Bottoming out on Oxford Street

The Golden Mile is dead, writes Matthew Endacott.

Oxford Street's den of mediocrity, the Stonewall hotel. Photo: Newtown graffiti, via Flickr.

On Oxford Street, there are more than just kebabs getting thrown up these days. “For Lease” signs are a dime a dozen on the Golden Mile, the most telling sign that the tide has gone out on Darlo. Too damn expensive, can’t park, can’t compete, carbon tax. Everyone has an opinion about who slit the eastern artery. Bondi Junction certainly has blood on its hands, but shopping centres have been killing high streets for decades. Oxford’s fault for not seeing it coming, I say.

Walking from Whitlam Square to Paddington Town Hall, the old drag’s toothless grin is almost unbearable by daylight. At the city end, it’s all sex shops and tragic sequined curtains that catch the midday sun. Lady Gaga drifts out of an empty Stonewall and the rumble of Kensington-bound traffic idles at Taylor Square. Up and over the crest and it’s all downhill, figuratively and literally. In the block bound by Oxford, Flinders, South Dowling, and Taylor Streets you could lease enough space to move the Galeries Victoria. They’ve been felling the ancient oaks in this part of town for a while now, but I didn’t really mind until it claimed the Oxford art supplies store. Forty years of trading and one family that were effectively priced out of a street that they helped to build.

Oxford Street’s den of mediocrity, the Stonewall hotel. Photo: Newtown graffiti, via Flickr.

So what to do with a street that’s going down quicker than, but nowhere near as fabulously as, the Hindenburg? Sending in the chains is probably the worst idea, so this being New South Wales, you can expect it to be the first official response. It’ll be a blow-your-socks-off blueprint, complete with an artist’s impression of a scribbly glass box with the obligatory native bush. And trams. You can bet there will be trams.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of bush and straphanging. All good in the hood. Problem is, it’s the only hood we ever seem capable of imagining. When in doubt about their urban environs, Sydneysiders rarely work with what they’ve got. They just pay someone from overseas to create a plonk-down-able solution. Where there’s a fragile network of local retailers, Sydney sees square metres. Where there’s the opportunity to work with, connect, or expand on public transport, Sydney asks the car salesman on William Street for his two cents.

Throwing a tokenistic tramline down Oxford Street won’t do anything to rekindle the home fires. Over the past seven years, the City of Sydney has spent $45 million upgrading the shopping strip from Centennial to Hyde Park and yet it keeps haemorrhaging vitality. Cash is not the problem, nor is it the solution. The City of Newcastle hasn’t spent a cent on fixing its broken main street (another story altogether), but the not-for-profit Renew Newcastle initiative has allowed Hunter Street to bounce off rock bottom.

What Oxford Street needs is a bit of TLC. It needs a community that hangs around after the breakfast hose down. More importantly, it needs a community that does more than just romps in after dark, trashes the joint, and goes home.

If the LGBTQI community wants to make any claim on Oxford Street this decade, we’re going to need to demonstrate that we’re worthy of the deeds.  If we want to right the old girl, we need to start working together on projects that nurture temporary and adaptive reuse during daylight. Working relationships with local council are important, but working relationships between businesses and locals are absolutely crucial.