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

Postcard Bondi Beach: A cultural melting pot

Published by Reuters in March 1992

As the sun’s first rays stretch across the sands of Bondi Beach and onto its ageing 1920s shops, Australia’s most famous beach looks a little seedy and hung-over.

Saturday night is party night at Bondi. Sunday morning is not a pretty sight. Garbage bins overflow with refuse from late-night take-away diners: pizza cartons, hamburger wrappers and cans of Foster’s beer litter Campbell Parade which skirts the beach.

Mini-skirted party girls wearing enough make-up to plaster the crumbling Hotel Bondi scurry home.

Agile joggers in swimsuits sidestep a few bleary-eyed tourists with British accents who wobble drunkenly head-first into the surf, jeans and all.

Before long, it’s the turn of the elderly migrants from eastern Europe, power-walking along the concrete promenade in a uniform of tracksuit, towelling headband, sandshoes and thick gold jewellery.

In the water, bobbing up and down like circus seals in fluorescent costumes, are Bondi’s famed surfers.

Scores of young Japanese, in Australia to learn English, join the line-up in the water as long as the waves stay waist-high. When the swells grow, their numbers thin.

Despite its jaded appearance Bondi has become home to a potpourri of nationalities.

The Waverley municipality which surrounds Bondi, covering nine sq km (three sq miles), is home to more than 60,000 people. According to the latest census 39 per cent were born overseas, 24 per cent in non-English speaking countries.

Walk along Campbell Parade and you will hear not only various versions of English, but more than 25 other languages, mostly east European, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish.

By mid-morning the screams of young children echo from the northern end of the beach as Australia’s junior surf lifesavers, the Nippers, go through their paces.

North Bondi is the domain of the beach’s long-term, working class residents. The small ocean rock pools offer safe swimming for children, while Ben Buckler, Bondi’s northern point, shelters mothers and babies from summer’s blustery nor’easterlies.

Overlooking the northern corner is Tobruk House, a club for returned servicemen, an enclave of conservative Australia circa 1940s — cheap beer, bingo and weekly in-house movies.

In stark contrast, the southern end of the beach is Australia 1992; hedonistic, trendy, loud and naked.

On two cylindrical ramps heavily-padded skateboarders perform their landbased surfing before wide-eyed tourists.

Renovated blocks of flats have been turned into chic cafes where a capuccino sipped over the morning papers is de rigueur for writers, artisans and actors — Bondi’s newest arrivals.

By midday, when the blistering sun is high above, the southern sands are littered with naked and semi-naked bodies, their owners oblivious to the fact that Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world.

One woman sunbather has two swimming costumes — one to wear on the beach, the other in the water. For some men a small pouch and a piece of string suffices.

Bare flesh attracts not only sand flies but voyeurs who linger nonchalantly on the promenade. But no one seems to mind — after all, this is the beach where the local boardriders’ club is called ITN (In The Nude).

Carved out of the rocks that form the southern point is the white-washed Bondi Icebergs swimming club, established in 1929. Just 1.15 dollars (1.12 U.S.) buys a glass of beer and the best view of Bondi, albeit it through salt-encrusted windows.

On the first day of winter each year the elite male club, the Icebergs, throw huge chunks of ice into their ocean pool before diving in.

As Bondi bakes, the air fills with exotic smells from Thai, Vietnamese, African, Italian, and Lebanese restaurants.

Bronzed inspectors cruise up and down the beach, walkie-talkies in hand. In the first two months of 1991, around 500 people, many of them Japanese or English, had to be rescued from Bondi’s pounding waves, despite multi-lingual signs stating where swimming is safest.

By mid-afternoon, a cacophony wafts through the heat from the Bondi Pavilion, where a reggae band seduces dreadlock dancers and first generation Italian-Australians strut to ghetto-blasters.

In the 1930s, when a crowd of 80,000 sun worshippers was not uncommon on a hot weekend, the pavilion was an open air venue for tuxedoed big bands.

Today it is a community centre featuring yoga and aerobic classes, as well as a money change and souvenir shop for busloads of Japanese tourists.

As dusk descends the east European migrants return with their families for an evening stroll along the promenade before dinner at either the Jewish Hakoah Club or the Russian Black Sea restaurant.

Anglo-Saxon Australians have deserted the beach for dinner in front of the television and the Sunday night football replay.

By nightfall, the beach is empty but for the surfers who stay long after dark waiting for that one great ride.

MICHAEL PERRY

Bondi

Published in Tracks in January 1971

The crews hang at various places. At the tunnel, the second ramp, the first ramp, the rocks near the end of the beach, and at the baths. There are younger kids at the tunnel. They are swollen in numbers because it’s hot and it’s nearly holidays. They’re young and stoked and they haven’t yet acquired specific characteristics like the other groups. Or if they have they’re keeping quiet about it so far.

Bondi gets good in winter. A lot of waves and the crowds are not bad. In summer it’s the most populated bit of beach in the country. From the harsh dawn there are joggers and strollers and sitters and swimmers. There are hundreds of kids that walk out of the wilderness with a board under an arm and a towel in a hand and sunburn cream on a nose. On those summer weekends it’s glary at six o’clock and the sun is hot when it’s an inch above the horizon. The kids pull on their shorts, squint at the good peak that’s formed in the south corner, look around for someone’s wax. Old men do Yoga amongst the rocks. Joggers jog out of the hills and along the concrete promenade. And the surfers hit the peak, and it’s crowded by seven o’clock.

There are a lot of people. They go by one another without recognition. In the water, despite the crowds, there isn’t a fierce competitiveness. There are too many people for that somehow. They withdraw to their own worlds. The simple facts of survival ensure a respect and consideration that is implied mostly, and almost carelessly.

