The garden suburb

A personal history of Haberfield.

Art by Siena Zadro.

Summer is when Haberfield glows most, gold-plated in my memory. Jewel-like swimming pools in backyard lawns. Skin dripping chlorine onto concrete on the bare-footed walk home. The ice blast of air-conditioning in IGA, the sweet profusion of star-jasmine. Sunset through stained glass windows painting dinner scenes like squares of old film; laughter, the glint of cutlery, bare legs brushing under the table. 

When I write about the suburb I grew up in, the words do not come easily. Like writing about grief or love, truth lapses into cliche, and I stop because I cannot elide the parts of it that are also parts of me — the Italian heritage I have long grown to resent. 

My family moved to Haberfield when I was three years old, five days before Christmas of 2004. Our house was an unkempt heritage site on a cul-de-sac shaded with broad eucalypts, and there was a hole in the centre of the floor of our now-living room. 

On a map, Haberfield is a sliver of Sydney bordered on one side by Parramatta Road, and on another the sprawling parks and canal of Hawthorne Parade, where it’s believed the border between the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora nation lay. It sits between Leichhardt, Ashfield and Fivedock, a sliver of Federation history and postwar migration now fraying in the back-pocket of a gentrified Inner West. 

Since the late 20th century, these suburbs have been known as an Italian microcosm, consolidated by the landmark Australian novel Looking for Alibrandi (1992) by local Melina Marchetta. Yet in the last two decades, this reputation has become more myth than reality — as young, wealthy, Anglo-Australian families move into the Federation-era homes once owned by Southern Italian immigrants, and new businesses perforate the Italian stronghold of shops on Ramsay and Dalhousie Street, the village-esque centre of my suburb. 

Haberfield was established in 1901, when the stolen, colonised land of the Gadigal and Wangal people was purchased by landowner Richard Stanton. Stanton sought to create Sydney’s first ever ‘garden suburb’ that was “slumless, laneless and publess,” in response to outbreaks of bubonic plague in the over-crowded inner city. According to Susan Stepowski, as a result Haberfield  “helped lock in the Great Australian Dream of the quarter-acre suburban block with dwelling, which has dominated how Australians seek to house themselves.”

On a hot Saturday in early October, my nonna tells me about old Haberfield. She shields her face against the sun as she gazes out at her garden, in Concord West. My mother’s family moved to Haberfield in 1966, two years before she was born, to a Californian style bungalow on Ramsay. Both of her parents were born in Italy; my nonna moved here from Sicily as a child and grew up in pre-gentrified Paddington, while nonno immigrated after the war to work hard labour jobs in regional Australia.

Before me, nonna crafts each memory like a shining bead in the heat of the day. 

Friday evenings at different kitchen tables playing cards under yellow light, bruscola and scopa, as the kids watched TV in another room; Italian and Australian neighbours trading sugar and friendship over a fence; the smell of leather polish in the Italian shoe-shop on Ramsay that no longer exists. Nonna could not drive, and grew lonely at home while her husband spent long days working. But she made clothes, and sewed love, and knew how to plant happiness in the ground to pick next season. I imagine she was not unlike other immigrant children, chased by flying stones and the word wog, down poor inner-city streets in the ‘50s, shielding her younger siblings and cooking pasta sauce with ketchup. 

Today, there remain few relics of the 20th century Haberfield, Leichhardt and Fivedock that live in my family’s memory. At that time, almost 40% of locals were born in Italy, leaving the inner-city suburbs to cultivate suburban, working-class communities, where backyards were finally big enough to grow vegetables. In 2016, that number had shrunk to nearly a quarter of what it once was — house prices sky-rocket and second-generation Italians are no longer able to afford the Inner West. 

But there are some things that have not changed. 

There are still lush gardens and red-brick Federation houses covering Haberfield’s wide avenues, protected by heritage listings. My house, built in 1902, is one of the oldest. Allegedly, it was a maternity ward early last century. My mother tells a story from when I was too young to remember, of an elderly man appearing at our doorstep and telling her he was born here. 

I still struggle to write about my suburb, but I am getting better at it. I cannot explain in a simple way the resentment that has long coloured my relationship to my Italian background. I don’t recall it growing steadily within me, harboured for many years. Rather, it arrived with the same sudden intensity of becoming aware of your own body; the same amnesia of not knowing language as a child, until you do. 

For me, the term ‘wog’ is a dose of pungent food and conservatism; lace curtains and old photos in cheap gold frames on mantle pieces. It is too-large family gatherings of innumerable strangers introduced as cousins, and it is my dark curls and olive skin that aggrieved me as a child. In essence, it is smothering. 

But it is also the courage to start a new life. And perhaps it is the greater courage it takes to remember your old one when you do. 

In Marchetta’s book, a character tells the protagonist Josie, the rebellious daughter of a conservative Italian family, that “when you’d finished running [from home] you’d be thousands of miles away from people who love you and your problem would still be there except you’d have nobody to help you.” 

The thing is, I am not averse to the shortage of love in the history of Haberfield, but the abundance of it. It’s a love that is more than this street, this tree, this thread of cigarette smoke, this shelf of canned tomatoes shining under the supermarket light. It is more than words can contain, and it is much easier to turn away from. But for now, I am content with telling half the story.