By GARY NUNN
For 127 years, the historic Green Park Hotel has been a fixture of the fabric, flavour and character of Darlinghurst – beloved by the LGBTQI community, locals, hospital workers and people of all ages.
But it’s now endangered and in the fight for its life, a David vs Goliath battle which has seen it pitted against the monolithic St Vincent’s Hospital. It recently purchased the Green Park in a deal done quietly and quickly between hospitality group Solotel and the Catholic-run organisation.
Their planned replacement is a very noble cause – a mental health clinic and suicide prevention centre. Everybody the Sentinel interviewed for this piece agreed that a mental health centre like this was a crucial addition to any neighbourhood – especially after the wreckage wrought by Covid-19.
Questions have been raised, however, about why St Vincent’s couldn’t use another venue in the suburb for their service, especially given that many stand empty nearby.
Some within LGBTQI community are saying that this pub is already a mental health centre – enabling them to connect with each other and foster friendships in a rare and unique safe space where other members of the community congregate.
Others are questioning how difficult it must have been, in the current Covid climate, to run a profitable pub. The context is important: the gay scene had already been diminishing as a result of a perfect storm of factors: hook-up apps like Grindr, “chemsex” parties hosted in homes, gentrification, skyrocketing rents, Sydney’s infamous lockout laws and, to an extent, equality and assimilation.
Nevertheless, the community is rising up this time.
A campaign is gaining momentum to save this cherished space, including a Change.org petition with almost 6,000 signatures.
All major parties holding sway within the City of Sydney Council (the Clover Moore’s independent team, Liberal, Labor) are now united in their appeal to St Vincent’s to urgently reconsider its decision, and save a historic venue and a space that offers sanctuary to an already vulnerable community.
What are the politicians doing?
First out the gates with a strong call to save the Green Park pub was Liberal councillor (and presumptive Liberal Mayoral candidate) Christine Forster.
In November, in reaction to the news the pub had been sold, she tweeted a picture of her at the pub with federal Liberal MP Tim Wilson, asking: “Surely with so much local commercial real estate empty, St Vincent’s could find an alternative site & this great old pub could be preserved?”
As soon as she heard the news, Forster wrote to St Vincent’s to express her “dismay and anger” at their decision and urged them to reconsider their plans to close the pub, but was informed they’d be going ahead nonetheless.
Part of the reason for her anger, she tells the Sentinel, was because the deal was done quicky and quietly: “The news of the closure dropped like a bombshell” she says. “No one had any inkling that the Green Park was for sale, let alone going to be closed, and I’m certain that the way it was announced has left people feeling more disappointed and marginalised than they would’ve been if there had been consultation.”
Independent MP Alex Greenwich last Friday wrote an open letter to the trustees of St Vincent’s urging them not to proceed with the sale of the pub, reflecting the concerns of many of his constituents who’ve contacted him directly. He asked the hospital to instead consider the many nearby vacant shopfronts for their important service, writing: “The Green Park has been an important neighbourhood establishment for over a century and has become a cultural hub for LGBTQ+ communities to whom is has provided a safe, accepting and fun space,” adding that such places for the LGBTQI community were diminishing due to “development pressure.”
Labor Councillor Linda Scott tells the Sentinel that she shares the “community sense of mourning at the loss of this inner city icon,” having spent “countless hours with beloved friends” there.
“The Green Park is a haven for our LGBTQI communities, and it’s important the City of Sydney responds to this community call to ensure these spaces are preserved, planned and created in inner city Sydney into the future,” she says.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore shared the concerns, telling the Sentinel the loss of the Green Park Hotel would be a “cultural blow” to Darlinghurst. “It’s disappointing the community couldn’t voice concerns before the sale of this important community meeting place” she says. “I commend the local community for organising and advocating to St Vincent’s and their local members to try and save the Green Park Hotel” – but, she added, the City of Sydney cannot prevent a property owner from selling property, nor could the heritage listing on The Green Park prevent its closure as a gay pub: it protects certain elements of the building, but not its use.
