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Vignettes of Wilson Street

Charting political memory on an ever-changing street.

Man sitting in the funnel of a steam locomotive during 1917 rail strike. Source: Eveleigh Stories

In the thirteen fleeting months between lockdowns, a long backstreet connecting Darlington and Newtown on Gadigal land, called Wilson Street (or affectionately, ‘Wilso’) became a recurring setting in my life. The first party I went to after restrictions eased last year, and the last party I went to before we re-entered lockdown, were both at Wilson St terrace houses — where every opportunity to go out felt like it could be the last. Once a blacksmith’s workshop, the sheltered industrial area outside Carriageworks played an unwitting host to several evening gatherings with friends when there were restrictions indoors, or we just didn’t want to pay for somewhere dry to sit. On New Year’s Eve, rain rattled on the metal roof, filling our ears with static until the sun rose, and we danced and chatted as the hours trickled away.

As the air cleared into a quiet mist and early morning trains began rolling in, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was amongst the ghosts of histories I had only the vaguest awareness of but could sense in the transience of the place. Carriageworks was not only a refuge from the weather, but from police surveillance after many of the education protests on campus last year, where we meandered down the familiar route between the SRC and Wilson Street, stopping at the Royal for beers on the way. When I mentioned this to someone recently, they said that there were ASIO vans outside STUCCO Housing Co-op in the 2000s when residents were involved in G20 protests, and student protesters have been running down the street away from cops for ‘yonks.’ The landmarks of Wilso are a walking tour of collective memory that feels worth writing about in hindsight, when I live several kilometres away and can only traverse it in my mind. 

The idea for this piece was first sowed during a conversation at a Wilson St house party when my mate Seth remarked that the street had an interesting political history. Anarchists had lived in the house (which has iconic status among left-wing Stupol circles) for eleven years because of the cheap rent, but that was just the beginning. The box-shaped heritage building just down the street next to Hollis Park, which I have walked past countless times without a second thought, was a social centre and anarchist squat for thirteen years. A former hat factory and printery, people in the Black Rose collective began squatting in the space in 2001 and opened a shared kitchen, free library, bike workshop, and guest spaces for people in emergency situations. It was used as a base for activists, holding fundraisers for the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and organising campaigns like Food Not Bombs.

It was a space reclaimed for the community at a time of rapid gentrification and urban displacement. Little is documented about the Hat Factory beyond news stories that depict the squatters as criminals, which is often the case with underground histories. It was only through mutual friends that I could hear more about an event that, in many ways, embodies the fleeting existence of those living in this geographical space.

Posters plastered on the Hat Factory. Source: Daily Telegraph

In July 2014, the Hat Factory’s residents were promptly evicted after the landlord decided to sell it. An overly dramatic operation of around sixty police in riot gear brought in a circular saw to cut down the boarded-up entrances of the building, as a small crowd heckled, “How many coppers does it take to chop down a door?” The residents had moved most of their belongings by then, temporarily housing the Hat Factory’s washing machine and freezer a hundred metres away in STUCCO, where I am told they were also fed for an evening with surplus food from a students’ meeting. STUCCO itself began as a squat in a heritage glass factory in 1989 and is now self-managed student accommodation. 

At the time of the Hat Factory eviction, residents read a statement: “While housing prices in the city skyrocket, thousands of buildings sit empty and countless people struggle to find a roof over their heads. These buildings should serve as shelters for those in need, not as speculative capital for absent owners.” The Hat Factory was sold for $1.725 million in September 2014 and renovated as two expensive-looking apartments. Complete with anti-graffiti paint on the streetside, the refurbished building is marketed as having a “bohemian legacy,” making it attractive to gentrifying middle-class buyers.

On the day of the Hat Factory raid. Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Real estate agents aren’t the only ones that have crept up on the Wilson St area and caused the community to undergo change. Following growth in enrolment after WW2, the University of Sydney was given the green light from the City of Sydney to expand into Darlington, destroying around 650 houses as well as shops, the Town Hall and the post office. It is not something you often think about, but most of the campus to the south of City Rd — where the Architecture, Engineering, Merewether and Wentworth Buildings (including the SRC and Honi Soit office) now stand — were once terrace houses in one of the most densely populated working-class neighbourhoods in Sydney. 

The development saw opposition from residential action groups across several decades, including protest meetings and students squatting in terrace houses slated for demolition in protest. While the University has not bought up Wilson St, the displacement of the neighbouring community has left the fate of locals hanging in the balance — subject to the whims of a wealthy institution. It is no wonder transience is felt in the very street.

Demolition site for the University of Sydney, Darlington, 1965. Source: City of Sydney

Many of those locals in Darlington and along Wilson St worked at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, which provided jobs manufacturing and repairing engines. It was only recently that I learnt the workshops, known today as Carriageworks, were at the heart of early political activism and the birthplace of one of the largest industrial conflicts in Australia’s history. 

In August 1917, almost 6,000 workers went on strike over the introduction of a timecard system that intended to keep track of productivity — seen as an affront to workers’ rights. The strike spread beyond the railways through ‘black bans,’ where workers in other industries withdrew their labour in solidarity with the strikers. It developed into a six-week nationwide strike, sparking weekly protests in the Domain. Against the patriotic backdrop of WW1, scuffles erupted at the picket-line, and the strike was ultimately defeated. Hundreds of teenage boys from Sydney private schools and Sydney University Engineering students had put their hands up to do scab labour, attempting to break the strike. Many railway workers lost their jobs afterwards, and those who did return had their entitlements stripped away from them. It is surprising that such a watershed moment of politicisation is not more widely remembered among students at the University.

Locomotive drivers during the 1917 strike. Source: NSW State Archives

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The first day I got on the train and left my suburb after the easing of lockdown last year, I walked along the Redfern Run on the way to a protest against staff cuts and glanced up at the spiked seed pods of a tree with red leaves announcing the end of autumn. I am unsure why this image of bright colours and unfamiliar shapes dancing in the breeze is seared into my mind. Maybe, having spent months at home, I felt for a short moment that I was seeing the world for the first time again. Having reached the light at the end of the tunnel and then being plunged back in again, I wonder if the rest of my twenties will look like this. Acting on every chance to do something spontaneous and condense months of lost time into weeks, haunted by the impending dread that everything could change in just a few days again.

If vignettes capture a brief scene in time, Wilson Street for me is remembered in these moments. Always on the knife’s edge of uncertainty, it can’t be just a coincidence that this is one of the first places I think of when looking back at the past year.