Sydney Park: the Inner West’s mysterious, complex and beloved backyard

An expanse of wilderness – with views of the city. Photo: Richie Black.

Deputy editor Richie Black reflects on the unique identity of the multifaceted Sydney Park – and its somewhat uncertain future.

I love Sydney Park. I live close by, it’s a significant part of my daily life and I’m grateful for it. But like any sort of significant relationship, things are nuanced and, in some respects, complex.

Sydney Park is many things: a public space for exercise, convening, partying, drinking coffee, welcoming the New Year or farewelling a sunset.

It’s also a bit strange, imperfect, a little rough around the edges, mysterious perhaps – which is all part of its allure.

An ‘urban oasis’ fringed, if not impacted, by the worst examples of government sanctioned development. A family friendly, ecologically-minded environment where people also like to sink long-necks and smoke the odd blunt late on a Sunday arvo. A politicised space that used to be a dumping ground for household items.

What else? Well, it shares the same name as a Hollywood actor.

At a basic level, these 40 rather strange, lumpy hectares in Sydney’s Inner West represent the reclamation of peace and quiet. The existential conflict between industry and letting the plants grow.

For lucky beneficiaries, it’s an opportunity for escape from the compressed intensity of inner-city living – perhaps even, with a little effort, a kind of tranquillity.

Sydney Park exists side-by-side with other realities of the city. Photo: Richie Black.

Escape

Take a stroll sometime, and from certain perspectives – particularly at its untidiest – it’s almost possible to convince yourself you’re in a rural idyll. Sure, at times, you might have to squint, stick your fingers in your ears or hold your nose (or all three, while minding the dog shit) to do so.

But to be fair, a lot of this isn’t the park’s fault, rather the malign influence of other certain parties.

The most obvious is the NSW Government’s WestConnex which, if it hasn’t quite overwhelmed the park, rings it with a sort of passive-aggressive menace.

The vultures are circling – lately, the developers of the new One Sydney Park project. It’s actually being built on an adjacent block (on the park’s eastern side), formerly occupied by light industry, rather than parkland itself.

But you have a nagging suspicion its impact will be insidious – not least because the name ‘One Sydney Park’ is as smugly branded as ‘WestConnex’. And it’s not like apartment building developers have exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few years.

You’d also have to be naïve to think there won’t be attempts at further incursions in the future. So the park is also a bit vulnerable – always an attractive characteristic in someone/thing you love.

Ringed by roads, industry and apartments, Sydney Park is an oasis in the Inner West. Photo: City of Sydney.

Community spirit

A sense of community, of course, plays a role in any local’s sentimental connection to the park.

Obviously, sharing anything can be annoying. But the park’s come one, come all vibe speaks to a kind of largesse – a relaxed ‘yeah, pop round for a few tins if you’re up for it’ ethos.

The park treads a fine line: it doesn’t carry itself with the cultivated (prissy) formalism of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It’s very accommodating, but there are no horses or BMWs to run you over, as in Centennial Park.

It’s cheerfully tatty without putting itself down. The facilities are impressive but not ostentatious, hip in a daggy sort of way (witness Clover Moore’s message to have “wonderful experiences down at the ‘flow bowl’) but they are very popular.

The skate park. Video: City of Sydney/YouTube.

This is an environment that accounts for a corgi club as easily as it does the regular Saturday morning park run, Sydney City Farm, or those souls who choose to go cruising amongst the bushes after hours.

Community can also be found in the generosity of spirit of those gathering on the northerly hill to take in the expanse of the city at sunset – or the comradery of the kids down at the ‘flow bowl’.

And, of course, the park is home to communities of wildlife too. Bird life, in particular, whether it’s a brown quail, a beautiful major owl in the trees, a lone swan in the lake pining for a mate or a bin chicken in a stand-off with a Shih Tzu.

Sydney Park is a refuge for a wide range of bird life, including the Australian white ibis. Video: Matthew Denby/Sydney Sentinel/YouTube.

Its strange confluence of unnatural topography, open spaces, wetlands and secret pockets has always seemed to encourage random elements as well as the families.  

Back in the wide-eyed innocent ’90s, for example, when the words ‘doof doof’ were used liberally, it became a key destination of the free party scene with the famous Vibe Tribe dance parties.

