thirty years ago

Vanessa invites me on a tour of Parramatta Road, 1976. I show up at her place, a bit late, offering a pumpkin. We drink some tea. She’s made sesame seed biscuits. Vanessa plays me a few songs from an op shop record, a Polish singer called Mieczyslaw Fogg. A real crooner. The excellent typography of the album cover claims he is the “Sinatra of Poland”.

Vanessa has been researching a particular set of shops along Parramatta Road. In the mid seventies, it seems, traffic was restricted from parking or stopping for great stretches along this major thoroughfare. This was the cause of much consternation to the owners of the shops between Petersham Street and Railway Street. The shopkeepers predicted business would falter if their customers could not park outside and duck in to pick up a few things.

Throughout 1976, the local paper ran a full page layout each week all about “Parramatta Road”. It was a thinly veiled advertising feature for this struggling set of shops. Nearly every week, articles featuring local councillors’ opinions on the seemingly insoluble parking crisis were surrounded by advertisements for the ailing retail outlets. The overall tone of these news pages contained an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, hard-hitting criticism of the parking law changes hinted at the possibility of imminent financial collapse; and on the other, an atmosphere of jaunty optimism attempted to instill confidence in existing customers… “Business as usual”.

parramatta road 1976

One edition of the paper, a Christmas special, contains an ad for all the shops participating in a “Bring your children to see Santa” promotion. This is Vanessa’s source material. Dressed in her best mid-70s polyester and beads, and clutching a clipboard, she leads me from one shopfront to another. We go back to 1976. In front of each store, we stop, and she delivers a short report on the secret lives of the people who work inside.

  • The CBC Bank at the corner of Petersham Street has pens with a writing action so smooth they are always being stolen: yanked off their strings by louts, or snipped by cunning old ladies with nail scissors…
  • The owner of Action Canvas is recovering from having his hand-made Open/Closed sign pinched…
    at Miramare Italian Restaurant, a lone diner has eaten the same meal every night for three months…
  • The Aeropolis Milk Bar becomes a haven for non-macho construction workers…
  • Rivalry between John Wayne, who runs a discount shoe store, and Andrew, from Eagle Star Dry Cleaners, has almost reached breaking point…
  • and Doria Furniture-Electrical make the outrageous claim that their couches will be “as good as new in 30 years”…

As we work our way along the shopfronts, east to west, I take a few photos. Vanessa narrates, and I try to reconcile hopes, dreams, and aspirations from 1976, with this set of rag-tag businesses in 2006. The chemist which now occupies the former home of John Wayne’s Discount Shoes has its very few items laid out sparsely on ample shelves. A set of combs here, a couple of toothbrushes there, separated by vast expanses of empty space. There’s a jewellery store which at night seems abandoned. In the day, however, old men sit right down the far end of the shop, grinding metal on ancient machines. Some of the shops have been knocked down altogether, replaced by the the smooth khaki corporate surfaces of the Inner-Western Courier newspaper office. Several are simply empty, and it seems they’ve been that way for some time.

We reach the end of the row, at which point it becomes apparent: of the 18 shops that existed in 1976, not one remains today.

1 thought on “thirty years ago

  1. Janet

    I have lived above a shop on Parramatta Rd for more than a decade, and things are always changing… Shops and people come and go, the only real constant is the incessant noise of the traffic (it helps to be slightly deaf).

    Lucas I love this site and this project!

    Reply

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