I am beginning to really doubt that there are any people living in Erskineville. Nestled between the giant pillars of Redfern and Newtown, it’s easy to forget that it is there until an aimless walk takes you there, off the corner of an unfamiliar street. Walking through its streets I feel that the whole place is paper-thin.
The streets are lined with old federation houses, weedy gardens, and chipped whitewash paint. The whole area is sun-bleached, faded in pale clean colour. You’ll be delighted, as I was, at the wild abandoned quality of it. The playground equipment is graffitied over, the grass grows in tufts up through the poured rubber. A hills hoist in a paved front yard is rusted stiff, casting rungs of shade over a bleached deckchair that no reasonable person would trust to hold their weight. The air is stifled, your footsteps make no noise. Erskineville is a promise of secret hideaways and nice forgotten corners, drenched in white sunlight.
I spent several hours there, past the odd castle that is the Imperial Hotel. After a while, I started to notice the strange lack of people. Sure, plenty of the houses look dilapidated — but whole batches of minutes would go by before I saw someone. Always strangely dressed and moving slowly, they moved past without acknowledging me. Pretty normal for Sydney, city people aren’t as friendly. But as the passersby thin out, it starts to bother me. Why? Why is no one here? Why does the street spiral inwards like a corkscrew? Why is there a basketball court here?
More and more questions arose and I felt the watery sunlight beat down on the top of my head, even as the day dimmed. As the afternoon crept on, I decided it was time to go home. But somehow, I kept getting distracted. I found a weird succulent climbing a chain-link face, with geometric patterned bulbs decorated with all the colours of a bruise as it heals. I found a cricket bat wedged up a drainpipe. The drawn open window of a second storey building and the lace curtain blowing out of it, anchored to the ground by the muck of an open drain.
There isn’t anything in Erskineville, but you never want to leave. There is always something inexplicable and odd happening, something that happens just for you with no one else around to see it. You can take a photo of it if you like, but the picture never does it justice. Erskineville is intoxicating.
As I continued to wander, transfixed, the streets continued to twist inwards. It felt less like walking home and more like circling around a whirlpool. I was getting dizzy, and the colours of the faded laundry on the washing lines were sapped of more and more colour. As evening came, no lights went on in the streetlamps — only the faint light of the porch lamps kept me going. The scuffed walls of the buildings faded into blues and greys, and the parked cars with their odd dents and scrapes turned void black. Rattling drains sound almost like breath. Enormous, eldritch breath.
As I wind closer to the centre of this strange, empty suburb, the rattling is louder. From within the houses, I hear faint sounds of scuffling, scratching, scraping. So many houses, but no people, I think to myself. Why? It’s the inner west, it should be bustling. At least some loiterers should be hanging about.
There is a tremor in the ground, and the pavement suddenly pitches down to an angle and objects go rolling along the tarmac towards the centre of the spiralling streets. Like a coin spinning in a funnel I tumble down past 70s redbrick and federation colours. No matter how much I drag my fingers through the goosegrass and weeds, I can’t slow myself down. The last thing I see is a cul-de-sac, sunken in the middle like a sinkhole. The faces of the houses peer down into a maw encircled with endless rows of jagged teeth: corrugated iron, plasterboard, folding deck chairs all sawed off to deadly edges. Rancid breath rises, smell of stink bug and jacaranda mulch. I tumble in, and the lights go out.