Tag Archives: Olympics

Past/Lives Flashback #1: Union Carbide – Rhodes, NSW

Original article: Timbrol Chemicals/Union Carbide/Residential – Rhodes, NSW

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Yes, the time has finally come. The most popular entry on Past/Lives over the last year (and a bit, by this point) by far was the tragic tale of Rhodes and that most toxic tenant, Union Carbide. Rhodes’ decimation at the hands of industrial abuse throughout the 20th century and subsequent resurrection as a residential paradise in the 21st is a long story, and one with repercussions for the whole of Sydney even today. Grab a coffee (although Rhodes residents, maybe don’t use tap water) and get comfortable…we’ll be going back over the whole thing.

THEN

Granny would be proud. Rhodes House, 1875. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Granny would be proud. Rhodes House, 1875. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Rhodes Hall, near Leeds, was about as far from the eastern shore of the picturesque Homebush Bay as Thomas Walker could imagine. A commissary, Walker had arrived at Port Jackson in 1818, and the following year bought an allotment of land from Frederick Meredith, another early settler. Walker built a house on his bank of the Parramatta River, naming it Rhodes after his grandmother’s estate back in the motherland because even hardened and worldly mercenaries still have soft spots for their grannies. So soft, in fact, that in 1832, Walker moved to Tasmania where he built another estate…also named Rhodes. She must have spoiled that kid rotten.

Wish you were here. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Wish you were here. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The Walker family relinquished their control over the Rhodes estate in 1919, when they sold up to the John Darling Flour Mill. By this point, Rhodes was no stranger to industry. Eight years earlier, G & C Hoskins had cleared much of the area’s forests to erect a cast iron foundry, and once this had happened, everyone got on board. There was little resistance to this kind of heavy industrialisation, especially in a suburb like Rhodes, which was easily accessible by rail and water.

Kind of looks like a guy with a ponytail, doesn't it? Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Kind of looks like the silhouette of a guy with a ponytail, doesn’t it? Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

At this point in time, Rhodes and the neighbouring Homebush were the outer limits, truly the Western Suburbs, with only Parramatta and the Blue Mountains more forbidding. Sydneysiders were keen to get the blossoming industrial sector as far away from their own backyards as possible (understandably), and Rhodes, bordered by the new abattoir and the Parramatta River, was out of sight, out of mind.

The root of our evil. Timbrol Chemicals, 1934. Image courtesy Chemlink.

The root of our evil. Timbrol Chemicals, 1934. Image courtesy Chemlink.

Flour mills and cast iron foundries weren’t exactly environmentally friendly (a phrase not yet in use in 1928), but the true damage to Rhodes didn’t begin until the arrival of Timbrol Ltd in 1928. Timbrol had been established in 1925 by three Sydney University researchers keen to manufacture their own brand of timber preservative, so at least it was all for a good cause.

Rhodes, 1930. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Rhodes, 1930. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

In 1933, Timbrol had a breakthrough! It was able to produce the first Australian made xanthates, which is used in the mining sector for extracting particular kinds of ores. With the advent of the Second World War, xanthate exports boomed, and expansion of the Timbrol site was required. But where to go? Sandwiched between the train line and the foreshore, and with John Darling to the north and CSR (another booming wartime chemical company) to the south, Timbrol was apparently out of options.

Rhodes, 1942. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1942. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Just joking. Of course there was an option – the only option: reclaim land from Homebush Bay by filling in the river with contaminated by-products and building over it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Rhodes, 1949. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1949. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The post-war housing boom brought about various new challenges in the domestic domain, most of which could be easily solved with chemicals. Thus, demand for chlorine, herbicides and insecticides, particularly DDT, skyrocketed, and Timbrol was right there to capitalise. And by right there, I mean jutting out over Homebush Bay on new, hastily constructed ground.

Rhodes, 1951. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1951. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Spurring the chemical company’s efforts on even further were their competitors CSR, ICI and Monsanto, most of whom were a stone’s throw away from the Timbrol site. The close proximity of these companies meant that the output of potentially dangerous by-product seemed minimised in the eyes of the era’s governments; it was better for all the companies to be dumping together rather than dumping apart at wider intervals. This also meant that the neighbouring sites could ‘borrow’ Timbrol’s approach to expansion – good news for Homebush Bay.

