He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.
Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.
You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.
And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.
But he knows.
We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.
Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.
But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.
A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.
And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.
“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”
As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.
Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.
In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.
Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.
He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.
His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.
A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.
“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.
I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.
“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”
He paused. It was difficult.
“They’d stop coming in.”
Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.
But now she’s gone, and so is he.
“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?
“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.
I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.
What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.
So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.
On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.
I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.
In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.
Cast your mind back to a time when you’d get the bus down to the beach, when the air was scented with coconut oil, Alpines, Chiko Rolls and the exhaust from the Monaro idling in the car park there while the driver chats up those bikini babes.
Back when the skies were blue, phones were hardwired to the wall, and petrol was leaded. Sound familiar? These are Brighton beach memoirs of a different kind, an experience shared by an entire generation, and one that’s just about relegated to the history blogs.
It sure doesn’t look familiar. While the bus stop seat is unmistakably 70s beach culture, the view from the Grand Parade down to Ramsgate Beach ain’t what it used to be. Sure, I’ve picked a particularly overcast day to exaggerate the point, but I wasn’t the one responsible for this:
Where once you would have run up the beach Baywatch-style, hotfooted across the scorching road, and basked in the relief of the shade before heading in for a Cornetto or a Bubble O’ Bill on a hot summer’s afternoon, today’s terrible world provides you with only painful memories.
A world so terrible that selling ice creams, icy cold cans of drink and burgers across from a beach is no longer viable. What happened?
Even if you were running up the beach with your filthy-ass dog, hotfooting between hostile traffic and basking in the relief of knowing you won’t have to vacuum sand and dog hair out of the car later, you’re outta luck.
I don’t actually know why you’d start up a business like this in a location like that. This kind of shop should be zoned strictly as milk bar. It should be official. You should be hauled off to prison for even attempting a farce like this.
Then again, since it’s for lease, we don’t know that isn’t how it went…
Haunting reminders of the good times remain. The Streets sign here proves that only the most desirable ice creams would have been on offer (face facts: nobody wanted Pauls).
Luckily, we can take small comfort in the fact that that uniquely Australian Streets logo is still smiling down on the beach.
Elsewhere, we can (barely) see that the Pet Salon’s bolt-on sign is covering the familiar Coca-Cola bookend ads commonly found on milk bar awnings. Imagine the disappointment the day the local beach crew showed up here for their hot chips and Cokes, only to find lice cream and fine-tooth combs up for grabs? No wonder they hung up the Billabong shorts and Piping Hot rash shirts (ha ha, just kidding. Nobody wore Piping Hot).
I’ve made the call before, but once again it’s relevant: if we, as a nation, were to tear down these signs and expose the past we crave so often, we could transform this country overnight. We’ve buried the time machine, and all we need to do is dig it up.
It’s thirsty work, I grant you. I’ll bring the icy cold Cokes, cuz we sure ain’t getting them here.
BACKWARDS UPDATE: Straight from the formidable Google Street View, it’s a shot of this milk bar from 2007! Strangely, the Streets sign was covered by a Cornetto ad. Big thanks to reader Billy Bob for the heads-up on this one.
Goldfinger said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.'”
– Ian Fleming, Goldfinger (1959)
Sydney is a multicultural city. From Bondi in the east to Blacktown in the west, from Narrabeen in the north to Cronulla in the south (well, maybe not Cronulla), it’s not hard to argue that the city has come a long, colourful way since the White Australia of the 1950s.
But long before even that decade, influences of another culture were finding their way into what was a very British way of life at the time, influences that have come to be embraced as the preferred way over time.
Prior to 1788, the British used its North American colonies as a penal dumping ground, auctioning off convicts to plantation owners and other slavery enthusiasts. But when the American Revolution brought that to a halt, the former colony quickly established its own identity as the Empire scrambled to find another outlet for their unwanted lawbreakers.
By the early 20th Century, the American style as we know it today was pretty firmly established, particularly through the film industry blossoming in Hollywood. The extent of the influence of American films around the world is so massive as to be unknowable, but we’re certainly going to know a little part of it today.
Smack-bang in the middle of the Grand Parade that marches through Ramsgate and Brighton-Le-Sands along the shores of Botany Bay is the broad cleft that is President Avenue.
Along the aptly named President Avenue, everything is presidential. From this palatial block of units reminiscent of Goldfinger‘s Miami…
…to this capital lodge…
…everything on the avenue fits the bill.
It’s the suburban equivalent of the kind of aged, staid, rich white guy we generally associate with the US presidency, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it borders today’s subject: Monterey, a young, small suburb that’s essentially comprised of four major streets.
Monterey’s insecure, slightly murky, and largely unofficial history finds its origins in 1877, when it was a piece of Scarborough Park. Jacob Marks, a prominent Jewish property developer, bought a parcel of land in the area, which was beginning to boom thanks to the popularity of the nearby Lady Robinsons Beach and Sandringham Baths. Marks had 13 kids (!), one of whom lived (and died) in California, so when it came time to name the streets in his property, things got red, white and blue pretty quickly.
