We spend our lives mourning our childhoods.
Our values and expectations are shaped throughout our younger years, sometimes subconsciously. Once we learn that, say, an ice cream dropped on the hot sand during a day at the beach won’t be replaced, the ice cream becomes a little part of us, a part we can’t get back. As adults we can buy another ice cream, but it’s not the same one. It’s just a band-aid over our initial carelessness, and $5 out of our retirement funds. We still feel the loss.
Every tantrum or outburst we have, every moment of joy, whenever the waterworks spring a leak…that’s a moment when the situation we’ve found adult selves in has touched a nerve from an earlier time. It’s a unique brand of pain we aren’t equipped to handle.
From the 1970s onwards, childhoods became increasingly materialistic. My own was peppered with trips to toy shops and Christmases spent unwrapping action figure after action figure. I never broke an arm climbing trees with Huck and Tom because I was inside on the PlayStation. I never knew that pain and the associated loss of innocence.
But when that PlayStation controller broke, you better believe I felt that.
The values that make the younger generation weep into adulthood are different to the ones who came before (you know, the ones who made it impossible to buy a house). When a brand that played a large part in that childhood dies, it’s a personal attack, even if we hadn’t supported or even thought about that brand for years.
At the (mostly) newly refurbished Westfield Miranda, there’s something new to mourn.
Imagine looking into those gentle brown eyes and telling that face it’s over – he’s insolvent. Imagine being the one to cause that perpetual smile to end. It’d be like pulling the moon from the night sky: the nocturnal world would hate you.
Toys R Us has gone, and there’s an entire generation full of rage at its passing. How could this happen? Don’t toy shops last forever? Where will we take our children when they come of age?
We were there at the beginning, when the American giant arrived on our shores and slew the usurper. When we were invited to meet Barbie, Sonic and Geoffrey, to come in and “have a ball”, to be seduced by wares previously unfathomable to our young eyes.
And we drank deeply.
Never mind that we hadn’t gone in there in years, that we peered inside occasionally and merely wondered why there were so many baby items. Never mind that when we wanted a new board game for game night, we hit up Amazon and their incredible range rather than hiking out to one of many inconvenient locations embedded in mouldy old shopping centres. Never mind that our own children asked for iPads and Xboxes over Barbies and Transformers, and we willingly obliged, even as Hurstville’s double-storey Toys R Us lost an entire floor to Aldi.
We took Geoffrey and his magic factory for granted, and this is the price we paid. We dropped the ice cream, and we’ve done our dash.
Rebel Sport remains – a glimpse into a past when big name retailers could team up and it meant something – but the toy story is over at Miranda. The threshold that saw so many delighted kids quivering with anticipation, birthday money firmly – but not too firmly – clutched in tiny digits, has been sealed up and replaced with an ad for a shop elsewhere in the centre.
Imagine the scene behind this wall. A big empty space that, once upon a time, someone saw so much promise in. “This place could make kids happy,” they thought. And it could, until it couldn’t. Today, that possibility has been restored.
Downstairs, just a bit away from the escalator that once elevated us to a place where we didn’t have to grow up, is this sign overlooked by Westfield’s image consultants.
The quotations around the R sometimes appear in official Toys R Us signage, and sometimes they don’t. Here they seem to be a disclaimer, as though whoever crafted the sign didn’t quite believe the claim behind the name: that “toys were them”.
It’s certainly true today.
I began to lose control…
By 1988, the decade-old Westfield Shoppingtown at Hurstville was outgrowing its baby clothes. The centre had been crafted as the perfect milkshake to bring the boys to Hurstville’s yard, but it had worked too well. The public’s insatiable hunger for more shops, more variety, more ways to waste their money had grown, while the centre itself had remained essentially the same.
What had met the “international standard” just ten years earlier no longer cut the mustard in the decade of decadence. Of course, this standard was set by Westfield itself, which had opened six centres in the USA since 1980 in its quest to become an international presence. Oh but don’t worry all you xenophobes, they’re still as dinky-di true-blue fair-dinkum mate as a dead dingo’s donger:
Despite suffering heavy losses in the 1987 stock market crash – bad enough to force the sale of star asset Network Ten (!) in 1989 – the Westfield Group was keen to apply what it had learned in the international market to its legacy outlets.
And let’s face facts: they don’t get much more legacy than Hurstville.