Rhodes, 1956. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1956. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Timbrol’s success had attracted another element: the American chemical giant Union Carbide, which saw Timbrol as a great place to start an Australian subsidiary. Union Carbide dated back to 1898, and had built its wealth through aluminium production and its zinc chloride battery arm – both of which seem like the perfect thing to manufacture on the bank of a serene body of water.

At this point I’d like to pose a question: when did it ever seem like a good idea to produce chemicals like herbicides, zinc chloride and xanthates beside a healthy bay full of wildlife? Who signed off on this? How were the guys in charge of these companies able to look at this beautiful place and think “Hmm, needs more poison.”? I’m aware that without these chemicals we wouldn’t be able to live the way we do today, but some of these decisions were bordering on just straight up evil.

An honest day's work. Union Carbide HQ, Rhodes, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

An honest day’s work. Union Carbide HQ, Rhodes, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The arrival of Union Carbide frightened Timbrol’s competitors. The might of the American parent company meant near-unlimited resources, so local campaigns were stepped up.

1961. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1961. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

CSR and even old John Darling began to encroach upon the bay, re-sculpting the landscape as they saw fit.

Axis. Allied Feeds, ca 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Axis. Allied Feeds, ca 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The initial success of Union Carbide Australia didn’t go unnoticed overseas, either. Associated British Foods bought John Darling’s Flour Mill for its Australian subsidiary Allied Mills in 1960, rebranding it Allied Feeds. Most of the product manufactured at the Allied Feeds site would end up in the stomachs of livestock sent to Homebush Abattoir, where said stomachs would then be carved up to be fed back to the populace. And for that, you need MORE ROOM.

1965. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1965. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

But back to Union Carbide. The early 1960s weren’t kind to UC. Competitors and waning demand had teamed up to diminish the brand, but that didn’t stop the near endless flow of poisons into the bay. By now, nearly all of Union Carbide’s output produced an unfortunate and extremely unpleasant by-product: dioxins. Highly toxic and capable of, at the very least, causing cancer and damaging reproductive and immune systems, dioxins are usually exposed to humans via food particularly meat and fish. What a great idea then to produce extremely unsafe levels of dioxins right beside a manufacturer of animal feed. What a great idea to produce that animal feed on top of land infused with dioxins. What a great idea to expel those unwanted dioxins into Homebush Bay, a waterway directly linked to Sydney Harbour and full of fish.

Let’s take a moment to hear from the World Health Organisation about dioxins:

Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer. Due to the omnipresence of dioxins, all people have background exposure and a certain level of dioxins in the body, leading to the so-called body burden. Current normal background exposure is not expected to affect human health on average. However, due to the high toxic potential of this class of compounds, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.

So…don’t do what Union Carbide did next, then?

1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The fortunes of Union Carbide Australia were reversed by the Vietnam War. See, Vietnam has a lot of jungles, and those pesky Vietcong kept hiding in those jungles, so what better way to flush them out than by removing their hiding spot? Union Carbide was contracted by the US military to produce Agent Orange, a dioxide-heavy defoliant. Even when it was discovered that Agent Orange’s components contained a particularly toxic strain of dioxin, it continued to be sprayed indiscriminately throughout the war, during which dioxins continued to be dumped into Homebush Bay.

In the midst of all this, Union Carbide research scientist Douglas Lyons Ford invented Glad Wrap at the Rhodes plant. It was introduced to the Australian market in 1966, the first such product in the country. Well, that kind of balances out that other thing, doesn’t it?

1972. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

It’s easy to spot the pollution. 1972. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

By the 70s, environmental action against companies like these was stepping up, and the population of Sydney had exploded westward. Rhodes’ train line was now a sharp divider between the industrial zone and a booming residential sector.

A day on the water, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

A day on the water, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Further north and across the river, Meadowbank and Ryde were both beginning to cast aside their industrial legacies and welcoming more and more families, while to the south, the Homebush Abattoir was winding down operations. Forward-thinking residential developers were eyeing these areas with great interest, and keeping government wheels greased to ensure their availability in the future. In typical lightning fast Sydney reaction time, this movement was accommodated in the mid-80s by the construction of Homebush Bay Drive, a highway that bypassed the nearby suburb of Concord and tracked through Rhodes’ industrial zone. Out of sight, out of mind.

1985. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Is it still water? 1985. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

By the early 1980s, Rhodes was known throughout the land for its toxicity and odour above all else.