Here’s where things get a bit cloudy – the street names were carved into stone by 1903, but it’s unclear who named them, and then it wasn’t until the early 1920s when the subdivision went up for sale.
The sale was orchestrated by a WWI veteran/motor racing enthusiast/socialite named Lance Giddings, who injected a healthy dose of American panache into the sale. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite take off.
“The enthusiastic advertising copy and promotion produced considerable sales over the next six years but these sales did not result in building. While Council records list and identify considerable lot ownership after 1921, the Sands Directory of 1924 could only find a single Monterey resident, Mr Hugh Macan in Pasadena Street, for its listing.” – Fibro Moderne: Mid-20th Century Fibro Housing in Monterey NSW (Bogle, Pickett 2013)
Even by 1930, the suburb only had five residents. Imagine the parties! Fat bass gramophones uninhibitedly pumping out block-rocking beats of Whispering Jack Smith with the nearest neighbour at least 15 minutes walk away!
Inevitably, the post-WWII housing boom took hold in Monterey, and by the 1950s it was a bustling suburb; although not so bustling that it wasn’t partially gazetted in 1951 for a potential Southern Freeway extension from Waterfall to St Peters. Interestingly, it remains gazetted so today, so if you’re a resident, don’t get too comfortable.
Now, let’s take a look at those street names. When you’re heading south from President Avenue, the first one you come to is Banks Street.
And that’s American! Because banks are…American and…uh, evil, and…how does the rest of that go? Big banks? Big oil…
No, the real Monterey gets started further down, with Monterey Street.
The name Monterey has its origins in Monterrei, Spain. So revered was Gaspar de Zuniga Acevedo y Fonseca, 5th Count of Monterrey (as Monterrei had become known by the 1590s), that Monterrey, Mexico was named in his honour by the conquistadors. Subsequently, in 1602, when it came time to name a newly discovered bay in what is now California, the Spaniards went with Bahia de Monterrey, which eventually evolved into Monterey Bay, which itself lends its name to the nearby city of Monterey, which then became the capital of Alta California. When the United States won the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, California was annexed by the USA right there in Monterey. The city went on to be the site of the first theatre in California (a state now synonymous with show business), and is famous for its cheese. Whew!
Now look at Monterey Street, Monterey, with all the trappings of Australian suburbia. Does it bear the weight of all that history? Hell no.
Next up is Pasadena Street, and you’d better believe it’s full of little old ladies. Pasadena gets its name from the city in Los Angeles County, a city that dates back to 1886 and is named for a Chippewa Native American term meaning ‘of the valley’. I’m starting to feel that not a lot of thought went into these street names…
In fact, the most interesting thing I can say about Pasadena Street is that it comes out directly across from Botany Bay. Look at that picture above. That gap in the land is the mouth that flows out to the Tasman Sea, from whence the Endeavour, for better or worse, arrived in 1770.
Again, too much history comes down, crushing the street’s thin veneer of banality, exposing nothing beneath.
Inevitably, there’s Hollywood Street. At the time of its christening, 1903, Hollywood, California had only just been incorporated as a municipality. It wouldn’t get its first movie studio until 1912, so whomever named was showing some astonishing foresight.
Also astonishing is this house on the corner of O’Connell and Hollywood. Just look at it.
Look at it!
Finally, we have Culver Street. Culver City, back in Cali, is another one that didn’t really come to prominence until the years after this street was named. In Culver City’s case, it wasn’t incorporated until late 1917. Weirder still is that Harry H. Culver, after whom Culver City is named, didn’t even arrive in California until 1910! Who named this street?!
Sadly, the psychic who gave Culver Street its name didn’t foresee just how pedestrian it would become in later years.
Mystery still surrounds the naming of these streets. There’s no definitive record of anyone in particular having bestowed the names, and sources have varied throughout histories both official and unofficial over the decades. Even Rockdale Council has no idea, and it’s, like, their ‘hood. What gives?
In 1941, an attempt was made by council to name the suburb ‘Werribah’ for postal reasons. Rolls right off the tongue, don’t it? It didn’t take, and ‘Monterey Park’ was also rejected before settling on plain old Monterey. I mentioned postal reasons…that appears to be its own story, and we’ll come back to that another day. It’ll be worth the wait, I swear!
All the bickering over the name meant that the suburb’s designation Monterey remained unofficial until 1972, when the Geographic Names Board stepped in and shit got real. A local poll of residents of the four American-flavoured streets showed that Monterey was the preferred name for the area, and so it’s remained ever since. Now that was all quite interesting, wasn’t it?
Again, for better or worse, this isn’t the only instance of major American influence in the early days of Sydney. The origins of Monterey are an inauspicious start, but nevertheless interesting given how the whole Brighton area embraced the very Goldfingerian image of the USA from the 1960s onwards.
Shifting tastes, a tipping of the global power balance, and a propensity to bend over for Uncle Sam meant that quite a few changes – from the minor to the irreparable – were on their way.
For more reading on Monterey and the fibro houses within, check out Fibro Moderne. Early to Mid-20th century vernacular housing in Monterey NSW, without which I could not have completed this article. So blame them.