Brad Mayes is one of a lot of good surfers at Bondi. He hangs mostly at the second ramp. His surfing shows traces of Ted Spencer, perhaps the littlest bit of Nat, and it’s probably representative of the strongest group at Bondi. There are influences from the Wilderness community at Yamba and the characteristics aren’t any sort of turn or cutback. They are more basic versatility and adaptability. The waves they ride have sorted that out. It’s good surfing and Bondi surfers handle any place pretty well. They formed a club called East Coast last winter. One of the reasons was that they’d be able to take the young kids away on trips. They have not done that yet, but they’ve won a few contests and they’ve had a split in the ranks. The Fords pulled out of the club because they didn’t think that they were getting enough out of it. They’re called the Reformers. They didn’t get all that stoked about the social turns and the kegs that blew some of the club bread. And you don’t make it with the Fords if you’ve got a girlfriend.

There are four Ford brothers and five or so others that are pretty tight. Most weekends they hit Narrabeen. It stands out immediately in the quick arm swinging turn cutback. When they’re at Bondi they hang at the baths. And sometimes they wear coloured singlets while they’re surfing. When they wore them at Angourie it didn’t show too much insight into the vibe of the place. They go northside in a white Kombi that’s got McCoy stickers and ‘Northie forever’ written on it. They look alike and they surf alike and they take some of the young kids places that they wouldn’t otherwise get to go. It’s three or four hundred yards from the second ramp to the Baths. Clashes at Bondi have their own restrained sort of style.

The Fords ride McCoys with the rest of Narrabeen. Brad just bought a chined Hayden from Spider and Garry at Robert Conneeley’s surf shop. For the moment there’s no one shop that’s the fashionable thing. There are a lot of backyard boards and some of them aren’t very good, but no one seems to care too much. There is a sprinkling of Shanes, Astro Boy rides one, and Wayne Williams rides a board he made himself. Young Brock, who’s the artist of the second ramp, rides a Wilderness. Naturally.

Smaller groups of surfers gather at spots along the wall and on the sloping grass above the beach. It’s not too different to any other beach. Except Bondi has its own brand of person and surfer. He’s a product of the density of population. There are so many kids who live within ten minutes of the beach. To get along, they have to be resourceful, and they have their own kind of detached consideration. And when you watch the surfers in the water you realise how good they are. The locally grown product of the most concrete metropolitan beach in the country is pretty hot. They get more waves than most people realise. As many as anyone who consistently surfs a home beach. They know its mood and the hour when it’s likely to be good. In winter they’re happy to hang at home. The water south is cold, and for short weekend trips, when they go, it’s south. They haven’t preached the Southern Trip and so far it’s untouched by the media. Some of them think that the southside generally has had a bad time from the magazines. That it hasn’t got the recognition that it deserves. Others sense that that’s the best thing about it.

Bondi’s got nothing much going for it. It’s a product of the worst absence of environmental planning in history. It’s garlanded by sewerage outlets to the north and to the south, and every time the rain tries to wash the beach into the sea the Council get their bulldozer out and fixes things up. If they left it alone, the bank in the south corner would probably be much better, much more.

Over population makes the summer weekends nightmares. They are gross in the worst possible way. The kids recognise it, dislike it, and put up with it. And they carry this discipline into their surfing. Somehow, out of it, with the normal number of casualties, has come a group of surfers with an extraordinary basic strength. As individuals, their surfing is balanced and straight. As a group they’re not overbearing. Bondi’s got nothing much going for it but it’s kids.

JOHN WITZIG

The quintessential Australian beach

Bondi Beach has come to be viewed both within Australia and internationally as the quintessential Australian beach. It remains the third most visited site in Sydney after the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and the 380 bus route from Circular Quay to Bondi Beach is the most profitable in Sydney.

Bondi Beach has played a nationally significant role in the development of Australia’s self image. Love of the beach is a defining characteristic of the Australian way of life. Bondi Beach is one of the world’s most famous beaches and is important to both the Australian community and to visitors. The beach, with its golden sands, parks, and the blue waters of the bay, framed within its rocky headlands, embodies a powerful sense of place and has come to symbolise Australia’s way of life and leisure. It is where Australians meet nature’s challenge in the surf and is strongly associated with the Bronzed Aussie myth of easygoing hedonism and endeavour balanced with relaxation. A place full of Australian spirit, synonymous with Australian beach culture, surfing and the surf life saving movement, it is recognised internationally.

The central role of beaches, and Bondi Beach in particular, in Australia’s self image is reflected in the use of the beach by painters, filmmakers, poets and writers in analysing the growth of this new self image and reflecting it back to Australian society.

– Australian Heritage Council [pdf]

HB

Photo: Bill Pfeifer.

Photo: Bill Pfeifer.

Britannic Mansions overlooked the south end of the beach. In one of the front windows, a large sign identified the flat as HB, which was the brand of surfboard Greg Webber shaped at the time. People would rendezvous at “HB” before a surf or a night out. By the mid-eighties, Greg’s boards were everywhere. They stood out partly because so many good riders had one and partly because they were all white. The emphasis was on performance surfing, which concerns the shape of the surfboard, rather than its appearance. As an expression of minimalism, this trend might have been a reaction to the popularity of brightly coloured wetsuits that drew attention to the surfer’s appearance, instead of his surfing ability. In any case, white surfboards represented a level of professionalism that had been lacking in the seventies, when surfboards were often endeared with the sort of airbrushed artwork more commonly associated with panel vans.

Dan Webber