Poking fun at the cripple, 1946. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Poking fun at the cripple, 1946. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Its rich legacy of achievements in the field of chemistry long forgotten, Union Carbide was looking increasingly sick and tired; a relic of another age. But one major incident in 1984 made it look downright villainous.

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In December of that year, an explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India exposed half a million people to toxic gases, killing thousands. PR disaster for UC, and the final straw for the parent company. Most of its international subsidiaries were wound up in the years following Bhopal, including the Rhodes plant, which ceased operations in 1985. Allowed to leave without any kind of cleanup effort, Union Carbide left behind a toxic legacy that remains detrimental to Sydney today.

1995. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Without a trace? 1995. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The NSW Government and the Australian Olympic Committee had hoped to transform Rhodes into an Olympic athlete village by the 2000 Sydney games, but they had underestimated just how poisoned the land was.

Resuming the Union Carbide site, 1993. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Resuming the Union Carbide site, 1993. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Government remediation efforts tried in vain between 1988 and 1993 to heal the land, but it wasn’t until 2005, long after the end of the Olympics, that private enterprise intervene with the necessary money and technology to properly clean the land. Why this sudden burst of effective effort so long after the fact?

NOW

A fitting name.

Aptly named apts.

Today, if you turn off Homebush Bay Drive at the IKEA, you’ll descend into valleys of glass and steel. Rhodes’ rebirth as a gauntlet of residential and commercial towers, a process which began in 2005, is nearly complete. Sensing an opportunity to make money, Mirvac and other developers pounced on the toxic wasteland at the end of the 90s, saving it from a future of causing people to hold their breath as they drove past.

The remediation process, 2006. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Scrub harder! The remediation process, 2006. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

With a steady flow of money and the promise of even more at the end of the remediation rainbow, Thiess and the NSW Government got to work turning the poisonous dirt into the foundations of the futuristic castles that line the foreshore today.

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I think I can see the duck.

But while the reclaimed land has been mostly made harmless, the bay has not. In fact, the NSW Department of Health has prohibited fishing west of Sydney Harbour Bridge due to an abundance of dioxins. And swimming? Forget it.

Don't jump! You have your whole life ahead of you.

Don’t jump! You have your whole life ahead of you.

The remediation efforts have been effective in more ways than one. I don’t think that Mirvac and friends really cared about anything other than making the land safe enough to pass re-zoning as residential, but despite this, wetland wildlife has begun to return to the bay. Studies on the sea life are ongoing with hopes that one day the bay will once again be safe, but I don’t think we’ll see it in our lifetime. To my infant readers: this means you too.

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Canary yellow?

To the developers’ credit, the project seems to have largely been a great success. There’s the popular shopping centre, complete with cinema and IKEA (a huge coup in its day, since superseded by Tempe), and Liberty Grove to the east. Care has been taken to eradicate most traces of the industrial nightmare of the past. The new units look good enough to stop you from wondering why the grass is always yellow, and they’re certainly filling up fast. And yet…

The bad seed.

The bad seed.

If you plant a seed in bad soil, it won’t grow very well. Case in point: this is the unit tower being constructed directly upon the former Union Carbide site. Every other tower in Rhodes is either completed or is only weeks away, but not Union Carbide. In fact, the entire site seems to have been plagued with construction delays or other issues. Sure, this stage of the Rhodes project started later than the others, but that too is down to the sheer toxicity of the Union Carbide land.

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That dirt looks like a job for your sales and marketing guys.

At the rear, things look even worse. Piles of dirt sit around, uglifying the scenery. Cranes hover above the unfinished structure like buzzards.

A Timbrol shoreline.

Another Timbrol shoreline.

On the corner of Shoreline and Timbrol, construction equipment is a mainstay. It’s as if they just can’t make this one happen, despite their money and intentions.

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Solid foundation.

Tower number two hasn’t even started yet, acting as a base of operations for the workers completing tower number one. In 1997, Greenpeace discovered 36 sealed drums of toxic waste underneath the Union Carbide site, so there’s no telling what these guys are digging up as they go. Does your underground carpark glow in the dark?

No pets allowed, except those ones.

No pets allowed, though.

Down at the Union Carbide foreshore, an even eerier sight: completed units, completely empty.

Your nearest neighbours are miles away.

Your nearest neighbours are miles away.