Gus Murray, who runs the Save the Green Park Facebook page and the fast-growing Change.org petition, tells the Sentinel: “St Vincent’s can now be in no doubt that their drop-in cafe would be opening at the Green Park site with staunch opposition from the community, the City of Sydney Council, and our State Representative. It’d be a shame for a worthwhile initiative to begin amid such negativity and destruction,” he says. “It’s clear now that the love and goodwill surrounding the Green Park Hotel that St Vincent’s hoped to co-opt for their cafe will in actual fact be a hindrance to the cafe’s success.”
A done deal
The pace of the backroom deal has blindsided many, and left them questoining whether there’s a pathway to harmonious victory so both the LGBTQI community get to keep their cherished safe space and St Vincent’s gets to run its key service.
If it’s a done deal, does the campaign have legs?
It all comes down to St Vincent’s, according to Alex Greenwich: “I’m not sure on the details of the sale and whether it’s concluded, but the decision lies with them, as they now own the site,” he told the Sentinel.
The calls now focus on St Vincent’s to halt altering the venue or losing the alcohol licence, and instead giving other hospitality groups a fair opportunity to buy it from them and continue it as a gay pub.
Some have questioned why more disgruntled emotion isn’t being directed towards Solotel for selling the pub from under the LGBTQI community and seemingly not taking seriously the responsibility of running such a safe and beloved place for people of all sexual orientations to connect.
When news first emerged of the sale, some on the Save the Green Park Facebook page expressed their anger by writing #BoytcottSolotel, targeting the hospitality group which also runs The Clock Hotel in Surry Hills, The Golden Sheaf in Double Bay, The Bank Hotel in Newtown, The Paddo Inn in Paddington and, in Darlinghurst, The Kings Cross Hotel and Darlo Bar.
The fact the Darlo Bar is metres away from The Green Park has led some to question whether Solotel cynically chose to sell to the hospital so as not to give their other bar a competitor by selling it to another hospitality group.
Justine Baker, CEO of Solotel Group, was asked about the call to boycott Solotel venues unless they agreed to reconsider moving the alcohol licence for the Green Park.
In response, she said: “We know how loved the Green Park Hotel is by the community, particularly the LGBTQI community. It’s also a beloved venue within Solotel as many of our staff first learned the ropes of working behind a bar there. So while it was a tough decision to make, and we knew that we would disappoint some people, it’s the right decision for us.”
She added: “We know some of The Greeny’s events will be missed, one being the Sunday sessions. We’re currently in discussions to move some of the activity from the Green Park over to the Kings Cross Hotel.”
However, the Sentinel can today reveal that Solotel did make St Vincent’s an offer to lease back the venue as a pub again.
St Vincent’s, however, kiboshed this offer. “They had plans to use the venue as soon as possible,” a spokesperson for Solotel told the Sentinel.
St Vincent’s response
Statistics this year revealed LGBTI people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Part of that is fuelled by feelings of ostracisation and lack of meaningful connection to other LGBTI people.
The Sentinel approached St Vincent’s to ask if they’d done any consultation with the LGBTQI community before closing a venue that means an enormous amount to them.
The short answer was no.
However, a spokesman for the hospital insisted: “St Vincent’s knows the Green Park holds a special place in the hearts of many. We understand that people are sad to see the site cease operating as a pub and recognise its importance to the local and LGBTQI+ community in particular.”
As to the secrecy of the deal, St Vincent’s says it was Solotel who approached them to sell the property, after deciding the pub was no longer viable as a business. “Discussions between Solotel and St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney around the purchase of the Green Park Hotel site followed standard commercial-in-confidence protocols, precluding the Hospital from disclosing the sale prior to settlement,” the spokesman says.
