We couldn’t sleep. Something was gnawing at us. It was Ultimo angst.
See, Ultimo angst is very different to Newtown angst, or Surry Hills angst, or whatnot. You’re meant to feel angst in those places, they’re edgy, right? You feel Surry Hills angst because that junkie on your doorstep didn’t move when you tried to get in your doorway. You feel Newtown angst because the house next door has a party going and you’re not invited.
Our feelings of Ultimo angst were about the suburb’s peculiar perception as a “second class” suburb. A suburb not worthwhile going to. A suburb that is hard to define. A suburb where nothing goes on. It’s not an economic thing, it’s a boring-suburb thing. Not that we think Ultimo is boring, but we know plenty of people do. That’s what has made Penultimo so interesting as a project - finding the fascinating in the unaccountably dull. But there is more to be said than this.
Ultimo is a case of the ruined MAIN STREET.
Main Streets. Old urban planning trope. Many successful Sydney suburbs have them. Balmain has Darling Street. Paddo has Oxford. Newtown has King Street. Enmore has Enmore Road. Glebe has Glebe Point Road. Leichhardt has Norton. Some suburbs have two, but you get the picture.
The ‘commercial strip’ in all these places (and many others) is immediately perceived as the heart of these suburbs. Often these roads carry a fair bit of traffic, but they’re slow places to get through - usually two lane, sometimes four lane. Almost never five, six lanes of traffic. And in these streets, traffic is very often slowed by pedestrian crossings, frequent pedestrian traffic lights, and drunk pedestrians wandering out, etc. The main street is usually zoned for retail on the ground floor, and in the aforementioned streets - shops are (often) booming and rents are high.
But what’s going on over this way, in Ultimo, with regards to a Main Street? Well, firstly, Pyrmont definitely has a Main Street - it’s Harris Street, and there you will find some of your basic retail activity: a newsagency, cafes, laundromats (although it is harder to find the old basics, like a butcher, baker, green grocer — supermarkets have squeezed those out, but that’s another story).
Ultimo also has Harris Street. But what happens to Harris Street in Ultimo? It becomes a major traffic flow road - it’s six lanes wide in some sections, and has patchy retail / commercial / residential zoning. Add to the mix a heavy, overhanging cement freeway, which makes some of the area dark and faintly predatory, and you have got yourself a dysfunctional Main Street. It is highly pedestrian-unfriendly, which gives businesses little incentive to set up retail there. While Harris Street in Ultimo does have businesses: cafes, take-away stores, a hairdresser, a beauty salon - these businesses are patchy - set in-between many illegible shopfronts.
Legibility - that’s another old urban planning trope. Legibility and walkability leads to positive neighbourhoods.
Is it so radical to suggest that Harris Street be made four lane, or even two lane, in parts? We aren’t road engineers, and we’re sure the RTA would think this idea is unworkable (where, they might ask, is the traffic going to go instead)? Oh, we don’t know - maybe nowhere? Maybe home? Maybe they could just not bring their cars today?
If Harris Street, Ultimo, was NOT used as a high speed traffic funnel, then we might have something approaching a liveable suburb with a main street that is economically viable for retail, and safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Is that too much to ask?