Return to Oz

January is my time to reminisce about life in Australia, partly because Australia Day falls on January 26, and partly because here in Canada this is the coldest, snowiest time of the year.

So while Oz is still on my mind and January comes to a close, I'm going to share an article I wrote for a local paper here in Ottawa about a Sydney neighbourhood called Glebe. My feature story  was a comparison between our own 'hood in Ottawa, "The Glebe" and the "Glebe" in New South Wales.

Check out the centre spread here on pages 22-23, or read the article below.

Australia's Glebe, New South Wales

By Frankie Leclair
The Glebe Report - April 17, 2009

Take a walk through Glebe and the experience will be nothing short of unique. It’s a friendly neighbourhood where students and professionals collide in a bustling atmosphere.Where Victorian houses characterize
the streets, perhaps as yuppy-ridden, but where the artistic and natural flair of the community abound along the streets, attracting all types of people.
It’s an urban haven where the tranquility of lapping water meets the colourful flair of an eclectic main
street. This land of churches is an artist’s dream locale with cafes, bookstores and markets, and a partier’s
delight with the city’s original venue of crab racing… Wait a second…
Just so we’re clear, this is the Glebe’s antipodal counterpart we’re
talking about: Australia’s Glebe, New South Wales.
Various greenery, fig trees among them, line the streets of this innercity hub known as Sydney’s bohemian village. Located just south-west of Sydney’s central business district, Glebe (not “the” Glebe) was established in the 1820s as a wealthy neighbourhood.
“It is one of the oldest suburbs in Australia,” says chamber of commerce President Paul Angell. He says the history is working class, although it might depend on what calibre of work one might deem
as “working class,” for Glebe’s history is that of Victorian homes and Sydney’s elite. Doctors, lawyers and
politicians bounded the streets in their expensive couture. People like Sir Edmond Barton, Australia’s first prime minister, among other politicians, writers and athletes lived in the old community.
“Current history finds a very social liberal community that straddles areas of public housing and waterfront properties,” says Angell. Today, many historic homes have been converted into flats and businesses, and
with a short walk down the street, it is evident that residents vary from the businessman waiting for the bus
alongside a dreadlocked tree hugger, to a book savvy student and a curious traveller; the blend of people is of an eclectic variety, and the elite are still among them.
Australian journalist and radio presenter Deborah Cameron calls Glebe home, as does stage actor Nicholas Martin Gledhill and musician turned designer Reg
Mombassa.
“In a way, we are a tale of two cities in terms of socioeconomic demographics,” says Angell.
Centered between the calm waters of Blackwattle Bay to the north, the University of Sydney to the south,
and parks to the east and west, Glebe is its own little village inside the city.The tightly knit community is centred at the main artery, Glebe Point Road, which runs north-south from Paramatta Road to the waters of the bay, and holds all of life’s needs in its open-concept shops.
Crowded store-front windows line one side of Glebe Point Road, while fenced-in homes line the opposite side. From new age health practitioners, to organic food shops, pubs, bookstores and clothing of bohemian style, the vibe is more hippy than preppy, despite the less-than-modest real estate.
Walking a few blocks north, the trees become more dense and homes increase. Among the homes, and
tucked away behind leafy trees, is the Glebe Point YHA, the area’s backpackers’ hostel. Kama, an
employee of the hostel, is a resident of Glebe and an ambassador to newcomers in the community. She says the proximity to the city makes Glebe a perfect area in which to reside.
“It’s a very popular area of Sydney to live in, with some of the highest buying and renting rates in Sydney,” she says. “Even though it doesn’t have beach views.”
“There are the richer families who live in million dollar homes, there’s a lot of student accommodation because of the university ... and a lot of single professionals looking to live close to the city,” says Kama. There are also some larger homes that have been transformed into youth homes and family support centres.
A walk through some of the residential areas is a step back into history. Most homes were built in the later
1800s and each is unique in structure ranging from Victorian, to Georgian with some Italian inspiration in the
detailed architecture. These days, an average house sells for $785,000 AUD (about CA$689,000) according to www.glebesydney.com, the area’s own go-to website.
Scattered among these old homes are churches with gothic appeal. Glebe, as Glebites are aware, is a land of churches and this land down under dates back to 1790, when 400 acres of land were granted to the Church of England. Since then, at least six churches have been established.
Standing tall, at the centre-most spot at the corner of St. John’s Road and Glebe Point Road is St. John’s
Bishopthorpe Anglican Church. Built in 1870, the Victorian sandstone structure is a step back from modern
day architecture. Fenced in and hidden behind ancient trees, the church is an ominous representation of the