These seem to be ready to go, but either due to environmental concerns or the noise of construction, residents aren’t allowed to move in yet. I’d be leaning toward the former reason, seeing as plenty of other people here have to put up with the noise.

2013. Image courtesy Google Maps.

2013. Image courtesy Google Earth.

The Rhodes experiment has proven to be an environmental triumph, arguably even greater than Sydney Olympic Park, but it’s an even greater financial triumph. The corporations behind the remediation weren’t doing this for the sake of the environment or because they felt like doing something nice, they were doing it for the exact same reason the land was stained in the first place. Rhodes may have gotten the second chance Bhopal never did, but they’re equally valid testaments to that reason.

Past/Lives Flashback #8: Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW

Original article: NSW State Abattoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW 

IMG_9505It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I last visited this place. The blood-soaked history of Sydney Olympic Park is perhaps the most heavily researched article on Past/Lives, yet all that knowledge is quick to fall away when you’re actually standing on site, inhabiting the space where it all went down. The post-Easter Show cleanup only serves to strip back the gaudy decorations designed to distract from the past, leaving today’s visitors with one of two visions: the glorious Olympics, or the violent abattoirs.

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Apart from the hubbub surrounding the Easter Show, change visits the Olympic zone about as often as I do (read: not much). The stadium seems to have settled on ANZ as its name for the time being, just as the arena’s heart still belongs to Allphones. During my refresher course on the ins and outs of the Olympic era of the site’s history, I laughed when I learned the arena’s actual name is the ‘Sydney Super Dome’. For the first time ever, Allphones sounds comparatively low-key.

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So since change is such a stranger here, it’s going to be more beneficial to take a look at some of the landmarks around the Olympic site that betray its brutal past. We didn’t touch on too many last time, with the Abattoir Heritage Precinct being the natural focus. First up is Olympic Park station, the last stop of the train line which delivers thousands of Easter Show-goers to the park each year…

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Abattoir platform, 1982. Image courtesy Graeme Skeet/NSWrail.net

…just as it delivered hundreds of thousands of animals to their deaths each year for decades, some as recently as 25 years ago. Granted, it isn’t the exact same station (although if it was, abattoir workers would have enjoyed the most stylish station in Sydney), but its location is approximate to the original. A complete train line (with stations opening from 1915) served the abattoir and the nearby brickworks, with country trains deviating from the existing rail network at Lidcombe and Flemington to deposit country animals to the abattoir. Employees could catch their own trains from a small platform at the end of Pippita Street, Lidcombe.

As the abattoir declined, the need for employees did so as well, and in 1984 the abattoir line was closed, with the facility itself closing in 1988. The entire Homebush Salesyard Loop, on which the Olympic Park line is based, was closed in 1991. In 1996, the Pippita Street station became the last of the abattoir stations to be demolished, and interestingly, the street itself was absorbed into the huge Dairy Farmers site nearby (now, why do you think that’s there?). The brand-spanking-new Olympic Park loop line opened in 1998, with most of the Homebush Salesyard Loop repurposed to be a part of it.

Now, since that was a little…dry, let’s get wet.

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The Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre was the first part of Olympic Park to be constructed following the closure of the abattoir, unless you count Bicentennial Park, which opened in 1988. The Aquatic Centre opened in 1994, with the rest of the park completed by 1996. As such, the Aquatic Centre is the ‘middle child’ of the Olympic Park, with a design sensibility halfway between Bicentennial Park and the stadiums that followed. It’s a strange beast, and one made even stranger by my near-absolute certainty that when it first opened, its entrance was in fact this:

IMG_9507Sometime in 1995, I attended a birthday party at the exciting new Aquatic Centre, which was rumoured on the playground to have a whirlpool and slides. I don’t remember any slides, but I do have a distinct memory of our posse leaving behind a rubber WWF wrestler toy, tossed high up in those bushes on the left in a fit of excitement…while we were hanging around the entrance. Does the Iron Sheik still reside in those bushes today, subsisting on a diet of ants, rainwater and the occasional small bird? Nearly 20 years later, I still wasn’t game enough to climb up and find out. But I did go in for a closer look…

