Culture //

Where all the warehouses go

Lucy Watson just wants to party

Photo: Lucy Watson
Photo: Lucy Watson

The wide streets of the Marrickville wasteland surrounding Sydenham and Victoria roads are lit by worksite floodlights, with street lamps few and far between. It’s a place that no one’s supposed to be at night – unless you’re at work.

It’s usually a Facebook event, or even just word of mouth, that leads you there. You jump off the bus, nod to a few strangers drinking in the park. They’re obviously headed where you’re going. Eyes down as you pass the men leaving the brothel – out of courtesy, they don’t want you to know where they’ve been. A glance at the bakers, about to begin their day’s work. Cross the street to avoid the vandals, pull out your phone. Look up the address. You’re just about there. Look around, the street is vast, empty, decrepit. You can feel the vague thump of bass in your chest – the only clue. You keep walking, find the right number, knock twice. The door opens to a wall of sound and a room full of people. You’re here.

This is what most parties in the Marrickville warehouse district are like – hidden, with the building’s facade gives nothing away. It takes a level of confidence to knock, because you’d never know there was a party raging away inside.

That’s because sadly, almost pointlessly, most of these spaces are illegal. These huge, otherwise empty, or ‘artist studio’ (and therefore often residential), spaces in the middle of an industrial wasteland, are not licensed, because of costs, OH&S, leasing agreements – a world of legal babble most people don’t care about. As Glebe and Newtown become more gentrified, students and artists are seeking something new, and these warehouse spaces are the perfect location for experimental performance. In the heart of the Inner West, surrounded by commercial industry, you’d think you’d be able to make some noise, and share a beer. It’s sad, then, that these places are constantly being shut down, and have to be very careful with whom they share information.

I recently contacted a (now defunct) warehouse to host a party. I was sent a list of guidelines for advertising, which included that I couldn’t list the name or address of the venue anywhere except Facebook, and under no circumstances could I call it a ‘warehouse’, instead I was to refer to it as a ‘theatre’ or an ‘artist’s space’. I was also instructed to delete the email once I had read it (lest it self-destruct). These are the kinds of extreme measures these spaces have to take to hide their presence.

This should hopefully change soon. Recently, Marrickville Council passed a motion to review the cost-prohibitive nature of compliance for “alternative” venues, and to research why legal spaces are also closing their doors. This review should hopefully lead to a lowering in licensing costs and regulations (in much the same way that the small bar license recently became a lot easier to obtain, and the now the city is full of them). The motion was supported by the people behind Dirty Shirlows, a performance space on Shirlow street that was shut down in 2012. Brooke Olsen is the only remaining member of the original Dirty Shirlows collective, and she’s excited at the chance to move forward and begin discussions with Council about the affordability of re-establishing the Shirlow street location, or opening again somewhere new.

Dirty Shirlows opened in 2008 after the collective took over the lease on “the biggest, cheapest, most run down and most out of the way warehouse we could find in Marrickville,” says Olsen. They were after something “un-rentable to big business to ensure longevity and somewhere out of the public eye to enable us to go relatively undetected,” and they found that on Shirlow street. “When we took over the lease the building was a wreck,” Olsen says. “There was animal faeces, fur and feathers in various parts of the building as well as a home made boxing ring and chicken coop upstairs.” Incense was used during shows to disguise the lingering stench, and the smoking area was a small pen, side by side with a 30m drop into a giant excavation site. But the space had been home to one of Sydney’s best wall art initiatives and DIY music scenes, and despite its grungey aesthetic, many fans were sad to see it go.

An anomaly in the warehouse scene is the Red Rattler: a legal, fully licensed venue, the Rat is able to boast its existence. Launched in 2008, it opened after its five founders “took advantage of [their full-time employment] to try and get a group mortgage to buy a warehouse that we could convert into a legal permanent space,” says co-founder Meredith Williams. A colourful facade on Faversham St that’s lit up on show nights, with people smoking out the front, means you’ll never get lost on your way there. But being legal has certainly not been easy, and the battle is still uphill. According to Williams, meeting all the license requirements “was and is massive, and still a struggle,” but the benefits have been profound. It’s the simple things: they can’t get “shut down mid gig,” and they’re openly allowed to advertise their existence. Huzzah!

But now, two of the founders are parting ways, and selling their shares. In order to keep its doors open, the remaining Directors are trying to buy 40% of the building. The ‘Save the Rat’ campaign is hoping to raise $40 000, which Williams says will “finalise the loan for the Rat Inc. to buy these two shares… the dream is to slowly buy out all the owners,” so that the space can be fully community-owned and operated.

Just a week into the campaign, and the response has been huge: “so many people have already donated financially, plus a swag of people offering to volunteer,” says Williams. The space is fully volunteer run, and according to Williams, “these kinds of spaces really have the potential to enable non-mainstream activism and culture to flourish,” and this is due in large part to the space’s community spirit.

With the new cooperation of Marrickville Council, and the community backing of the Red Rattler, we might not have to wait long before this industrial wasteland has a nightlife beyond the trucks, floodlights, bakers and brothels.