Can St Vincent’s sincerely say their organisation has a genuine interest in preventing suicide when they’re gobbling up a venue used by a vulnerable community with higher suicide rates than the general population, who are now openly telling them the removal of this venue puts them at higher risk of loneliness, isolation and depression – the drivers of suicide?
“We recognise the importance of pubs as meeting places – and the role the Green Park Hotel has played in the social and community life of the LGBTQI+ community, but while community connection and an active social life are often important contributors to someone’s positive mental health they’re not always sufficient in stopping someone from experiencing a mental illness or managing its impact,” was their response.
So why not use another nearby empty shopfront venue?
“St Vincent’s saw the potential to utilise The Green Park’s warm and accessible reputation to appeal to people who need help with their mental health in a way that a vacant shopfront or a clinical location inside the hospital would not.”
In addition, St Vincent’s were keen to highlight their work in reaching out to vulnerable communities and destigmatising those who’ve been shunned, especially during the 1980s AIDS crisis. It’s work that many in the LGBTQI community have long been particularly grateful for, as it happened during a time of horrific prejudice and discrimination. On the other hand, it was essentially a hospital, 37 years ago, doing a job all hospitals are designed to do, and continue to do today: caring for patients during a pandemic.
The point is, there were many health services who refused to admit or care for patients with HIV – and St Vincent’s undoubtedly led the way, influencing others to treat HIV patients with care and respect.
This has subsequently led to a warm relationship with the LGBTQI community. It continues to this day: In March, St Vincent’s set up an LGBTQI Employee Network and in 2020 St Vincent’s entered a float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for the first time. It’s a perhaps counterintuitive relationship, given the Catholic Church’s infamous homophobia – many marvel at a Catholic-run organisation brave enough to distance itself from the church’s less kind doctrines on LGBTQI people.
The question is, then, this: is St Vincent’s willing to squander this against-the-odds, long held goodwill with the LGBTQI community over this? Their stubborn refusal to run a centre the majority back in principle anywhere else but here is now risking that good favour, built up over many years.
Even those involved in their work are expressing concern. Craig Mack, a Green Park regular over the years, featured in the video St Vincent’s made to fundraise for a suicide prevention centre (below), sharing his experience of mental health challenges. “I cannot agree with their decision to host it in the Green Park,” he says. “Casual social environments are part of what keeps people out of clinics like this.”
Listening to the local community
Part of the problem here is that many feel St Vincent’s isn’t listening to the backlash. It’s a perhaps rare situation where politicians are hearing community concerns, but a supposedly ethical organisation isn’t.
And part of that is the lack of consultation with them ahead of the deal.
Not only is The Green Park not “just another bar”, it’s also not just another gay bar. Its unique place on the gay scene reflects the scene’s true diversity: you could be any age or body shape and didn’t necessarily have to love camp music or drag queens to fit in there. A comprehensive consultation would have shown that, and it’s what the community is now telling St Vincent’s.
Local Michael Curran, 39, says the Green Park has been part of his life for 20 years. “It acts as a living room for me and my friends,” he says. “We play Scrabble there on Sundays. We take our families there when they visit from the country. It’s a place to relax and be yourself.”
It holds an extra special significance for Curran and his husband: “We’ve been together 15 years and it’s a place we can go for an effortless good time,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the hospital – I’ve been treated there, and have friends who work there – they feel same way about loss of this pub impacting their social and work lives. I’m often there with a doctor or nurse.”
The loss of a space like this risks the ever diminishing connection between older members of the LGBTQI community and younger ones. Their stories carry with them a history of prejudice and protest that, if not shared in spaces like this, risk becoming lost, forgotten or even repeated.
“It’s a unique space because it doesn’t fit the cliche of what a gay bar should be. It’s truly intergenerational,” Curran says.
Sarah Reilly is another regular. She recently had her 50th birthday party there. “It means so much to me because it’s a safe space. No matter what age you are you’re welcome. That’s important to the gay community and the broader community,” she says.
