Old Bondi struggles to stay afloat

Published by Reuters in April 2002

Sunday morning, and Sydney’s Bondi Beach looks the same as it has for decades, tired and dishevelled, like a party girl with smudged mascara after a late night.

Garbage bins overflow with takeaway food wrappers and beer bottles litter the gutters. Drunks, like modern-day vampires, scurry home as the sun’s rays hit Australia’s most famous beach.

Surfers bob up and down in the waves as the Pacific Ocean licks an arc of white sand – the first of thousands of people that will flock to the waves during the course of the day.

But Bondi, once washed with sewage on the incoming tide until Sydney built a new wastewater treatment plant, is changing.

Last summer 1.9 million sun-lovers flocked to Bondi, which hosted the beach volleyball for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But most visitors no longer head for the beach and surf, but sip lattes and cappuccinos in cafes overlooking the sand.

And the hordes of tourists have been closely followed to the seaside suburb by developers – leaving many residents worried their beloved egalitarian lifestyle will be swept away.

“I think Bondi it is losing its sense of community. I think it is losing its soul,” says Uniting Church Reverend Paul Cameron, who preaches at the “Chapel by the Sea”.

Just six km (four miles) from central Sydney, the suburb is now one of Australia’s most fashionable addresses, touted by real estate agents as home for the young and successful.

A dilapidated house a few streets back from the beach recently sold for A$1.22 million (US$650,000), beachside apartments sell for millions, and the paparazzi hunt Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves in Bondi’s trendy new cafes.

Around 64,840 people live in the nine square kilometres (3.5 square miles) around Bondi, a population density of 7,200 persons per square kilometre (18,500 per square mile) – compared with two people per square km for the whole of Australia.

Thousands of backpacking tourists crowd into backstreet hostels each year, including around 75 illegal hostels, local government officials say.
Concerned residents fret that Bondi is being loved to death, with litter, pollution, crime and traffic congestion on the rise.

Cameron says homelessness and drugs are also growing problems facing the new Bondi. “We have had a fairly safe service and now it has become a little bit more extreme,” he says.

TWO BONDIS

A social plan developed by Waverley Council, the area’s local authority, reveals Bondi’s split personality.

Its population is older than Sydney at large, with 14 percent of people aged over 65. There are more one-parent families, 43 percent of residents do not own their home but rent, and a third of residents are low-income earners.

But new residents are typically middle to high income people whose children have grown up, or childless professional couples – and they outbid the traditional residents for housing.

“High rents and loan repayments are causing low and medium income families with children, particularly those over 12 years, to move out of the area in search of cheaper housing,” the social plan said.

Ask Bondi’s old residents about the “gentrification” around them and they neither like it nor understand it.

“I don’t like the change, nyet. I love the beach and water,” declares an elderly Russian, who with three friends has played dominoes for the past 25 years at the same table alongside the Bondi Pavilion on the edge of the sand.

The new Bondi is so busy partying it has little time for the past. Forty years ago Bondi boasted one cafe, two milk bars and two fish and chips shops.

Today it is a culinary wonderland from the “Gusto” delicatessen, where beatnik types sit on milk crates on the street, to “Hugo’s” where couples dine by candlelight under cosy blankets to keep the sea breeze at bay.

But even Bondi’s cafe owners bemoan the rapid changes. Shop rentals have soared to around A$5,000 (US$2,660) a week for a small shop – five times the going rate 10 years ago – forcing many to make way for homogenous multinational fast food chains.

“People are getting squeezed out,” says Peter Berger, whose family has owned the “Gelato Bar” cafe since the late 1950s.

“There’s no way you can pay those rents. You can’t just put your prices up because people won’t come in,” says Berger.

He is happy with the influx of tourists which have bolstered his business, but not with Bondi’s inability to cope with its growing popularity, especially the mounting litter which spills from garbage bins at the end of each day.

“Bondi is an Australian icon it should look better…but it looks abominable. It should be more classy,” says Berger.

BOURGEOIS BONDI

Waverley Mayor Paul Pearce has lived in the area all his life. He says Bondi’s population is now more “bourgeois”, creating tensions within those seeking to preserve old Bondi.

“In a sense we have preserved the buildings, but to some extent we are losing the people,” he says.

“The old style community at Bondi which was very much centred around the surf clubs, a very blokey (male) sort of culture, has certainly changed but there is a relatively coherent sense of community amongst newer residents.”

But old Bondi refuses to die – not without a fight.

Cockroach-infested flats from the 1930s which have yet to be reincarnated still litter the beach streetscape – cheap rent for groups of Japanese surfers living their “Endless Summer”.

Old ladies with tattoos on their wrists from Nazi concentration camps engage in the traditional Sunday family promenade along the beach.

Bondi is a multi-cultural enclave with 24 percent of residents born in non-English speaking countries, such as Russia, Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine.

But even a bastion of old-Bondi, the Icebergs winter swimming club perched on the southern headland, is not immune to change.

Riddled with concrete cancer, the club faced demolition until a benevolent developer transformed it into a multi-million dollar glass and white edifice.

Social membership of the Icebergs, with its new five-star restaurant and cafe, has become one of Sydney’s hottest tickets.

But each Sunday morning in winter, just like their founders 73 years ago, the “real” Icebergs race each other in their ocean pool, reminiscent of a time when all you needed to be a Bondi resident was a pair of swimming trunks.

MICHAEL PERRY

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