies saw the village transform into one of Australia’s pioneering creative hubs. Some of Australia’s leading painters, potters, weavers, writers, fashion designers, poets and playwrights moved in. An open-minded and creative effervescence, permeated.

Whilst looking into its history, I stumbled upon a book called “A Place Called Paddington”. Collated by a local photographer named Rob Hillier, it’s a fascinating visual snapshot of the early 1970s.

Filled with photos portraying a ‘day in the life’, you get a real feel for the village life back then. Local artists in their studios; antique, art and bric-a-brac shops; kids playing out on the streets; pubs filled up with locals; noisey weekend fruit markets and a few gratuitous nude models photographed out on the street. One of the photo spreads shows people spilling out of different terrace parties with a caption that reads ‘terrace houses can not always cope with the large-scale entertaining favoured by Paddington people’.

Writing about the creative and eccentric community at the time, Hillier mused that:
“The people [of Paddington] were all regarded as unconventional ratbags by established standards, and a sticky end was predicted of them. Instead, they turned out to be the spearhead of the people who wrought a profound change in the character of Paddington and made it the culture centre of individuality and significance it is today.”

What happened to all of that flavour? As I absorbed Hillier’s photographs and breathed in the life portrayed in them, I couldn't help but feel envious. It seemed that before Paddington turned into a wanker twenty years ago or so, it’s personality screamed with diversity and with colour.

Of course, we’re not naturally pretentious creatures. We’re instinctively social and have always been drawn to community living. Smiling, eye contact and an open body language are all key elements in a friendly village spirit. Paddington’s pretension stems from an upper-bourgeois, socio-economic insecurity that has been allowed to creep into the norm. Cold facades, more often than not, are skin deep. Gloss is often applied to things that we actually want to shroud.

In summarising life in Paddington at the time, Hillier concluded his observations like this:
“In all this change, the legacy of human warmth that the past had bred remains. A strong community spirit grew in areas where people at the bottom of the income scale lived close together, many of them often in want. This community warmth has survived in some magical way to touch the newcomers - rich, old, young or foreign, and it is seen unexpectedly in many ways.”

Do I think that Paddington can find it’s way back to the halcyon days captured by Hillier?

Well, no, not really - not at all. Its shift from having a vibrant culture to a banal one is only interesting because of the lesson in it. A lesson for the current creative hubs in Sydney - like Marrickville, Erskineville and Newtown, amongst others.

For suburbs like these, Paddington’s gentrification provides a sort of ‘anti-benchmark’. It demonstrates just how much culture can be lost in a short space of time. It teaches us that the reinvigoration of any village must be managed delicately, or it’s very essence can ultimately leak away. Gentrify things too much and all you’ll be left with is the vanilla.

All of that said though, last week I stumbled upon something in Paddington that for once was not superficial. Setup in one of the more well-to-do streets, I came across a communal garden. A warm message to all visitors read: “You are welcome to pick the produce. And feel free to weed, water and plant.” My eyes lit up with a smile. Only minutes earlier too, I had sat in the Royal Hospital for Women’s park drinking my coffee, listening to the chatter and laughter of the dog-walking community there. Could this be the warmth that Hillier talked about?

Whatever it was, I've decided to give Paddington a bit more time. My commute is the best it's ever been and there is still so much left to explore. The mornings here are magical enough to be worth it. What’s more, I now have to plant, weed and water my community contribution of thyme and basil. Then, there's the elegance of the terrace houses, galleries to visit while it's cold and all of those little leafy streets. Some of that old flavour must be lingering, I'm sure. After all, to every winter always arrives spring.

Joseph O'Donoghue

Discussion and comment about Australia's young, vibrant and emerging culture - our own blank canvas.

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