Dated 1987, Westfield’s plan for aggressive expansion looks very bold on paper. The centre’s extension was to take up an entire block neighbouring the existing site, a proposal that no doubt delighted Hurstville Council. I know what you’re saying, “It’s lucky they had a spare block of land bereft of residents on hand in order to allow Westfield to expand!”
Well, about that…
Just left of the complex in that picture are houses, trees, all that good stuff. But as the caption says, FULL STEAM AHEAD.
Back in their original 1975 proposal, Westfield had been very careful to minimise the impact the centre would have on the community, all in the service of buttering up the Hurstville Council. The pinnacle of this effort was the Snowy Hill Park atop the centre, a nature reserve where people could come and relax away from the hustle and bustle of the retail juggernaut below. In 1988, it was the first to go, razed to make way for a carpark. It says a lot about how the balance of power in the suburb had changed in ten years that this was able to happen. As it stands, this blog entry is now the most public memorial to Snowy. Ouch.
All this talk of growth was all well and good, but what exactly was growing? Sure, Westfield’s profits were hulking out, and Hurstville Council’s take-home wouldn’t have been anything to sneeze at, but was Hurstville itself doing much growing? Let’s see…
1990. It was time. The grand opening everyone had been foaming at the mouth for, that people had sacrificed their homes for – that Snowy Hill had been swept under the rug for – was at hand. Did Westfield spare any expense bringing out the big guns for such an occasion?
Well, okay. Uh…
Hm. So, no.
The biggest jewel in Westfield’s new crown was the addition of Sydney department store mainstay Grace Bros. With Waltons, Westfield had backed the wrong horse, and were determined to make sure that didn’t happen again. The new Grace Bros. also served to steal even more of the floundering Roselands’ thunder, as GB had been that centre’s pride and joy for years at this point. Also new to Hurstville were K-Mart, 125 new specialty shops, as well as some of the biggest and most resilient names in retail:
Take a moment to catch your breath and let’s take a look at the whole lineup:
My award for the best business name ever goes to the hairdresser known as BOSS HAIR TEAM. Untouchable.
Armed with all these new shops and bearing the International Standard ™, Westfield was primed to take the new decade by storm, and for a time it worked. High profile acquisitions and additions peppered the 1990s, but none as exciting as when dying god Venture made way for American toy giant Toys R Us in 1993.
As my contemporaries would concur, the concept of a two storey toy shop was mind-blowing at the time. Compare this to the mere one storey of Bankstown’s World 4 Kids (itself a countermeasure against Toys R Us) and there’s just no competition. Never mind that the bottom level was mainly baby stuff and outdoor junk, that’s not the point. TWO STOREYS.
On the entertainment front, Westfield had topped off its retail sundae with the cherry that was Greater Union. An eight-screen cinema (considered huge at the time, believe me), GU blew away local competition like the Hurstville Savoy, the Kogarah Mecca and the Beverly Hills Cinema. How could those small fry hope to compete with eight screens?
For me though, the high point of Westfield’s desire to innovate during the 1990s was Intencity. Pre-empted by a cool, mysterious ad campaign (below), it seemed as if Intencity was the natural evolution of video game arcades of the past such as Spacetacular and Fun & Games….but that’s another story.
By 1995, the future looked very bright indeed:
But all the glitz and dazzle was blinding Hurstvillians from what was really going on in the area. For every Toys R Us, there was a story like this. For every K-Mart, there was one of these. And for every Grace Bros., there was a Barter’s.
Remember Barter’s (see part one if you don’t)? Living proof that bigger isn’t always better, the three-storey Barter’s had begun its slow decline with the advent of the Westfield itself back in the late ’70s. In January 1985, Barter’s held its last ever sale, and everything had to go:
Scabs from all over Hurstville picked the place clean. What had once been the example of retail elegance in Hurstville was now…well:
The oft-ignored side effect of the Westfield was the damage it caused to the Forest Road shopping strip. Although it had originally been intended to complement those shops, Westfield had done everything so much bigger and better that the little guys outside didn’t stand a chance. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, stories like this were common:
Not helping matters for local retailers was the debacle that was Forest Road Mall. Proposed in 1988 by council and intended to celebrate Hurstville becoming a city that year, the plan would have seen the two-way Forest Road closed off to private traffic and transformed into a pedestrian mall, ‘Hurstville Boulevard’. It was believed that this mall would combat Westfield’s dominance of the area, although how council thought they could do this and not appear two-faced is beyond me. Needless to say, it wasn’t very popular with retailers:
It may shock you to learn that Hurstville Council went ahead with this plan in 1991, going so far as to hold an opening celebration…
…that featured perhaps one of the least appropriate double-billings in entertainment history:
The madness ended in late 1991, as the recession, coupled with increasingly fierce opposition, caused council to rethink their plans. As so much of the construction work to turn Forest Road into the car-free Hurstville Boulevard had been completed, a compromise was met: Forest Road became a one-way street.
