Perhaps the best analogy is somebody who has endless cosmetic surgery, never satisfied with their current appearance and willing to go to great expense and inconvenience to achieve their desired look. That’s George Street in Sydney’s CBD, the city’s landmark thoroughfare but one which has been continually ripped up, dug up and architecturally violated over the past 50 odd years.
What began in the very early days of settlement as virtually a dirt track linking the Rocks with what is now Central Station, has seen numerous changes over the years. Up until the post-war period, most of this development was positive like the introduction of trams which ran from 1899 to 1959. The street was home to some of Sydney’s finest buildings like the GPO, the Sydney Town Hall and the Queen Victoria Building. There was a uniformity in design that defined the character of Sydney at the time but all that was about to change when the 70s and 80s arrived.
This was the era of corruption, an almost complete lack of urban planning and outrageous corporate greed which changed the streetscape forever, particularly in the area south of the Town Hall. Both the historic Regent Theatre and the massive Anthony Hordern department store were demolished, leaving gaping water filled holes along the street for a number of decades.
From the 80s onwards the southern end, right through to Railway Square, has evolved as a depressing mish mash of ugly and conflicting architectural styles, tatty discount outlets, sex shops, convenience stores, pinball arcades, late night boozers, burger joints and el cheapo hotels. The encroaching China Town precinct has brought some vitality to the area but it’s hardly an area of the city you would call welcoming.
When the street was torn up to install the light rail, taking what seemed like an eternity to complete, all of George Street suffered, but the southern end was easily the hardest hit. Businesses folded, shops were boarded up and you wondered whether it could get any worse. It did of course when COVID arrived and now that strip of George has surely reached its lowest ebb.
It’s not just George Street that has suffered but the immediate peripheries. Liverpool Street, just off George, once boasted a thriving Spanish quarter, which has all but dissipated and is unlikely ever to be reborn. It’s a once vibrant part of the city that has been wiped out forever and faces an inevitable Meritonisation in the future.
Now comes the news that the southern end of George is to be turned into an area of “permanent pedestrianisation”, transforming the section between Bathurst and Railway Square into a “world-class boulevard.” With grants from both the Federal and State governments the Council is throwing $35 million at the project, which on paper at least looks like a positive move.
The worry is that we will see another prolonged period of tearing up the street, similar to that which greatly impacted businesses in Kings Cross and Oxford Street some years ago when the footpaths were widened and repaved. Sadly if history is any precedent, this may well become just another cosmetic band aid on a city which seems to be in a constant state of flux.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could get to a stage where large parts of our city remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years, like London, Paris and New York and the business culture, both big and small, was allowed to thrive. The motto could well be if it’s not broken then don’t f@%# with it. That’s not going to happen in the immediate future and once again the deafening sound of jack hammers will echo up and down what was once considered Australia’s first evert major urban thoroughfare.