“It’s a place for older people in the community who don’t feel comfortable going to places full of twenty-year-olds, who live alone and need a space for community connection, where their mental health can be restored – especially if they’re lonely in a one bed studio. Its loss will isolate people more, which isn’t a good thing for LGBTQI people over the age of 25 or 30.”
She compares it to London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern – a historic gay pub with a similar vibe, which was recently saved from threatened closure after a dogged campaign.
“The Green Park activates our very sad retail strip – it’s the last pub or entertainment space in our area along Victoria Street,” Reilly says, adding that it hosts important community events such as marriage equality commemorations and ACON charity nights.
“As a responsible member of a community interested in the health and wellbeing outcomes, St Vincent’s should consider other spaces to deliver these services from,” she says. “This is a place that improves resilience and social connectivity. You can feel the dead space where St Vincent’s has already bought. There’s no life around those buildings. They become spaces you don’t want to visit; businesses will die.”
These sentiments are echoed by Councillor Christine Forster: “The fact that it’s fondly and colloquially known by many around my age bracket as ‘Jurassic Park’, is testament to its longstanding significance as a gay safe haven – in its special way, our own local ‘drop-in’ centre,” she says.
She’s also concerned about small businesses, which are already struggling post-Covid: “If the pub closes, there’ll also be a double whammy in that the activation it supports for surrounding businesses such as restaurants and cafes will be lost. That could be a crippling blow to an area already struggling due to the residual effects of the lockout laws and now the pandemic.”
Local businesses urge the closure to stop
With the owner of the legendary schnitzel restaurant Una’s already on the record saying the closure would “break her heart,” the Sentinel visited other nearby businesses to ask how the mooted closure would impact them.
Nobody was consulted beforehand about the closure and there was a sense that small local businesses had been hung out to dry.
Somphoat Voeiyawatjamai is the manager of the Thai Tharee restaurant – a small, family-run business across the road from the pub which, along with his parents, he has run and lived in for 22 years.
The business supports him, his wife and their four-month-old baby, who can often be seen by customers being cared for as their food is prepared.
“Lots of customers come to us after or before being in the Green Park,” Voeiyawatjamai says, as his baby looks lovingly across to him and grins with his tongue out. His other family members busily prepare food.
“Our sales will certainly drop at least a little, but maybe a lot I think,” he says. “Covid hit our family-run business hard. We should’ve been consulted. It’s a landmark. I’ll be sad to see it go.”
Joash Dvir is the owner of Simply Hummus Bar, which opened metres away from The Green Park in March 2019. He talks about the word of mouth effect from the pub: “Last Thursday, we were about to close and at 8pm two guys came in, going to Green Park, and we made them a take away platter. Five minutes later some people came in from pub saying they’d seen the platter and asked them where they got it. By end of night, we were full of customers all from Green Park, all from word of mouth after what had been a quiet night,” he says.
“Forget that [the pub] has been popular – it’s a place gay people feel comfortable and secure, and for that reason alone they should save it. There are pubs all over Sydney but this is an [institution]. It’s not just a place to come and drink – it’s much more than that,” he says.
The second time St Vincent’s has taken over a beloved gay pub
Tyson Koh, who runs the Keep Sydney Open Party, told the Sentinel it was “tone deaf” of St Vincent’s to not recognise the importance of these spaces where “marginalised communities meet and connect.”
“It’s the second time they’ve taken over a queer community space – the first was The Albury,” he says.
He says the decision by St Vincent’s – who were staunch supporters of the controversial lockout laws – seems rushed.
“We all know how real estate and the free market works – St Vincent’s is within its rights to replace pub with a clinic,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean it should do so – hence the outpouring of concern from many.
“It does seem rushed, without considering all angles and the community push gathering momentum. It’d be prudent of them to listen to these very valid voices not just in the Darlinghurst community but in Sydney’s queer community as a whole,” he says.