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The appearance of those bolt marks, where the original entry sign was probably attached, seems to validate my memory of this being the main entrance. The doors underneath now serve as an emergency exit. If anyone can shed some light on this mystery, drop a line in the comments below. My theory is that when the Aquatic Centre opened, the entrance was here because it faced away from the abattoir site (and at the time, a huge construction site), but when the rest of the park was completed, the entrance was moved around to the opposite end of the facility, a spot which pretty much faces the Abattoir Heritage Precinct (and everything else, in keeping with the Olympic spirit of inclusion and togetherness). Today’s entrance looks a lot more ‘Olympic’ anyway, so it was probably a change for the best. Still…

IMG_9502Our last stop is just down the road from the Aquatic Centre. Back in the 70s and 80s, Swire (then Woodmasons Cold Storage) would have been one of the places to store the freshly processed animal carcasses on ice before being shipped to the nearby butcheries and markets. For a cold storage facility (and for Dairy Farmers), this was the perfect location…when the abattoir was there. How it’s still able to do business is a stone cold mystery, but I guess that’s why they’re no longer Woodmasons.

See you next time, when we’ll attempt to go for a drive

Paragon No. 2 Theatre/Australian Academy of Gymnastics – Belmore, NSW

Since 1928, the Paragon No. 2 has loomed over the intersection of Burwood Road and Knox Street, providing a monolithic eye-catcher for passers-by. It has remained remarkably well-preserved from its days as a cinema.

Paragon No. 2, 1981. Courtesy Barry Sharp and City of Canterbury Local History Photograph Collection

For thirty years, the Paragon No. 2 picture theatre provided Belmore locals with a venue for concerts, plays, movies and state government debates. Close to the train line, for years it was speculated that a train station would open up near the theatre, but the plan never went ahead. Knox Street was eventually cut off from Burwood Road, becoming a cul-de-sac and torpedoing easy access to the theatre by road. By June 1958, the time of its closure, the Paragon No. 2 had been operating on a restricted screening policy, further limiting its viability as a cinema.

Following its closure, the theatre was acquired by Jeldi Manufacturing, a Sydney-based textile company, who proceeded to use the building as storage for curtains and carpet.

In 1982, the site was discovered by Andre and Edwige Rizzo, a French couple who had migrated from France in 1970. Andre had represented France in gymnastics at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, and was seeking to start a gymnastics academy. The Paragon No. 2 provided the perfect facility, enabling the gym to become the first club in NSW to provide both men’s and women’s training apparatus, and to function exclusively as a venue for artistic gymnastics.

Aside from minor practical refurbishments, the lobby is in remarkable condition. At the centre of this staircase is the former box office, now a display case for the academy’s numerous achievements.

The theatre’s 1144 seats may be gone, but again, the interior isn’t unrecognisable as a cinema, and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

The Academy is currently run by Antoine and Shannon Rizzo, who are proud to have coached young gymnasts here for the last 30 years. At this stage, it’s been a gymnasium just about as long as it was a cinema. Given the success rate of the Academy (Antoine’s brother Philippe Rizzo is Australia’s most successful male gymnast), Paragon has proved a fitting name. I’m sure Jeldi had no complaints about the quality of storage, either.

Of course, the name of the theatre begs the obvious question ‘what about Paragon No. 1 ?’. I asked Antoine Rizzo if he knew. He did:

To be continued…

A HUGE thanks to Antoine and Shannon Rizzo at the Australian Academy of Gymnastics for their generosity and assistance!

Timbrol Chemicals/Union Carbide/Residential – Rhodes, NSW

Image courtesy retronaut.co

Following on from the Homebush Abattoir is the story of Rhodes, NSW. ‘We’re judged by the company we keep’ has never been truer than in the case of Rhodes, an industrial suburb closely identified with chemicals for most of the 20th century. The winning of the 2000 Olympic Games and subsequent renewal of the former abattoir site at Homebush Bay forced the NSW Government to remediate Rhodes, on the other side of the bay. It was hoped the suburb would be reborn as heavy residential by 2000, but this goal has still not been achieved. The primary reason is this site:

Timbrol was Australia’s first major organic chemical manufacturer, and was established here on Walker Street in 1928. Chemicals manufactured by Timbrol between 1928 and 1957 include chlorine, weed fungicide, and the insecticides DDT and DDE. To commemorate this achievement, a neighbouring street has been named after Timbrol:

In 1957, Timbrol merged with the American chemical concern Union Carbide to form Union Carbide Australia. Union Carbide had a reputation as an innovator within the chemical manufacturing industry. Facing competition from the neighbouring CSR plant, Union Carbide stepped up production of existing chemical products and created many new ones. During the Vietnam War, Union Carbide produced Agent Orange at their Rhodes site.

