I love the Blue Mountains. It’s the closest thing I have to a second home. I get misty-eyed driving down its long streets on ridge-tops and going to garage sales on foggy mornings. Both sets of in-laws live there, I still run into people I know wherever I go. I regularly stay in Blaxland or Wentworth Falls and have twice done house-sitting to get away from the city. It’s an escape, plus, it is where I enjoyed most of my childhood.
But there’s a problem – things haven’t changed.
It’s been 15 years since the audacious Winmalee High Class of 1995 set off into a world with many more ethnic types and much less concrete than we had seen for six years.
Which brings me to my first troubling point – it’s no less white than it used to be.
In our class, we perpetuated a myth that our school was ‘the most racially pure’ in the state of New South Wales. I always thought that any small school in far west NSW would win that contest because we did have the occasional student of Asian or Aboriginal or Indian extraction.
But the lovable towns of Springwood (where I lived) , Blaxland , Glenbrook and Leura all paint a picture of an Australia largely untouched by anyone who isn’t Anglo or at least an Anglophile. Sure, there’s an occasional Thai restaurant and the Chinese eateries (the kind that have been there since 1981 that still serve deep fried dim-sims worthy of any good food court) but where are the deeper changes that would occur if the culture was more mixed?
I’m thinking of seeing more non-Anglos on council, discussion of cultural issues in the paper beyond how can we stop a new servo setting up, ads for community events that are for Korean Food Fests or Tongan church services. Currently, the Gazette – the local paper of which I am a big fan – is filled with people whinging about big-chain supermarkets, complaints of too many trucks, plus ads for knitting workshops or for Alcoholics Anonymous.
And that brings me to my second disappointment. I feel as if the place is not coming up in the world, it’s possibly going down. This observation – and that’s all it is – could come from a few things…
- Is it a lack of money coming into the area (not that Woolies aren’t trying!)? Glenbrook and Leura’s house prices certainly shot up five years ago and I expected other suburbs to follow. That didn’t seem to occur. No big industry is setting up here and attracting skilled professionals. The primary focus remains tourism and that’s fed largely by a dysfunctional highway forever under construction. The trains, still running once an hour as they did fifteen years ago, are made up of the same skanky carriages that prove the state government couldn’t care less. Areas like North Katoomba appear on the slide into social disrepair and the same might be said of Bullaburra or Mount Riverview. They feel isolated and run down just as, I imagine, do many people who live there.
- The council doesn’t seem to be keeping up. In the areas I just mentioned, you will find streets with years-old graffiti, parks with cyclone fences erected in the eighties. As a result, no one uses these parks. The RTA isn’t helping as large strips along the highway are overgrown. I keep spotting the kinds of desolate, rubbish-strewn vacant blocks that evoke the dodgier parts of western Sydney.
- The dodgier parts of western Sydney are the new residents of the Blue Mountains. This observation is one that has been confirmed to me by more than one long-term resident. It’s purely demographic and could well be the result of real-life issues like rising house prices forcing people further west. So the problem here is that employment, services and a community optimism that could lift people into better attitudes and greater aspirations is not there. It possibly starts at the teenage level. There was certainly little to do when I was that age. I see they now have a skate park. Lucky that didn’t take twenty years.
Let’s be honest, I didn’t totally fit in to the landscape of the Blue Mountains, like some do. I wanted to be a rock climber but didn’t have the stamina nor the tolerance for sore, cold fingers. (It is the perfect pastime when you live in an area of cliffs, lookouts and bushwalks.) I didn’t like to drink, which was how many friends chose to spend their time. But I was social. I just wanted to hang out. My options? The pub or the pub, and that has barely changed.
I am now an inner-west snob. I love my cafes and I refuse to go somewhere that doesn’t understand ambience is just as important as a good coffee. Springwood, for its part, has one place known for great coffee and it’s a take-away in an ugly-as-heck arcade. It makes most of its money off real estate staff. The other cafes appear run by middle-aged women who think a throw rug and a few steel chairs is what will keep people buying more focaccia. Focaccia! Blaxland has this chronic. Glenbrook is doing slightly better (see photo).
So what can be done? I need ideas if I am going to sit and whine on a blog.
- Council shake-up.
BMCC is afraid of big business and it’s killing the area. This, I should note, is a complete switch from my previous view. I still hate what McDonalds, Coles and Woolworths represent. But Blaxland did improve after Maccas came. (It even gave me a job when I was genuinely desperate. Gee that place lives of needy, naive fifteen-year-olds.) Yet the town centre didn’t die. Sadly, the local take-aways didn’t die as they said they would. Seriously, the best coffee in Blaxland is now served inside a TILE SHOP. Someone bust out an Aldi or a Target or – heaven forbid – a Gloria Jeans. (UPDATE: Winmalee now has both Target Country(!) & Gloria Jeans)
- Break the monopolies.
Nearly every shop on Macquarie Road is owned by one of two men. The shop owners call it ‘the cartel’. They charge what they want and reject who they want. It’s why so few shops change and you get money-for-nothing shops like TWO DOLLAR DAZZLER shops and horrid new-age/greenie/tie-dyed-ponchos-are-us shops as they are the only ones able to make rent. It’s trashy, people only buy it because it’s cheap and it dumbs us all down.
The bus company was Pearce Coaches throughout my school years and a lack of competition meant an annual fight between parents, schools and Pearce about why there were not more routes. I don’t know the situation there now but it still looks like one company calling the shots.
Real Estates are monopolies up here too. Local Real Estate mogul Jim Aitken must own every second house and unfortunately, he has enough cash to start opening cafes – INSIDE HIS REAL ESTATES. Buy a latte … and a battle-axe. WTF! (His latest effort is the realisation of a ‘25-year-dream‘ to get a massive panorama of Australiana painted inside his Glenbrook cafe. It is hideous. He must be stopped. Did anyone tell him Echo Point – a real panorama – is up the road?
- Start with Katoomba.
Katoomba’s main street has a few interesting points but the rest is all nostalgia. The Paragon is a dark and overpriced cafe some people love for its olde worlde charm. For a real buzz, they should look over the road to a weird shop selling Catholic iconography as if it’s still 1950. The Clarendon, The Carrington… There’s a Lifeline shop which seems to get what the other op-shops can’t sell and there’s Macarthurs. Macarthurs has a Mad Barry’s frontage but inside it is a mish-mash DIY antique store run by some mischievous oddballs who expect $650 for second-hand replica European sofas. To their credit, they tell me they plan have big plans for a mezzanine and a cafe with mountain views… if anyone ever buys a sofa.
Katoomba is the area’s real tourism hope but the main street has seen very little of what transformed Echo Point. As a result, most traveler scoot to the Three Sisters then head out-of-town. No time spent, no local culture experienced and no memories of the real Blue Mountains to share with friends.
Where I grew up, the people were friendly and, thankfully, they still are. This should be the real impression left on visitors to the Blue Mountains and one the residents are proud of. Yet with many aspects of amenity already lost, from dingy parks to bored, boozing teens congregating in neglected town centres, the Blue Mountains may soon have very little to lay claim to… except that it is one of the most racially pure areas in the state.
And even that one’s a myth.