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The mall hope forgot

The Airds Shopping Centre

Recently I came across an article about the future of the Airds shopping mall in the Macarthur Chronicle headed ‘Dilapidated centre set to be transformed’. It stated:

A wrecking ball could be swinging towards a dilapidated shopping village. The grand plans propose to demolish Airds Village shopping centre, on Riverside Drive, and replace it with a $21 million centre.

Airds Shopping Centre redevelopment Macarthur Chroncile 2020Apr1

A sad story of decay and neglect

The imminent demolition of the decaying and neglected Airds shopping mall is a sad indictment of the dreams of many and the ultimate demise of the 1970s Macarthur Growth Centre.

The shopping mall is an example of urban decay in the middle of our local suburbia. It is a failure of modernism and the town planning utopia of city-based decision-makers.

The decay at Airds is not unusual and is symbolic of larger trends in global retailing where shopping malls are in decline.

The current dismal state of affairs hides the fact that in the mid-20th century there was great hope and optimism by Campbelltown’s civic leaders for the area’s development and progress.

Airds Shopping Centre Frontage from Walkway underpass 2020 IW lowres
The front view of the Airds Shopping Centre framed by  the underpass at Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Progress, development, and modernism

There grand plans for Campbelltown as a satellite city within the New South Wales state government’s County of Cumberland Plan.

Local confidence saw the construction of the 1964 modernist council chambers and in 1968 the declaration of city status, electrification of the railway and the announcement of  Sydney Region Outline Plan by the state government.

Influenced by the British New Town movement the city was incorporated in the State Planning Authority of NSW’s 1973 New Cities of Campbelltown Camden Appin Structure Plan.  This later became the Macarthur Growth Centre administered by the Macarthur Development Board.

Airds Shopping Centre Front from footpath with grass 2020 IW lowres
The unkempt state of the surrounds at the Airds Shopping Centre in Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn – a ‘foreign country’

Airds was one of several ‘corridor’ suburbs of public housing that following the American Radburn principles.  The Airds shopping centre was built as part of the 1975 Housing Commission of New South Wales subdivision of ‘Kentlyn’ which was renamed Airds in 1976.

The Radburn principles were applied to five public housing estates that were developed by the Housing Commission of New South Wales in the Campbelltown area between 1972 and 1989. The other four estates were Macquarie Fields, Claymore, Minto and Ambervale.

The design concept originated from the town of Radburn in New Jersey in 1928 and reflected the optimism of American modernism around the motor car and consumerism.

Houses were developed ‘back-to-front’ with the front of the house facing a walkway or green open space and the back door facing the street. This meant that there was a separation of pedestrians and cars, with a large communal open area centred on the walkways between the rows of houses. This resulted in a streetscape consisting of rows of high blank fences enclosing backyards.

Travis Collins from the University of New South Wales argues that the Radburn principles were initially designed for aspirational upper-middle-class areas and their desire for a garden suburb, where pedestrian walkways and common areas linked across the estate. These areas were expected to be the centre of neighborhood life without the need for a car.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior Signage 2020 IW lowres
The interior walkway into the middle of the Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn watered down

The suburb of Airds, and other Campbelltown public housing estates, started off with grand plans that evaporated over time due to: changes of government; cost-cutting; abolition of government instrumentalities; and neglect. This resulted in a ‘watered down’ Radburn vision.

The public housing estates did have extensive open space which was true to Radburn principles. Yet there were compromises and the Housing Commission built townhouses that were counter to the  Radburn concept.

The tracts of open space became wastelands of neglect and vandalism that were poorly provisioned and maintained by the Housing Commission with a lack of privacy and security. The back lanes and streets were isolated, lacked security and resident surveillance and were sites characterised by dumped rubbish and graffiti.