You can imagine the big cheeses at Westfield sitting around laughing at this mayhem, which only served to strengthen their position in Hurstville.
But by 1998, Westfield’s gloss was starting to wear off. Another ten years had passed, and in that time international standards had increased again, Westfield Miranda had expanded to become even bigger again, Westfield Burwood was slated for demolition to be replaced by a more modern centre, and many of the heavy hitters of the mid ’90s were winding down. The ever-shifting plates of retail had unsettled giants like Brashs, Toys R Us and *sniff* Intencity, which was replaced by Target in 1997.
Even the cinema was starting to lose its sheen, seen by locals as a hangout for thugs and hoodlums, as was the neighbouring food court. Suddenly, it didn’t feel so good to shop at Hurstville.
The social climate of Hurstville was something that neither council nor Westfield stopped to consider at any time, especially when they were bulldozing houses to expand the shopping centre. That Hurstville was becoming increasingly multicultural didn’t seem to occur to either entity also, only becoming apparent when it was too late to repackage and restructure the complex to suit the suburb’s new needs. I wonder if Westfield ever stopped to wonder why it was suddenly filled with cheap $2 junk shops and mobile phone accessory outlets?
Today, it’s a far cry from the glory days. This year marks Westfield Hurstville’s 35th anniversary, and you can’t half tell. Let’s take a quick tour.
‘Shoppingtown’ no more. Yeah, that was the most dated part of the whole thing, Westfield.
Here are the steps that once took those of us craving fresh air and nature up to Snowy Hill Park. Now it’s a place to smoke while you’re waiting for your kid to emerge from the daycare centre. See those bushes to the left? That’s all you’re getting.
I don’t understand how only some of the floor tiles are stained. How does that happen?
Jolley’s Arcade lives on today with this dated entrance to a dungeon filled with a pretty dire selection of shops, with the fashionably incongruous Fevercast a notable exception. I wonder if they still pay less rent?
When even Westfield became too depressing, the threatening youth moved outside to hang around. Not quite the pedestrian mall council envisioned, I’m guessing.
What was once a dedicated McDonalds restaurant was cut in half with the 1990 extension, and today it’s Sul Ponte cafe. McDonalds’ original seating arrangements remain inside, but the burgers themselves have moved up to the food court outside K-Mart.
Park Road was built over in 1990 to create this shopping overpass. On the left is the original Westfield, although the carpark on top was added in 1990.
This is all that remains of Rose Street today. That music lessons shop looks ancient enough to remember when it was a full street.
In the scheme of things, Westfield seems to have moved on and forgotten about Hurstville. They don’t even bother to charge for parking. The corporation has realised that the true profits are to be had in places like Bondi Junction and Pitt Street Mall, and it’s safe to say that ‘Hurstfield’ will not be receiving further extensions.
What was once hailed as Hurstville’s saviour undoubtedly proved its greatest nemesis and ultimately, its assassin. The damage is done, the parasite has sucked the city dry, and the glory days are long behind it. Visiting today is a depressing, colourless experience heightened by the assorted mental patients who frequent the centre. It hasn’t just become a part of the Hurstville experience, it has become Hurstville. Without the centre, the suburb would become nothing.
And given the state of the centre, I’m not so sure that hasn’t already come to pass.
I’d like to wrap this saga up by sharing a letter that I feel is wonderfully succinct, poignant and devastating all at once. This was published in the Leader, November 1 1990, and shows astounding foresight/cynicism. The writer must be dead by now, so RIP Frank, and RIP Hurstville.
When I was a kid, growing up in a house that was developing rapidly from a tiny shag-carpeted fibre nightmare into a two-storey McMansion with cheese, the worst thing that could happen to you on a Saturday morning was being told “Get in the car, we’re going to HomeBase.” Suddenly, the Saturday that had held so much promise, that you’d worked all week at school to enjoy, was taken away from you, and replaced by a seemingly endless death march through IKEA.