beginnings in Glebe. Standing kitty corner from the church is the Glebe post office. Airy and bright, the Victorian stucco two-storey building was built in 1890. These are only two of many classic architectural marvels in Glebe, along with the old Town Hall, the police station and various rustic gated homes.
The rows of shops and cafes along Glebe Point Road have held on to their classic appeal, however their entrances have been transformed to suit their open-concept businesses. As well as converting the bottom front of these buildings, some owners have painted the brick in bright eye-catching colours, like Different Drummer, a cocktails and tapas bar in a tall brick building whose front has been painted a deep red, and an institution that the manager modestly says is “part of the furniture” in Glebe after
many years in the village.
Next to Different Drummer sits the well established Gleebooks which has been one of Australia’s favourite
bookstores since 1975. So popular was the shop that a second location containing newer items and space
for book signings, live readings and other literary events was opened down the road.
“Glebe has gone through decades of neglect as we are on the border of two councils,” says Angell. But just a few years ago, Glebe switched councils to the City of Sydney, which is more capable of funding community restoration and revitalization projects. “We’ve also just launched our new brand and marketing campaign to promote the cultural experience of
Glebe.”
Angell, like most residents of Glebe, describes the vibe as “a cafĂ© culture with excellent restaurants,” and their main focus is to attract all types of people seeking a bohemian, artistic location. The eccentric shops, and flavours from around the world do just that.
Much has changed since Glebe’s beginnings many years ago. Currently, the population rests around 13,000 with almost 30 per cent born outside Australia. Glebe is a young community with the largest age group ranging between 25 and 34 years. It is a well qualified and book smart community with 33 per cent of
the population holding a bachelor’s degree or greater and 39 per cent of occupations falling under the “professional” category. And despite the common mention of hippies in the area, only 3 per cent of the population is unemployed. Glebe has two university campuses, three vocational colleges, two high schools and two primary schools, including Glebe Primary School which also serves as the community centre. Everything from playgroups to rock climbing, and parenting classes are
available at the centre. The heavily involved school is also a weekend favourite for the community as it is the location of one of the city’s most popular and established markets.
The Glebe Markets take place every weekend. Saturdays and Sundays artisans of all kinds sell their handmade goods at the colourful outdoor event, which is set up on the local school ground. Similar to the farmers market at Lansdowne Park, anything from fruit and vegetables, to clothing, handcrafted jewelry and homemade soap can be purchased. And after supporting local artists, shoppers can sit in the grass for some live music.
One of the year’s biggest events is the Glebe Street Fair, which Angell says attracts 100,000 people to their
long boulevard. Put on every year by the chamber of commerce just before Christmas (that’s when summer
begins), this unique fair has a few quirky attractions. Apart from a row of stalls the length of roughly five city blocks and a few live bands, festival goers had a chance to test their debate skills on the Arguers Stage at the last Glebe Street Fair, and writers could reveal their talents at the Poets’ Corner.
“We’re also just launching an outdoor gallery which periodically will exhibit amazing artists,” says Angell. “This inaugural year we’re doing an exhibition of ‘150 locals;’ this is a portrait of 150 local identities.” These large portraits, around one metre in height and width, will be hung outdoors around the suburb, to entice visitors and residents to walk around the area.
Although Glebe seems to be a village for the non-commercial types, it’s still a typical city suburb with its
share of supermarkets and the Broadway Shopping Centre. However, even if the commercial choices are cheaper, there is a reason why the boutiques and cafes have thrived in Glebe. As Kama says, “restaurants serving fresh, alternative and foreign food are very popular with Sydneysiders.”
But when it comes to the local watering holes, commercial-types seem to be the big winners in Sydney. Places like Friend in Hand Hotel, a big corner bar open almost round-the-clock features unique
events on a nightly basis, including the aforementioned crab racing. Live music, comedy nights, trivia nights, pool competitions and poetry readings are all featured at this bar where the atmosphere is slightly manic and
where visitors can witness the true talent of the Australian culture. Beer and “pokies” (otherwise known as
slot machines) are the two most crucial items in these bars – where behaviours might be more rowdy than
other areas of Glebe. It may not be as cozy as Irene’s here in our Glebe, but
the crowd is just as diverse.
Glebe is a community much like our own here in Ottawa. Should you find yourself in Australia some day, take a walk through this antipodal neighbourhood and compare it to home. The similarities are countless,
despite the unique trees, the smell of salt water, the accents, the outlandish heat and those little possums in
the park. What you will find is a diverse, family-oriented and historical community that invites people to see
what they have to offer but holds on to that small town appeal.
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