The estates were populated with high numbers of single-parent families who suffered from high levels of social exclusion, unemployment, and low incomes.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior2 2020 IW lowres
The interior space of the Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (IW)

 

Radburn failures

Collins argues that the Radburn principles were a failure and contributing factors included: poor surveillance of the street by residents because of high rear fences fronting the street; anti-social behaviour along the walkways and open space areas; and the low socio-economic status of residents.

The failure of the Radburn scheme was finally recognised by the authorities in the early 2000s. They acknowledged that: the design was unsuitable for concentrated public housing estates; they created confusing neighborhoods with unsafe walkways, poor car access, and poor surveillance of areas of open space; the poorly constructed housing stock became run down and dilapidated; the housing stock was infested with termites. Some of these issues were reflected in Airds and the shopping mall from the mid-1970s.

Airds Shopping Centre Frontage from Walkway 2020 IW lowres
Approaching the front of the Airds Shopping Centre from the underpass at Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

Memories of hope

In the 1970s I taught at Airds High School adjacent to the shopping mall and my memories are mixed. Young people who came from disfunctional backgrounds, yet their resilience allowed them to rise above it, grow and mature into sensible young adults. This process is supported by the life experience of former Airds resident Fiona Woods (Facebook, April 2020) who grew up in Airds in the 1970s and 1980s. She says:

I have the best memories of Airds, especially that shopping centre. Riding our bikes to buy lollies.  Growing up in Airds in the 70s was very communal. I loved it. I arrived at Airds in 1977 when I was 3 and lived there until 1984. I went to John Warby [Public School]. There was such a strong sense of community. My mum met her best friend when they moved into their new houses in Airds. They have been friends for over 40 years and still speak daily.

Fiona tells the story of her sister who taught at Airds High School in the 1990s. She found the teaching experience challenging, as I did 20 years earlier, yet the youngsters were confident, grounded and without airs and graces.

Similarly I found Airds school children had a refreshing unsophisticated innocence that was generated by difficult circumstances. They were unpretentious and you quickly knew where you stood with them teaching in a classroom that was always full of unconfined energy. You always had classroom ‘war stories’ and I said that this is where I did my ‘missionary work’.

Bogans galore and more

The Airds shopping mall is a metaphor for what happened to Campbelltown between the 1970s and the present. It represents the collision of modernism and neoliberalism in place. The optimism of the 1960s contrasting with the despair of the 1980s.

The shopping mall is a metaphor for the stereotypes that are bandied around over the geographical term ‘Western Sydney’ and the use of terms like ‘bogan’ and ‘westie’. Typified by Sydney’s latte line where city-based decision-makers dealt with suburbs west of the latte line as a foreign country. In 2013 Campbelltown journalist Jeff McGill took exception to ‘bogan’ characterisation of the Campbelltown area by the Sydney media.

Gabrielle Gwyther put it this way:

Derogatory labeling of residents of western Sydney was aided by the social problems and cheap aesthetic of large-scale, public housing estates developed in the 1950s at Seven Hills, followed by Green Valley and Mount Druitt in the 1960s, and the Radburn estates of Bonnyrigg, Villawood, Claymore, Minto, Airds and Macquarie Fields in the 1970s.

Airds Shopping Centre Gate Entry 2020 IW lowres
The side security gates at the Airds Shopping Centre Riverside Drive Airds 2020 (IW)

 

De-Radburnisation

These failures were acknowledged in 1995 with the state government’s public housing renewal projects and their de-Radburnisation through the Neighbourhood Improvement Program.

At Airds this is partly responsible for the re-development of the shopping centre as outlined in the Macarthur Chronicle.

Updated 17 April 2020; Originally posted 11 April 2020

Architecture · Attachment to place · Camden · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical thinking · history · Local History · Modernism · Place making · Retailing · sense of place · Supermarkets

Modernism and consumerism, supermarkets come to Camden

Supermarkets are one of the ultimate expressions of modernism. The township of Camden was not isolated from these global forces of consumerism that originated in the USA. The Camden community was bombarded daily with American cultural influences in the form of movies, motor cars, drive-in, motels, TV, and radio. Now consumerism was expressed by the appearance of self-service retailing and the development of the supermarket.

