Louis Nowra’s new book Woolloomooloo: A Biography explores the history, people and streets of one of Sydney’s most notorious and eclectic suburbs.
Nowra, who lives on the boundary between Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross, wanted to capture the spirit and ‘Chaucerian richness’ of his suburb before it evanesced.
Woolloomooloo has always been a dumping ground for the poor, Nowra says. It also has a reputation for profanity, crime, misery, gambling houses and brutal people.
He describes Woolloomooloo in 1945 as a ‘tight community’ of ‘sly grog sellers, whores, gangsters, bashers, beggars, blind men, good people, bad people, cruel and kind people, drunkards and the devoutly religious’.
In 2017, he says, the community is still close, and extraordinarily diverse—though not without problems. Two major issues are the aggression associated with the use of the methamphetamine ice; and the unpredictability of mentally ill people who medicate erratically, and whose numbers have increased since the asylums around Sydney were shut down.
Nowra believes there is probably nowhere else in Sydney with such a glaring disparity between rich and poor.
Despite the inequities, he loves his ‘raw’ and ‘unvarnished’ community for the way it absorbs and cares for people—for how ‘everybody coexists with everybody else’.
The beating heart of this biography is the crew Nowra drinks with each afternoon at the Old Fitzroy Hotel on Dowling Street—most of whom, like Nowra, were brought up in public housing.
We meet ‘Woolley’, who distributes OzHarvest food to the housebound, Rick, Aboriginal Tony, Ayesha,‘Tickles’ and several others, including Nowra’s Chihuahua Coco (who barks incessantly if Nowra drinks more than four white wines).
Nowra has used his playwright’s instinct to choose a wealth of grisly tales and unusual sights from Woolloomooloo’s history to include in this suburban odyssey but there’s more to it than stories. There’s empathy and concern for the community.
After Gough Whitlam promised Woolloomooloo would remain residential and injected $17 million to ensure 60 per cent or more of the housing would be devoted to low-income earners, urban planners from across the world flocked to Woolloomooloo to study its success.
‘A suburb once notorious for crime, poverty and hopelessness had become an international yardstick for community consultation and planning,’ Nowra writes.
Now he fears Woolloomooloo’s proximity to the city will propel the push for its redevelopment. ‘It’s easy to get rid of the working class, the underclass. Money always talks in Sydney.’
The subtext lurking in this marvellous biography: Pound the pavements of this unique and historically significant suburb while you can (book in hand). Watch carefully and, if money speaks in ways that threaten the area’s diversity, add your voice to the movement to save it.
Woolloomooloo: A Biography
NewSouth Publishing $34.99