Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rowe Street

For a big city, a world city as it likes to think itself, Sydney does not have a very good Public Library. This probably reflects the way the municipality is divided up, the Sydney City Council has jurisdiction only over the CBD proper, the adjoining inner city suburbs are administered by other councils; most of the suburban libraries are rather better, if not bigger, than the Central one. I haven't bothered rejoining since I came back here to live a year ago and in fact didn't even know where it was any more, until yesterday.

I was going to see an exhibition called Memory Lane : Recollecting Rowe Street. Rowe Street was a short narrow street running between Castlereagh and Pitt Streets, just south of Martin Place in the City. It was like an Arcade without a roof and featured shops you didn't find in other parts of town. At one end was the grand Australia Hotel, at the other, the Millions Club (dedicated to population growth); in between you could (in the 1950s and 60s) buy chic hats and dresses, espresso, avant-garde pictures, banned books and modern furnishings. It had been that way, a little piece of Bohemia, at least since the start of the 20th century, when the former literary editor of the Bulletin, A. G. Stephens, and artists Lionel Lindsay and Antonio Datillo-Rubbo rented garret studios on the street.

The exhibition, on the first floor at the recently restored Customs House at Circular Quay, didn't amount to much : three glass cases of displays of wares from those chic and arty shops plus a dozen or so photographs made over into large wall panels. Interesting enough but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. The New Customs House is open plan and there was a lot of conspicuously leisurely lounging around going on, which I found distracting I guess. Never mind.

It was as I was leaving that wing where the exhibition was that I saw a high tech, bright red counter at one end of the floor and realised it was a library I was in ... the Sydney Public Library, made over to look as much as possible like a bookshop - one with hardly any books it it. Fiction A - L seemed all that there was; and the copy of The Situationist City lying casually on a table nearby was asking to be - not stolen, picked up and taken away. I resisted that particular temptation and went up to the next floor to explore, looking for the rest of the books.

They were there, on Floor Two, and seemed somewhat rehabilitated from the sad and tatty collection that used to be housed in an office building behind the Town Hall, and before that in a room in the otherwise derelict Queen Victoria Building. I inquired about re-joining and was relieved to learn my name was no longer on the database - there had been some anomalies in my borrowing behaviour in earlier years - but startled to learn that there is now a joining fee of $11.50. The help was either ignorant or terminally rude, I couldn't decide which. Well, I will join, I guess, sometime ...

Getting back to Rowe Street, most of it was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the MLC Centre, about which the less said, probably the better. The bit they didn't destroy still exists, a numb and bland service lane running behind the Commonwealth Bank Building to the back of the MLC and the Theatre Royal. I did like the epigraph for the show, from Baudelaire : The form of a city changes more quickly, alas, than the heart of a mortal.