Arts & Entertainment

UPtown Festival

Photo: Raúl Ortiz de Lejarazu Machin

By Rita Bratovich.

Back before cars and high rise apartments sealed humans inside insular bubbles, people lived in small villages and interacted with each other daily. The town square was a place to meet and transact business, discuss municipal issues and celebrate together – it gave people a strong sense of community.

In big, modern cities, it’s difficult to achieve that same sense of community, and yet it’s vital to human mental health.

“There’s been a lot of research around social cohesion. Creating opportunities for that to happen is incredibly important,” says Rene McKenzie-Low, Community Engagement Officer at City West Housing. Her organisation is one of the principal sponsors of the newly revived UPtown Festival.

From 1981 to 2012 UPtown Festival was the key community event for the Ultimo Pyrmont precinct until a lack of funds and resources forced its demise. Then, last year, McKenzie-Low helped put together a united group of service providers, charities and  institutions under the name PUNS (Pyrmont Ultimo Network Services). Their first mission was a community consultation conducted by Mustard Seed (Uniting) Church and Uniting Harris Community Centre.

“They interviewed homeless people, kids from the primary school, international students, businesses… different cohorts within the area to find out what they wanted happening in the area…[what they] wanted [was] a community event that was meaningful,” says McKenzie-Low. Bringing back UPtown Festival felt like an obvious solution and the festival themes – Our Stories and Spirit Of Place – were a natural fit.

Ultimo Pyrmont has changed physically and demographically over the years. It is one of the fastest developing, high density areas in the country, but this has led to a loss in sense of self and place for its inhabitants. “It’s like Sydney’s Manhatten here!” McKenzie-Low remarks.

That’s why it’s important for locals to share their stories and in particular, their histories. McKenzie-Low has heard anecdotes from residents about growing up in a single tenement with three families; or, as kids, riding a length of cardboard down the grassy knoll (no longer there) at the end of Harris Street.

Artistic Director Sandra Morales says the theme helped guide creative decisions about the festival.

“There are all the stories and the spirit of the Ultimo and Pyrmont community – past, present and future. We’re embracing and honouring our rich indigenous culture and heritage and our culturally and linguistically diverse community.”

Bulwarra Road will become a walk-through gallery and feature a mural entitled Spirit Of Place, painted by esteemed Mexican artist Alejandro Martinez (aka Peque) and honouring the stories of Ultimo Pyrmont and the Gadigal people.

Aboriginal Dance troupe, Milan Dhiiyaan (“One Mob”), have created a song and dance as a tribute to the custodians of the land. Not only has the song become the anthem for the festival, but the dance has been taught to over 200 locals who (spoiler alert!) will perform it as part of three separate “flash mobs” during the festival. Participants have come from all sectors of the community – Ultimo Public School, Rainbow Lodge, Chinese seniors groups, international students. Around 70 workshops have run weekly rehearsals for the first-of-its-kind spectacle.

Underscoring the festival’s tenet of inclusion and accessibility, inspirational speaker and disability advocate, Sarah Hoboult will astound the crowd with a hula hoop routine. She’ll also be running workshops during the day.

The Our Stories theme will be accentuated through a side project called Humans of Ultimo Pyrmont. Locals have been and will be encouraged to share personal photographs and stories about their experience living in the area. These stories will be displayed on stalls and shared by performers throughout the festival. They are also being shared on social media channels.

As well as the aforementioned, the festival will feature visual artist, Carlos Agamez with a live art installation; a live DJ and live bands; local choirs and performers, workshops, pop up art gallery, a variety of food and general goods stalls and the infectiously energetic Hot Potato Band who will close out the festival. The focus will be on culture and art in community.

“I’m passionate about the arts and I believe in the arts. It’s like a bridge for social transformation and it’s something everyone can understand,” says Morales.

Production Manager, Oscar Sanchez coordinated the last two festivals before its hiatus. “It’s a great feeling to have the event back,” he beams.

Sanchez has been with Uniting Harris Community Centre for many years and they originally ran the festival on their own. Now he sees the importance and advantage of having many different community groups involved. The association of organisations within PUNS allows opportunity for shared resources, wider promotion, inclusion and synergy.

“Without the support of the local community and without PUNS we wouldn’t be having this event,” says Sanchez.

Equally important have been the volunteers, all of whom have been very keen and very generous with their time. Sanchez is still seeking volunteers and encourages anyone interested to go to the Facebook page. It’s this ground level participation that will inject the festival with a sense of camaraderie and local pride.

The venue, Quarry Green, has been the home of the festival since it began and recently received an upgrade from City Of Sydney. It’s very accessible to locals but is not a particularly large area, so Sanchez has had to be creative:

“We are using as many resources as possible and as many spaces as possible.”

Bulwarra Road will be closed from Quarry Green to William Henry Street; Harris Community Centre will be a gathering place for performers; Mustard Seed Church will be a temporary gallery and will provide some quiet respite; Ultimo Community Centre will be made available for the afternoon.

If enthusiasm and participation count for anything, this promises to be a wonderful event and should herald the return of an annual community festival.

Oct 28, 11am-5pm, Quarry Green, Ultimo. FREE. Info:

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