Prospect’s HomeBase homemaker centre had been around since before 1982, when the IKEA opened. After that, the mindless rush to be a part of the Swedish furniture revolution put HomeBase on the map, and countless kids had their Saturday mornings ruined by the long drive out to the middle of nowhere just because the study would look better with a walnut bookshelf named ASCOT. The HomeBase centre’s other stores (yes, there were a few) surrounded IKEA, occasionally catching the eye of a customer as they left the furniture giant, but as a rule, IKEA was what you were there for. Clark Rubber wasn’t exactly a hot destination on weekends.
For the first few years, it wasn’t so bad. I was short enough to be allowed access to the ball room. Anyone who was a kid in the era of ball rooms will instantly know the thrills, the mayhem and the excitement of a ball room in a shopping centre. It was everywhere you wanted to be, because no matter how boring the prospect of a day traipsing around a shop looking for stuff you didn’t care about seemed, if there were facilities for kids you could instantly dump all your disappointment prep work from your internal cache and get stupid in the ball room.
Tragedy struck the Saturday I was suddenly too tall. The clown on the height restriction sign, my close friend for so many years, granting me private access to a wonderland, was instantly my enemy. His eyes, once alive with mischief at letting me into that private club, had turned cold and distant. “We don’t want you here,” his perma-smile seemed to say.
At this point I was faced with two options: brave the boredom of IKEA, or go to the entertainment room for older kids. It was a tough choice, but one easily made. I still wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate the challenge of a DIY entertainment unit, and as amusing as fake PROP brand computer screens were, they got old after the 1000000th bedroom mockup, so I was off to the big kids room. IKEA’s idea of entertainment for big kids involved a bunch of too-small stools stuffed into a tiny room. In the corner of the room was a mini-TV showing Superman: the Movie on a loop. Every single time I went to this room (and it was often – we had a lot of books to shelve), I was treated to either the Marlon Brando bit at the start, or the farm bit where Superman’s dad dies. Once, I even got to see the bit where Lex Luthor crushes the guy under the train – shockingly violent for a kid my height. Not once did I get to see Superman in action. This did nothing but affirm the film’s reputation as ‘a long one’ for me, because even though I knew how long a trip to IKEA could take, it was never as long as the buildup to Superman’s first appearance in the film. The movie and I have settled our differences since, but to this day I can’t watch it on a tiny TV.
The reason for this long anecdote is this: when it was deemed that our house contained enough IKEA furniture, the drive to Prospect suddenly seemed a bit too long, and further homemaker sorties were redirected to the much more local Christies Centre, on Canterbury Road at Bankstown. Long known as Dunlop Corner to locals (it was formerly the site of a Dunlop factory), the Christies homemaker centre had moved in sometime in the 80s or early 90s, and provided a bunch of lesser IKEA wannabes like Fantastic Furniture, a pottery barn, plenty of bedding shops, and my new enemy: Freedom Furniture. The Christies Centre became a new level of weekend hell, because unlike IKEA there was no kids play centre. No consideration for bored children was given anywhere on the grounds of the Christies Centre, and my attention was left to fall upon the dying, decrepit businesses that lined Canterbury Road.
Matters improved when the pottery barn was replaced by Hungry Jacks, but that can only hold one’s attention for so long. In 1996, Dick Smith Powerhouse made it to the Christies Centre. It was a breath of fresh air – suddenly there was a place that sold video games, computers, CDs, the first DVDs…even Superman: the Movie was available to buy here. Dick Smith had only recently moved away from being an electronic hobby shop to establishing a retail chain for consumer electronics, and the Powerhouse was a bold example. For many, it was the first place they were able to use the internet. The trial computers were all set up with dialup accounts, allowing customers to get a taste of the ‘information superhighway’ for the first time before making a purchase of a brand new Pentium. Suddenly, it didn’t matter how long the furniture pilgrimage was going to take, Dick Smith was the place to hang out and relieve that boredom. It was even better when I eventually had money.
These days, the Christies Centre name is long gone. It’s now Home Focus. Hungry Jacks is still enslaving teenagers, Freedom Furniture is still committing hate crimes against entertainment, bedding shops are still putting people to sleep for all the wrong reasons. There’s a new homemaker centre, Home Central, at the back of the place with a completely separate lineup of shops including a Toys R Us, which I’d’ve killed for on those initial endless Saturday mornings.
