Faces in the Street

Gary Mudler, one of the faces of Petersham. Photo: Millie Dondas



Then, flowing past my window, like a tide in its retreat …
But, Ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes

– Taken from ‘Faces in the Street’ by Henry Lawson

The aubergine and green-coloured minimalist décor of ‘Ubergoodness’ in Sydney’s Petersham says trendy organic; next to the bright red, yellow and green of the neighbouring Portuguese chicken shops, the crammed delis and the decaying pastels of the looming Majestic roller skating rink.

What would Henry Lawson think now if he stood in Petersham? There is a plaque at Petersham railway station commemorating Henry Lawson after he struck the keynote of one of his famous poems ‘Faces in the Street’ there. The title probably wouldn’t change but the observations and the colour in it would reflect the new, developing character of the suburb.

With property prices rising faster than anywhere else in the city, the suburb is experiencing a change in demographics. Going is the immigrant population, no longer able to afford living in the area, and moving in are the young professionals starting families.

Local schools are happy with enrolments up. So is Stephen Bealing, co-owner of Ubergoodness, who started the business 15 months ago as an online organic grocery delivery service that also sold at local markets. Just after Christmas last year they opened up the Petersham store.

Petersham, in Sydney’s inner west, is known as ‘Little Portugal’. From the 1950s to 1970s, the area had a large influx of migrants from Greece, Portugal and Vietnam, with 34% of residents in the area born overseas according to the 2006 census. This percentage is falling. Between 2001 and 2006, the biggest increase in the population was Australian-born residents.

“It is a changing suburb; the old-fashioned image of Petersham is changing. It used to be known as the Portuguese quarter in Sydney but we noticed a lot of younger families moving into the area,” Mr Bealing says. “The whole nature of the suburb is changing. People are becoming more organically minded and wanting healthier lifestyles.”

He agrees with property analysts that the area is becoming gentrified. Ubergoodness is introducing the business to a new market that is not being catered for in the area. He genuinely believes there is now a real need and demand for organic fruit and vegetables. While some of the older generation come into the shop, he says the majority of local customers are younger people living in apartment blocks and families buying houses in the suburb.

The main shopping strip of Petersham, along New Canterbury Road, seems as if it is ready and waiting for a new tide of business. There are the many closed shops like the old fruit and vegetable market on the corner of Hunter Street with filthy windows and empty trolleys inside. There are newly renovated but empty premises and looming developments that will be looking to cater to the changing character of Petersham. The Majestic skating rink has been closed since 2001 but recently has had signs put up announcing the development of the majestic old building. A prominent landmark on the strip that will be rebuilt as a group of individual businesses to cater for the incoming, upmarket tastes.

SBS’s Food Safari presenter Maeve O’Meara takes foodies around Petersham for her Taste of Portugal tours. Amongst the traffic, noise and fumes of New Canterbury Road, there are restaurants and cafes, butcheries, a bakery, and a deli focused on Portuguese cuisine. There are other tastes from regions including Asia with an interesting evolution to South American cuisine. When asked about the future of the Petersham shopping area Mr Bealing expects more diversity while still retaining the Portuguese influence. He points out the example of a Portuguese restaurant being replaced by a Brazilian one.

Being educated is an important part of living in the suburb. Petersham has more of its population holding a postgraduate degree than the rest of Australia on average. Residents holding a bachelor degree are above the average by nine percent. These figures will continue to rise as the Marrickville electorate which includes Petersham has the highest proportion of its population attending tertiary education in the state (12.6%).

The occupations of people working in Petersham are changing. Professionals are increasing, making up 36% of the workforce (national average 20%) and labourers and machinery operators are decreasing. Average income is above the national average. Higher income earners make up a larger proportion of residents, with Petersham in the $1000- 2000 per week group (Petersham 25%, National 16%) and$2000+ group (Petersham 8%, National 4%).

Petersham is also part of a changing area politically. The local Marrickville council is controlled by the Greens and was close to electing a Greens member of parliament in the state election for the seat of Marrickville. No longer is it a Labor stronghold. The state seat has now become marginal with sitting Labor member Carmel Tebbutt scraping in with 50.9% of the two party preferred votes. The final result was the second largest swing towards the Greens in state history.

The poet Henry Lawson wrote his poem ‘Faces in the Street’ inspired by the locals in the suburb. The poem was largely written while standing on Petersham train station in 1888 as a young man aged 21. The poet had connections to the White Cockatoo Hotel, or the Lord Carrington as it was known then, and it’s likely he would have worked on the poem over a couple of drinks there. The poem is about poverty and the drudgery of the worker’s life. It ends by calling for revolution, one that is red. If he could see Petersham now, the colour of change is different but it still is on the left side of politics. With his feelings about inequality, one wonders what he would make of the area’s gentrification.

While the older immigrant population in Petersham may be dwindling in number, flowing past the window of Ubergoodness, like a tide in its retreat, their influence will remain in the character of the streets as a more affluent, greener, more organic and young suburb emerges.

Click here to view the photo gallery: Streets of Petersham

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