Back in the days when trams rattled up and down Oxford Street, the Darlinghurst end of this major CBD artery was a thriving commercial hub. The last trams, which of course took you all the way to Bondi Beach, ran in 1960 and in the ensuing six decades Oxford Street has certainly seen its ups and downs.
At the moment it is very much in the ‘downs’ and the strip that runs from South Dowling Street down to Whitlam Square has probably never looked more depressed. Vacant shops proliferate and many of the existing businesses look like they are hanging on for grim death.
The once flourishing night-time culture which saw numerous restaurants and night clubs is now but a shadow of past decades. Even with a relaxation of the lockout laws, the future looks bleak. The once vibrant gay scene appears to have largely deserted the strip and despite the street’s significance in the gay community, they don’t look like returning soon.
Despite various initiatives on the part of the Sydney City Council aimed at reviving the area as a creative precinct for the arts, it’s the commercial businesses that need to thrive to inject life back into the strip. There was a time from the 70s right through until the start of the 2000s when the section between South Dowling Street and Taylor Square was alive with restaurants including the long-running Balkan. Now the vacant shops clearly outnumber those that are occupied, making it tough for the surviving businesses such as The Bookshop, with a reduction in passing trade both day and night.
You have to wonder what expectations the landlords who own these long-vacant shops have, whether they are prepared to wait for years to find a tenant willing to pay the kind of rent they are demanding – or whether keeping the shop unoccupied makes for a convenient tax right off against other properties they might own.
Clover Moore once suggested a tax on shops that remained vacant for an extended period – perhaps a good idea but fraught with all kinds of legalities. It’s also been suggested that landlords of vacant premises make them available in the short term at much-reduced rents for pop-up shops, although the idea does not seem to have been embraced.
In the meantime, all we can do is wallow in the nostalgia of the ‘old’ Oxford Street in the hope that one day it will undergo a renaissance. Remember the 24-hour newsstand outside the Oxford Hotel where you could buy a copy of that day’s Sydney Morning Herald at 1am in the morning – and inside the same pub the legendary Oxford Fun House where Radio Birdman burst onto the Sydney scene.
Beatle Village, Klub Kakadu, French’s, DCM – just a few of the famous clubs that have made Oxford Street their home over the years, not to mention the infamous Oxford Sinema which thrived in the laissez-faire atmosphere of the 80s. As the title suggests the Sinema was a shameless porn theatre, with the added attraction of live ladies on stage, rotated from its sister grindhouse, The Hub in Newtown.
And Gould’s Bookshop, the Pop Shop, Remo, Gowings, Central Station Records and Buckingham’s Department Store, which sadly burned down in 1968 – some of the classic retailers on the strip.
As the CBD becomes more and more bland, Sydney needs fringe areas like Oxford Street, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross – where smaller retailers and restauranteurs can operate economically without the exorbitant rents of the city proper. They should be areas that can accommodate creativity, eccentricity and a bit of seediness, all at the same time – a welcome escape from the soulless concrete jungle.