Dick Smith is gone. Only recently too, by the look of it. I went there yesterday hoping to buy a fuse, only to find the shop completely gone. When did this happen? I’d only gone there a few…months ago? Was it that long? The Dick Smith Powerhouse branding was apparently discontinued in 2009, immediately numbering the Bankstown store’s days. At the same time, Tandy electronic stores, acquired by Dick Smith, were phased out also. Remember Tandy? Everywhere when you weren’t looking for them, nowhere when you were. In January 2012, Dick Smith owner Woolworths closed 100 or so Dick Smith stores, apparently including the Bankstown Powerhouse, and announced that they were selling the chain. What a bunch of dicks.
So now, bored kids stuck at the Home Focus on an endless Saturday morning have only Hungry Jacks (or the distant Toys R Us) to entertain them. No wonder childhood obesity is such a problem. Of course, these days 4-year-olds have iPhones, so my heart isn’t exactly bleeding for them. It’s just a safe bet they didn’t get their iPhones or Nintendo DS from Dick Smith Powerhouse.
Toys R Us was coming. The American toy giant had lingered on the horizon of the Australian retail scene since 1984, when it had first ventured overseas. Now, in 1993, Toys R Us had made its intentions to establish itself in Australia very clear. In a panic, and desperate to beat Toys R Us to the punch, Coles Myer set up their own chain of toy stores that attempted to outdo the American company in every conceivable way; a ‘category killer’. It wasn’t the first time Coles Myer had employed the tactic: in the same year, it had established Officeworks, basing it on the US stationery chain Office Depot. To give you an idea of just how contrived the whole concept was, here’s a 1993 ad preempting the World 4 Kids launch. If you can look past the kid’s stylish fashion, note the cynical overuse of the dinosaur to ride the success of the year’s biggest film.
I can still remember the hype surrounding World 4 Kids at the time of its launch. It was relentless. The Bankstown Square location was enormous, taking up an entire floor. To a kid, it was mind-blowing. They had video games available to try everywhere around the shop. They had aisles – not just a few shelves, like Grace Bros, but aisles – of action figures. They even had a ‘kids entry gate’ as an alternative to the regular entrance. Sure, it was just an archway over a little bridge, but that was for YOU! You weren’t meant to walk in the normal way like the grown-ups! This wasn’t just some toy department of a bigger shop. There was no threat of being dragged off to look at clothes or other boring stuff. It was ALL TOYS.
The launch of World 4 Kids didn’t stop Toys R Us from opening, and the closest store to the Bankstown World 4 Kids was at Hurstville. As expected, the Toys R Us store blew World 4 Kids away: it was two-storey, they had more of everything, and the name explicitly promised toys, rather than merely alluding to them in the case of World 4 Kids, which sounds like it could easily have been one of those lame play centres with the ball rooms.
1993 was about the start of the last big era for toys. By the end of the 90s, video games had eclipsed toys by a wide margin. Also by the end of the 90s, World 4 Kids was a world about to end. The company had bombed hard in the wake of Toys R Us, haemorrhaging millions of dollars each year it was open. By the end, it was losing $36m a year, and cost Coles Myer more than $200m during its short lifespan. World 4 Kids, supposed to be the successor to K-Mart’s dominance of the toy market prior to 1993, closed in 2002, and the brand name was absorbed back into K-Mart, which adopted it as the name of its toy department.
This particular World 4 Kids took over the floorspace of Venture, itself formerly Waltons Department Store (but more on that another time), so by failing miserably, it was only carrying on the strong tradition established by those two brands. Where the one store once took up the entire floor, a chemist, the Reject Shop and Best & Less have taken up residence. Immediately following World 4 Kids’ departure, a JB Hifi was set up in its place, but in a rare move for JB it was closed a few years later. Even Toys R Us is struggling these days, with the Hurstville location having long since been reduced to just one floor.
The only evidence that World 4 Kids, the place that meant the world to so many kids in 1993, was ever a part of Bankstown Square is the faint afterimage of its sign on the outside facade of the building, along the Appian Way. Yesterday’s great hope is now just a stain on the wall. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how personally a store may appeal to you, it’s always business. After all, that’s the way of the World.