The death and life of Parramatta


It is easy to sit at the bar in, say, The Baxter Inn on Clarence Street or Opera Bar on the east bank of the Harbour, and forget that Sydney is just 30-minutes away from Parramatta by train. For Sydneysiders, with their shimmering harbour and five-dollar lattes, Parramatta is a world away. A Mad Max-like wasteland where ‘Westies’ roam in footy shorts and stained singlets, wine is drunk — by teenagers, out of a cask — and that is imagined to be so inferior to Sydney that the mere suggestion of Tropfest’s relocation had inner-city hipsters stomping in their Doc Martin’s. It’s a place that has been the object of derision from outsiders for the last fifty years. A bastion of the working class and refugees that has been treated as little more than a regional appendage that the city does its best to ignore. It hasn’t always been thought of that way.

Parramatta’s history is a rich tapestry that extends beyond any one specific time. Yet it is one that seems likely to be buried under the steel and concrete of Sydney’s gentrification machine. In a bid to save Sydney from overpopulation, unaffordable housing and a lack of jobs, the Greater Sydney Commission will spend over $2 billion to manufacture Parramatta into ‘Australia’s Next Great City’. As Australia’s second colony is moulded into its new form, I can’t help by wonder what will be memorialised, and what parts of the town’s history will become the silent victims of ‘progress’.

Even now it is difficult to imagine Parramatta before colonial discovery. For upwards of sixty-thousand years the Burramattagal tribe and their neighbours — the Wategoragal and Wangal tribes to the east and south, the Wallumettigal and Kameraigal to the north and the Toongagal and Warmuli to the west — together formed the Darug nation, who lived off the fertile land at the head of the Parramatta River, ’the place where the eels lay.’ They shaped the landscape with fire, burning underbrush and crafting acres of flat, low grass in which to hunt. There was plenty to hunt: possums, kangaroos and wombats all roamed, and potentially megafauna like Diprotodons (a hippopotamus-sized wombat) and Procoptodon Goliahs (a Shaquille O’Neill sized Kangaroo). The river and its freshwater tributaries were a source of life for the native aborigines and wildlife, until the migaloo mula came on boats from Port Jackson with guns and disease and what had brought them life for thousands of years ushered in their death and displacement.

I stand on Marsden Street bridge and visualise the layers of time that flow like the river current.  I see a group of aborigines, knee-deep in the water with their spears poised, fish darting about their ankles. The image fades and steel grey fumes billow from steam boats floating by. Another fade and I’m in the present, staring at a drain pipe as it oozes its brown sludge into the coffee-coloured river. A Coke bottle bobs across the surface. In 1888 this area was a huge public bathing facility. Freshwater from the river was drawn into hot and cold baths and a large swimming basin. Another spot a few hundred metres down the river was Little Coogee, a popular swimming hole. None of it is swimmable now. Not without risk of cancer.

In 1986 the 100-year-old Baths building was demolished to make way for the Riverside Theatre, a place ‘for the community to gather by the river’. For hundreds of years we had a place to gather — the river itself, which now plays an ornamental role in the community rather than a practical one. The Our Living River initiative aims to make the river swimmable again by 2025. Just $5 million has been dedicated to this revival. To put Government priorities in perspective: $2 billion has been dedicated to the Parramatta Square project, $220.5 million on a new high-rise UWS campus, $100 million on two new schools, a further $100 million on additional ferry services, $10 million on relocating the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta and $10 million on a feasibility study into a Light Rail Network. It seems that ‘Australia’s Next Great City’ is one that values private commercial gain over the health of the local ecosystem, where building up means stomping down.

I walk up Marsden Street and cut through Prince Alfred Park. Constant drilling and hammering pound in my ears. It’s cool under the tropical palm trees with their pinnate leaves hanging like leafy feather dusters. The grass is green and so are the brush box trees. Red flowers blaze from the firewheel trees. I can almost see why Governor Arthur Phillip wrote that the area, called Rose Hill at the time and his preference for the colony’s capital, was ‘as fine as any I have seen in England’. But in the late 1790s, after Arthur Phillip had returned home to Somerset, the space that is now the park, as well as that covered by Riverside Theatres, was a less majestic setting: Parramatta’s first gaol. After the initial log building was burnt down in a prisoner revolt, a sturdier two-storey stone prison was constructed on the same spot.

This is what Mr. Gilbert Smith, a resident of 18th Century Parramatta, calls ‘the good old days’. A time when men and women were lined up in the stocks outside the gaol walls daily. Most, in true Australian fashion, had been found guilty of drunkenness and chosen two hours in the stocks over a fine of five shillings. But, there was a far more grotesque form of public amusement in what became known as ‘the Hanging Green’. Any guesses? The most famous execution was when the ringleaders of The Castle Hill Rebellion, an uprising of 200 Irish convicts who hoped to escape and sail back to Ireland, were hanged in 1804. At 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening, as the sun dipped below the horizon, one of the men, Samuel Humes, was hanged and gibbeted: an archaic practice where the executed person’s body was hung in chains from the gallows to deter any potential criminals. Now fairy lights hang from the trees on summer evenings.