Union Carbide site, Rhodes, circa 1960s. Image courtesy Concord Heritage Society.

Whenever Union Carbide would reclaim land from Homebush Bay, it would do so by dumping toxic waste and building over it. This method was extended to the Allied Feeds site further up Walker Street. In 1997, Greenpeace found 36 rusting drums of toxic waste on the former Union Carbide site.

Goods train tracks still exist at the former entrance to Union Carbide.

Faced with declining demand, diminishing returns and increasing competition, Union Carbide abandoned its Australian operations entirely in 1985. They were allowed to leave without conducting any kind of cleanup of the Rhodes site. Between 1988 and 1993, the NSW Govt began remediation attempts with the intention of using Rhodes as an Olympic village for the 2000 Sydney Games, but it was only in 2005, with the onset of private residential construction on the sites, did any serious remediation work take place. Many blocks of units were completed between 2005 and 2011, but remained empty as the ongoing cleanup work made the area too toxic to live in. Remediation was completed in early 2011, and construction has resumed.

Homebush Bay remains toxic – swimming and fishing are prohibited, and any fish caught in the bay are too poisonous to eat. The remediation work by Meriton and Thiess and has supposedly made the area safe to live in, but only time will tell.

UPDATE: It’s one year later. Is it safe yet? Find out.

NSW State Abattoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW

In September 1993, then-NSW Premier John Fahey famously jumped for joy as Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Sydney would host the 2000 Olympic Games. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he must have been feeling mighty grateful for 660 hectares of land which for the previous five years had been a burden on the state.

Saturday night grand prix circuit. Thanks, reader Kenny!

Saturday night grand prix circuit, 1966. Thanks, reader Kenny Goodman!

By 1988, Homebush Bay had long been associated with industry – the State Brickworks, the state abattoir and an armaments depot had all been located on the land since 1915. To the north, at Rhodes, chemical companies and paint factories had spilled toxic waste into the bay for just as long, turning the area into a dead zone not that far off from neighbouring Rookwood Necropolis.

The state’s abattoir had been originally located at Glebe Island, and had by 1902 been deemed too toxic for its proximity to the city. In 1906, an act of parliament authorised the construction of a new State Abattoir at Homebush.

Homebush had been named for a farm, ‘Home Bush’, established in 1794 by free settler Thomas Laycock in the area, then known as Liberty Plains. The farm was later sold to D’Arcy Wentworth, NSW Government surgeon, in 1808. Wentworth acquired even more surrounding land, and set up a private racetrack beside Parramatta Road. In 1841 the track was expanded and made public, and served as Sydney’s centre for horseracing until the opening of Randwick Racecourse in 1860.

The Wentworth Estate had fallen into disuse by 1906. A plan to subdivide and sell off parcels of the land had failed, the esteemed Home Bush House had become derelict, and the racetrack was long since abandoned. The choice of Homebush for the abattoir’s site made sense, as Thomas Playfair had established saleyards at Homebush in 1882, and the area was serviced by an efficient goods rail line.

The abattoir complex opened in April 1915, yet stock was not processed at the site for another year due to poor planning and bungled construction. These mistakes meant that the site was undergoing maintenance and upgrades for the remainder of its time as an abattoir. Tanneries, cold storage facilities and butchers sprung up around the Homebush area. Many remain.

In the 1940s, the State decided to decentralise slaughterhouses, and many country abattoirs were set up in the wake of the decision. Despite this, the Homebush facilities were upgraded in 1965 to handle meat export demands. In 1979, the facilities were again assessed, and found to be at the end of their economic life. In 1984, surplus land on the site was marked for use as an Advanced Technology Park (now known as the Australia Centre). The economic viability of the abattoir continued to decline until its closure in 1988, coinciding with bicentennial celebrations and a statewide spirit of reclamation and renewal.

Sydney’s bid for the 2000 games began in 1991 under then-NSW Premier Nick Greiner. The abattoir site, wholly owned by the NSW Government, was earmarked as a possible site for an Olympic park. The Moore Park showground facility was insufficient for the scale of the Olympic Games, and was by that point proving barely adequate for just the city’s showground needs.

