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National Times

Council's plan to rip out heart of the Cross

Delia Falconer
November 5, 2010

Opinion

Sydney council has plans to makeover the Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross.

Sydney council has plans to makeover the Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross.

With its dark stands of yucca, large Chinese elm and low walls, the little park next to the El Alamein Fountain is the heart of Kings Cross. For many residents and visitors to Sydney it is the spiritual heart of the city itself - raffish, a touch raggedy, but fundamentally good-natured.

Walk past Fitzroy Gardens on a hot weekday afternoon and you will see older residents sitting in the shade of its leafy ''rooms''. On Saturdays dogs and babies, homeless and coiffed, gay and straight, young backpackers and older locals cluster on every inch of lawn and wall to eat and chat.

But Fitzroy Gardens lack ''design excellence'', according to the City of Sydney council. So very soon, if the lord mayor, Clover Moore, prevails, it will sign off on plans to ''refresh'' them. When I hit ''refresh'' on my computer it takes me back to an original, usually better, copy of my work. When Moore hits the ''refresh'' button she means delete and replace.

Destined for the bulldozer are Fitzroy Gardens' planter beds made from thousands of pale convict bricks, their shapes mirroring the funky '60s surrounds of the fountain. Most of the park's old trees, including its palms, will be pulped; those that remain rearranged into stiff lines. Out, too, with the park's terraces that preserve the hillside topography of this gentle, sunny spot.

This is part of the council's unrolling plan to give Sydney's parks a makeover. In recent years, inner-city residents have seen park after park fenced off and unusable for months. These tranquil places have all undergone comprehensive (and often locally opposed) upgrades.

Oddly, for a council that aims to ''green'' Sydney, these often involve monumental swathes of concrete. You could divert the Anzac Day parade down the wide ''paths'' slashed through Rushcutters Bay.

But Fitzroy Gardens face a worse fate. According to the council's glossy plans online, we can look forward to a single ''tamed'' level of lawn cut through by ''glistening'' paths. Retail ''pods'' will front the police station opposite. UFO-like metal seats and moulded seating walls will replace the ''disparate arrangement'' of sun-warm brick and benches.

For those of us concerned about the loss of local history, we are promised Gaudi-inspired butterfly-winged seats, recalling the ''jewel-like curios'' in the insect collections of Alexander Macleay, whose Elizabeth Bay house estate once enfolded the park. These changes will reconcile the ''opposing impulses'' of the park, giving it a ''singular identity'' and ''urban order''. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a better description for everything that makes Kings Cross unique than ''opposing impulses'' and a healthy disrespect for ''urban order''.

The Cross has a proud history as a refuge for those who don't fit in. Sydney's Mardi Gras was born in Fitzroy Gardens, as police clashed with gay marchers. Its Chinese elm remains from the gardens of Maramanah, inhabited by eccentric old women, described by Robin Dalton in her memoir Aunts up the Cross. Read poet Kenneth Slessor's journalism, celebrating the eccentric life of the Cross, and you learn that here, in the surrounding streets, were some of the city's first delis, thanks to postwar refugees.

The Cross has long prided itself on cocking a snook at the very idea of ''singular identity''. That is why so many of us, even the mothers and children for whom Moore has expressed the desire to make the park a ''safe'' place, choose to live here.

If you have to make a suburb a village, it isn't one. It's a theme park. But Clover knows best. That she is contemplating such damage in the name of being ''green'' (and in the face of council rumblings and 1000 signatures) only makes it more painful. Still, the developers who longed to ravish The Rocks and Victoria Street, Potts Point, in the '70s, also believed they were being ''modern''.

These gardens were the 1973 work of Ilmar Berzins, Australia's first landscape architect, whose gentle modernism can be felt in Hyde Park and lovely little McElhone Park in front of Elizabeth Bay House. Berzins was ahead of his time, as council's dossier on McElhone Park points out, in making environmentally sensitive ''small-scale interventions'' into the public domain. His light touch makes Fitzroy Gardens even more special.

Delia Falconer is the author of Sydney, published by New South. www.savefitzroygardens.com

28 comments

  • I agree that the gardens has its own raffish charm . Haven't been there for decades, but one of the beauties of Fitzroy Gardens was its mix of citizenry and its ability to maintain a sort of public privacy. While most of the park could be observed from any perspective, you could still be in your own relatively private space with hordes around you. Anything that challenges that quality would be short-sighted.