These were held adjacent to the brickworks chimneys at the St Peters corner of the park – and became part of the foundation of rave culture in Sydney.

In time, they actually became a significant enough nexus of underground rave, political culture and sheer mass for the riot police to intervene (in 1995) at the Freequency doof – always a sign of a good party.

On the night of Saturday, 8 April, 1995, a group of 40 police officers dispersed the Freequency party in Sydney Park. Photo: www.snarl.org.

What lies beneath?

Its unusual topography, reflecting its relationship to a storied past – the lumpy hillocks as scar tissue – adds to its mystery, its oddball charisma.

Famously, all that grass lies on top of what used to be a dump, a troubled past (ooh, intriguing!) with plenty of stories to tell. 

Actually, it used to be a quarry for brickmaking as well (hence the heritage brick chimneys) – but from 1948 to 1976, the clay pits that had been excavated were used as a municipal waste tip.

Known variously, and evocatively, as St Peters Tip, Campbell Road Disposal Depot, Alexandria Tip, and the Disposal Depot Alexandria, it was a dumping ground for local household refuse.

Who knows what secrets it’s hiding?

Yeah, okay, presumably a lot of the submerged mysteries amount to little more than stained mattresses and empty Vegemite jars.

Still, apparently, in 1910 a complete labyrinthodont skeleton was unearthed in one of the pits of the Austral Brickworks (although we assume it died there back in the day and wasn’t chucked in the tip) – and is now on display in the Natural History Museum in London.

Meanwhile, one wild legend has it that – prior to the covering of the pits – a travelling circus used the dump to dispose of an elephant’s corpse. In fact, it’s said the ghost of the elephant still haunts the park.

But the park’s unlikely metamorphosis from wasteland to public green space is a rare case of an urban ecological solution for the greater good. And, what’s more, it happened in New South Wales – who would’ve thunk it?

The agrarian ideal of the Sydney City Farm is situated just metres away from the WestConnex motorway. Photo: Richie Black.

The future of the park

There’s some faith in the council to maintain that status quo according to the principles of sustainability and public benefit.

Andrew Chuter, from the community action group Friends of Erskineville, notes: “It’s under the care of City of Sydney who have a pretty healthy budget and they really need the votes of local residents. Doing anything to upset the park would piss people off in a big way.”

However, One Sydney Park rankles locals – FOE’s objections to the development were eventually dismissed and the $700m project greenlit in April by the NSW Land and Environment Court.

Chuter says, “Our online petition got 930 people to send emails to the Minister for Planning and we had a number of supporters who gave evidence in the Land and Environment Court. We had the full support of the City of Sydney Council too.”

Chuter blames the NSW Government: “It is the Central Sydney Planning Committee [who approved initial concept plans] that has state government appointees able to override council decisions that is the shameful factor here.

“The power of private property developer is out of control in NSW,” says Chuter, “The NSW Government’s love for them knows no bounds.”

Member for Newtown, Jenny Leong is also a little dubious. The park isn’t quite in the Greens MP’s electorate – but, as a local, she’s actively campaigned on its behalf.

With WestConnex as a precedent, she says, “It’s not inconceivable that a future Liberal Coalition state government could look at further impacting the park by designating different projects as State Significant Infrastructure on this site, but this would be fiercely opposed by the local community and all park users.”

As for One Sydney Park, she says: “It’s a pity that the state government didn’t purchase this land when it was subsequently sold to the current developers so that it could be incorporated into Sydney Park.  

“[The development] will impact Sydney Park in terms of the location of the development and its accompanying commercial outlets.”

An aerial view of Sydney Park, showing the location of the One Sydney Park apartment development (right). Photo: HPG Australia.

Meanwhile, Newtown resident and City of Sydney Labor Councillor Linda Scott, who opposed the development from the beginning, says: “My priority now is advocating for the needs and concerns of local residents and park-goers as the development proceeds, to ensure that this valuable urban parkland remains open for all.”

For their part, when we presented these concerns, the NSW Government tersely passed the whole thing back as a matter for the council.

We suspect, and certainly hope, the fate of Sydney Park will ultimately rest with those who know – and love – this beautiful, strange and mysterious patch of urban wilderness the most.

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @NoirRich.

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