A left turn and I emerge on Church Street. I stroll north, past the McDonalds and Anytime Fitness, past an E-Cigarette store and the bright-red facade of Deepslice Pizza. I stop in front of the Royal Oak Hotel. Back in 1831 when the historic pub was built, Church Street, with its dirt road and horse drawn carriages, would be familiar to any Clint Eastwood fan. Now the roads are paved, and cars replaced horses long ago, but the Royal Oak still stands stoically. It’s a locals pub. A game day institution for Wanderers and Eels fans. A place where food is hearty, the beer is cheap and the names Sterling, Kenny and Grothe still mean something. It’s ‘like a Cheers bar, everyone has their seat,’ says Ben Walsh, joint publican for the past 10 years with his father, Robbie. Not for much longer. Within a year, the 180-year-old pub will be destroyed to make way for the aforementioned Parramatta Light Rail, which will run from the CBD down Church Street. The E-Cigarette store will remain.

Towards the south end of Church Street, the eclectic menagerie of multicultural restaurants and cafes known as “Eat Street” is under threat too. Parramatta’s egalitarian migrant hub and a sanctuary for people of all socio-economic backgrounds will also fall victim to the light rail. The development will dig up the narrow strips used for outdoor dining areas — the main drawcard and seating for visitors, for between one and five years. Business owners know the fate that awaits them. Sydney’s Light Rail monster has led to boarded up windows, bankrupt businesses and revenue drops of more than half. Eat Street is next.

Something similar took place in the 1850s when the railway arrived. The entire centre of the city moved from George Street and River Wharf to Church Street, which had previously been a residential area. Overnight it became a Victorian Town complete with steam trains, gas lamps and new industrial businesses like blacksmiths, tanneries, brick kilns and tweed mills. Old colonial houses that had stood since the colony was a row of thatched timber huts were demolished. Church Street became a retail centre where Exley the Bootman would repair your boots and brew you a fine afternoon tea, G.E. Richardson would sell you jewellery from Europe and Rawlinson’s was the most popular of the 16 grocers’.

The town flourished, and its capital increased alongside its population. Land, labour and entrepreneurship meant Parramatta was in a ‘long boom’ and seemed destined to develop into an industrial metropolis. But like a rubber band pulled to its limit, eventually over-expansion led to a depression that started in the mid-1880s and continued into the early 20th century. At one point, The Domain, a small portion of which is now modern-day Parramatta Park, provided a safe place for hundreds of homeless men. Nightly, they would use ‘the niches and crevices of the rocks as their dormitories’ and wrap themselves in old newspapers for warmth. Some strategies never evolve. To suggest that current gentrification could lead to a present-day depression would be overly dramatic. However, there is a lesson to be learnt from Parramatta’s history of putting economic development over preserving the character of the area and the wellbeing of its citizens.

Orange sunlight shines on the Town Hall’s pale pink facade as I wander into Centenary Square. A crane peaks over the buildings shoulder. Cranes seem to be everywhere in Parramatta, like an origami class. People rush past with their heads ducked down, heading for the station. A giant portion of the square is covered in a black fence which surrounds the construction site of the new Parramatta Square. Opposite the Town Hall, a blood red wreath lays across the World War I memorial in front of St. John’s Church. It is the day before Anzac Day and there is a sign next to the monument that reads in bold letters, “PARRAMATTA REMEMBERS”. I wonder how true that is as I stare at the names of those Parramatta locals who fell in the scorched earth of distant towns: The two Burnell brothers, the three Filby brothers, M.W. Anderson and a man that shares my last name, D.D. Delaney. They used to be people. Men with mothers and girlfriends and favourite books. Now they are just dim gilded names, faded like the memories of the Parramatta that they left and never returned to.

As I pass the black fence on my way to the station I spot something that gives me pause. Posters are pasted across one side of the fence depicting what Parramatta will look like at the completion of the redevelopment. The images look like something from Blade Runner — a cyberpunk metropolis of neon lights and holograms and angular glass buildings that cut through the air like spaceships. What I see is initially impressive — seductive, even — then I realise what is so bothersome about it. It is a skyline, a vision, a future without an identity. A skyline crafted by the highest bidder, a soulless hub of office buildings, retail space and apartments with complete emptiness in-between.

The poster changes shape and now I see the Burramattagal people along the riverbank again. I see horse drawn carriages running from The Woolpack to the orange orchards in Castle Hill, I see Sarah Baylay, who murdered her child with an axe, being led in chains to the Parramatta Asylum and I see the happy grin of Captain Bond, an American whaler and the first man to get permission to sell alcohol in the colony. The black fence fades and I’m in a sea of low grass that stretches to the horizon. The drilling has stopped. I hear the trickle of a nearby stream. I look over and see a wombat lapping at the water’s edge and Aboriginal children splashing in the shallows. I lock eyes with a tall, dark woman by the water and she smiles at me. I smile back. Then I blink and I’m looking at the poster again, but I don’t see ‘Australia’s Next Great City,’ I see a great city being destroyed. Cities aren’t made from buildings. They are made from memories, stories and characters — they are made from history.


Author: Jack Delaney

23-year-old with the knees of an 83-year-old. Luckily I spend my time writing, reading and watching films. I'm in love with potato wedges.

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