    Commenter
    BillR
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 7:32AM
  • I don't mean to channel Gillard here but I think we should move forward. To quote Suicidal Tendencies, I think they should "grab it's heart and rip it out and then chew on it, spit it out, throw it on the ground and stomp all over it". King's Cross is a bit of a dive. Spruce it up a bit. Don't live in the old days where drugs users are running around in some sort of bohemian rhapsody. That's my second music reference of the day. I'm very arty. Maybe I should move to Kings Cross.

    Commenter
    jacorb effect
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 7:49AM
  • Every time we modernise something we go further along the path of losing our sense of aesthetics. They had it in the past. We have lost it now. There is also the unhingement that happens when we lose what we love not to mention the poor plants that are going tpo hit the dust.

    Commenter
    Lynne
    Location
    Lismore
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 8:54AM
  • I live in the Cross and totally agree. Fitzroy Gardens along with a couple of other landmarks is integral to the vibe of the Cross & Potts Point. "Refreshing" it into a "polished" urban space might work for Double Bay but not here.

    As to Fitzroy Gardens being "safe" - has Clover Moore been there recently? Its changed a lot since the smack epidemic of the late 80s to mid 90s. The only time it may be unsafe is when Western Sydney comes in to get drunk on a Friday or Saturday night. A shiny park won't stop that.

    Commenter
    Alex
    Location
    Kings Cross
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:09AM
  • Mixed feelings. Love the fountain, but the park is a bit bitsy. Maybe that goes in with the Cross aura but it's not very safe for residents. 75% for new design and 25% against, but maybe that 25% have more taste or something? Really like City of Sydney changes at Rushcutters Bay, good if it's the same designer.

    Commenter
    rosa
    Location
    darlinghurst
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:12AM
  • Fitzroy Gardens - I remember the gardens (and let's use the term loosely) for 2 perfect Kings Cross moments. Firstly, a young man being kicked repeatedly while lying on the ground directly outside the KC Police Station - yes, I intervened. Secondly, for a huge woman taking an enormous dam busting 4pm wee among the pretty flowers in full view of MacLeay St. Lets say, she was well pleased.

    Go Clover, you have done some amazing thinks to improve public amenity in Sydney !

    Commenter
    dem0n
    Location
    Enmore
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:26AM
  • I've lived around the area for 8 years now and Fitzroy Gardens has always been a gorgeous little park.
    The so-called "disparate arrangement" of benches and seats is great because you enjoy the sun & a little privacy at the same time.
    And what about the kid play area? True, it's nothing grand or special but it's somewhere that the local toddlers (our 4yr old included) can have some fun & meet others.
    Leave it as it is Clover - go and put some more concrete in Oxford Street (if there's any grass left) and leave Fitzroy Gardens alone!!

    Commenter
    Ozvamp
    Location
    Darlinghurst
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:37AM
  • I usually agree with Clover but not this time. In the 50s King's Cross was the only really urban part of Sydney precisely for the reasons quoted in this article: the mix, the buzz, the coffee, the activity. It has managed to keep that atmosphere for all that time and more. No Clover don't change it now.

    Commenter
    sangela
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:41AM
  • I am worried about the park redevelopment, especially when the family values mothers and babies phrase is mentioned. There are not that many mothers and babies up the cross, for starters, and there are other places not too far away where they would have a nicer time, such as Rushcutters bay.
    That being said the park as it is does not work - chunks have been sliced off for surrounding businesses and the police station, and few people actually gather and spend time in the park itself. To sit by the fountain, well, you have to pay for a coffee.
    There is the danger that the the park will be developed in such a way so as to discourage homeless people, make it suitable for various businesses to have out door seating, and make it fully observable by police whilst driving past, or even just looking out their window. This will make it a safe park, and maybe one which will look quite nice, but no one will want to gather there.
    What the market people think of the park is not an issue - the park is for the people, not business.
    It is no good as it is, but I am worried that present public space design practices could make it worse.

    Commenter
    Trent
    Location
    Kings Cross
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:52AM
  • Oh gods, not another bland souless "park" that might as well be in the middle of a factory outliet shopping mall for all the personality and affinity with nature it represents.

    While I'm all for cleaning up the amenities a touch, why on earth would they want to flatten it? Is it just so it's easier to mow? Hills are nice. They're soothing to the eye.

    I 100% agree that the charm of the area lies in its diversity. If there is any underlying theme that the council should be aiming for in a refurb though, it's those wonderful old art deco apartment blocks that so attracted post war immigrants to the area as it reminded them of their European home cities (or at least, it did so more than any other part of Sydney could at the time).

    Any upgrade to the park should be about making it more sensitive to what is already there, not less.

    Commenter
    Caity
    Date and time
    November 05, 2010, 9:56AM

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