When the Games were awarded to Sydney in 1993, full-scale redevelopment of the Homebush Bay area began, including efforts to rehabilitate and rejuvenate land poisoned by years of industrial abuse. Industrial ruins and empty roads suddenly found themselves once again at the centre of attention. Said filmmaker Susan Murphy in her 1999 article ‘Under Rookwood’ in the Journal of Australian Studies:

“Homebush Bay was several kinds of Vanishing Kingdoms in one: there was the Private Road that extended Underwood Road in a series of right-angle bends all the way around the mangrove swamps, to terminate in a series of decaying wharves. The roadway was known to petrolheads as `Brickie’, after the Sydney Brickworks site it wound past, and was used for Saturday night races, wheelies, lovers’ Lane. By daylight, it was a favourite place for driving lessons, nervous kangaroo-hopping cars executing three-point turns at the final dead-end.

Now it’s changed. Toxic soils are capped and the Olympic complex of stadia, showground halls, athlete villages is rising, shining, audacious, with Philip Cox parabolas and monumental walkways and rolled-in plantings. Surrounding this are two un-park-like `parks’ — Bicentennial Park with its federationesque follies scattered throughout the mangrove and banksia, and an industrial park, equally full of manicured grass that nobody uses.”

Susan is correct. Bicentennial Park, created in 1988, was previously a rubbish tip. It feels like the whole Homebush/Flemington area has been cursed to repeat history over and over. Before it was chosen by Laycock, it was known as ‘The Flats’, dry land sitting beside Parramatta River. Then, when it was chosen for the site of Wentworth’s estate, Laycock’s own mansion had been sitting derelict. When the time came for the NSW Government to buy Wentworth’s unwanted estate, it had long since fallen by the wayside – a decaying relic of another era sitting in the gutter of Parramatta Road. The abattoir was doomed from the start by poor planning, ensuring its place in the legacy of disuse experienced by the area. Even now, the Olympic Park has a strange feeling about it. Walking around, you get the sense there should be more people there, that there’s something just a bit off.

The bay itself was infused with blood and offal from the abattoirs, silt from the brickworks and all manner of poisons and Smylex from the chemical plants at Rhodes. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a triumph or a deep tragedy that this remediation work still continues today, particularly at Rhodes. Fishing and swimming is still prohibited in the Bay, and there’s still a heavy chemical odour. The extent of the damage to the sealife is so severe that even as far away as Sydney Harbour, commercial fishing restrictions are in place and the NSW Government recommends that no fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge should be eaten.

The Olympic site was completed on time and of course played host to the ‘best Olympics ever’, but the site’s bloody past wasn’t forgotten. The Abattoir Administration Precinct still sits amongst the neo-CBD that is the Olympic Park, and it’s quite a jarring site. Nearby are a series of bittersweet memorials to the millions of animals that were slaughtered during the abattoir’s history – former feeding troughs converted into artistic coffins, animal footprints set in cement. The abattoir’s private train station, disembarking point for those animals after being shuttled in from the country to their death, was converted rather morbidly into the Olympic Park station, disembarking point for millions of revelers hoping to witness Olympic glory, unaware of the site’s former glory.

Even before the Olympics, the site had been used as Sydney’s new home of the Sydney Royal Easter Show since 1998, replacing the ageing Moore Park site. It is ghoulish to imagine the cute, cuddly animals of the Easter Show being patted and fed by happy families on the site of so much slaughter. Other events held at the site, such as the V8 Supercars, do little to distract you from the park’s purpose as an Olympic vessel, and it’s not hard to imagine that before long, the nemesis of neglect will return to the site.

The Park’s information centre, once the abattoir’s gatehouse, has no information about the site’s history to speak of. The cheerful man behind the counter was happy to inform me that ‘there is nothing at all in here about the abattoir. There is nothing about the abattoir in this Park apart from these buildings. We have no photos or records here, we have nothing. There is no possible way I can help you, but you might want to try online.’ Thanks, I’ll do that.

The reason you’ve been assaulted with this wall of text straight up is because I feel that the images of the Abattoir Administration Precinct should stand alone, in silence. The presence of the buildings in the heart of the Olympic Park is jarring, unnatural, and forces the weight of that sour history upon you. I thought I’d do the same for you. There are some sites around Sydney, like Luna Park or the George Street entertainment strip, that are just unpleasant to be in. I’m sorry to say this is one of them.

Update: I revisit the Olympic Park site one year later and make some interesting discoveries!