Campaign tips from the Four in Hand
Clint McGilvray, 40, ran the successful ‘Save the Four in Hand’ campaign, which was victorius with 12,359 Change.org signatures two years ago – preventing the historic Paddington pub from being sold to property developers.
His tips for Gus Murray’s campaign are to “highlight how much this means to the local community, meet, celebrate, commiserate, share stories, [highlight] what it means to local businesses who rely on footfall and show the history of the venue that, once gone, can never be replaced.” Murray can do this, he says, by urging his petitions signers to be proactive by making calls and writing emails and making their voice heard.
“It’s important to know the faces of the people who use it,” he says.
Aside from the different sellers, he says the two campaigns are very similar because decision makers “have underestimated how important this is to the community.”
“It’s a misguided judgement” he says. “They haven’t truly recognised how important this pub is to people from all walks of life – older people, lonely people, or even just peope who live alone – it’s not just young people on a Saturday night.”
He has connected with Murray and is offering ongoing support in the lead up to D-day this Sunday, 20 December, when the Green Park is scheduled to close.
Is there anything more the City of Sydney can do?
Not a huge amount is the answer – but this has ignited action on a wider issue of protecting Sydney’s cherished LGBTQI venues and safe spaces.
The Sentinel asked if the City of Sydney owned a property it could offer to St Vincent’s for its mental health centre.
Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully says they’re checking what might be possible in terms of applying heritage listing to protect use of The Green Park. However, the planning experts the Sentinel consulted said this would be unlikely to prevent the sale/development application from going ahead.
“The fact is we have one of the biggest and most experienced pub operators saying they’re struggling with the financials here, and we can’t force them or anyone else to run a pub!” Scully says.
That said, St Vincent’s allegedly bought the pub for a snip – between $5 to $10 million according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
With lockout laws gone and Covid restrictions easing, another hospitality group such as Universal Hotels (which owns LGBTQI venues The Oxford and Universal, amongst others) might have actually been interested.
As an example of current market appetitie for a pub, it was last Wednesday announced that private equity firm Moelis Australia had bought LGBTQI-friendly bar Kinselas for $45 million, in addition to The Courthouse next door, which it bought last month for $22million. It plans to make the two Taylor Square pubs into a super pub, worth $67million – at least six times what St Vincent’s paid for its Green Park bargain.
Protecting other LGBTQI venues – and the Green Park’s last chance
On Monday (14 December), Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully tabled a motion to council, incited by the Green Park’s swift sale, stating that: “Pubs are significant community and cultural assets and are highly valued by our community members as village social centres” – with a particular view to safeguarding the final few remaining gay pubs in Sydney. It was supported by Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Scully tells the Sentinel: “The exciting thing about investigating a ‘community assets approach’ is that in the UK, community organisations got together to buy and run these places they considered important – many of them pubs – which were the hearts of communities” she says. “So let’s explore all the options and let’s also see how the community can be supported to be involved in the future of locations like this one which are a second home to many.”
Councillor Christine Forster is making an urgent repeated plea to St Vincent’s, one that will echo across the rainbow streets of the Emerald City before they finally all turn monochrome or beige: “On the face of it, the sale and impending closure of the pub is a done deal, but I am again calling on St Vincent’s to reconsider: preserve the hotel as it is and seek other suitable premises for the mental health centre,” she says.
“The Green Park is not only an important and historic pub, but is one of the very few remaining iconic Sydney LGBTI venues.”
Service users, staff, stakeholders, local businesses, the local community, Sydney’s LGBTQI community, over six thousand petition signers, the Lord Mayor, the local Member of Parliament, councillors and all major parties oppose this location for St Vincent’s to run a mental health centre. All urge them to run this valuable service in another nearby empty venue.
The only question remaining is: will St Vincent’s finally listen to mounting pressure?
To sign the Change.org petition visit Change.org/SaveGreenPark
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1
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