 

Camden Argyle St Camden 2012
This image of Argyle Street is from 2012 taken at the northern end of the street (I Willis)

 

Retailing in Camden took its lead from England. At the village level the market stall turned into the high street shop. All goods were kept behind the counter, customers were served by male shop assistants and goods were delivered to the customer’s home.

Shopping in Camden was a rather dull affair by all accounts. The methods of retailing in Camden had changed little from the 19th century.

Camden women fronted up to the counter and handed their list of needs to the male shop assistant who filled the order for her. There were several choices from those owned by the Whitemans, the Cliftons, the Furners and others.

The winds of change were about to descend on the  Camden shopping experience. The old fashioned general stores were about to find out what real competition with a global presence meant in a small country town.

 

Menangle Army Camp men on manoeuvres marching through Camden 1916 CIPP
This image from 1916 shows retail outlets along the eastern side of Argyle Street from the corner of John Street. The centre shops are located in the Whiteman building.  Soldiers in training from the Menangle Army Camp on a forced march passing along Argyle Street Camden 1916 (CIPP)

 

According to Ann Satterthwaite’s Going Shopping self-service was the industrialisation of retailing along with the chain store. These stores featured cash and carry, no delivery and shelving displaying pre-packaged goods. In the USA there were an array of stores from Niffy Jiffy, Help Selfy, Handy Andy to Clarence Saunders  Piggly Wiggly stores in Memphis in 1916 which was a type of cafeteria retailing. Piggly Wiggly was allegedly the first self-serve outlet for groceries. Self-service retailing emerged after the American civil war in response to labour shortages. For others like Edison’s Samaritan Market it was an attempt to make shopping more efficient.

 

The first time that groceries were sold in Australia using  self-service in occurred in Brisbane in 1923. The Brisbane Courier reported that the first exclusive cash and carry grocery store started in Brisbane under the name Brisbane Cash and Carry Store. The proprietor Mr CA Fraser had opened three stores by 1927. The press report maintained that

The system was practically a novelty in Brisbane, but some idea of what success can be obtained through an honest endeavour to give self-service to the public in a courteous and efficient manner can be gauged by  [its success].

The news report suggests that lower costs were obtained by the customer paying in cash and thus eliminating store credit. The customer serving ‘herself and so eliminating the necessity of salesman effects further savings’. It was claimed that the three stores served over a half a million people each year  and the stores were ‘a model of neatness, cleanliness and efficiency’.

 

Camden Argyle St cnr John St BoardmanButchery 1973 LKernohan
This image of Argyle Street shows 110 Argyle Street with Boardman’s Butchery at the corner of Argyle and John Street in 1973. The buildings are little changed from the 1930s. (LKernohan/CIPP)

 

The first cash and carry store that opened in Camden occurred in 1933 and was owned by Mr Joe B Roberts at 110 Argyle Street. The Camden News stated that Roberts had obtained the premises that had been previously occupied by Mr Green next door to Mr Fred Boardman’s butchery. The report stated that ‘the shop has been specially fitted for Mr Roberts, who [would] personally conduct the store’. By 1936 Mr Roberts store was adjacent to Mr Green’s Drapery store. His Christmas special was a free beach towel with five purchases from the advertisement in the Camden News.

 

Retail ColgateToothpaste AWW 12 May1951
A promotional advertisement aimed at women for the sale of Colgate Tooth Powder in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1951 (AWW 12 May 1951)

 

A recent article on JStor on Sex and the supermarket by researchers Tracey Deutsch and Adam Mack claims that supermarkets were places where gender and sexuality collided for American women. Supermarkets were one of the mid-20th century most important suburban sites for the important weekly ritual of shopping for the modern family. The supermarket was both aspirational and practical. In a weekly ritual the modern housewife could get lost is a sea of idealised dreams created by marketing gurus around an overwhelming splash of colour, perfectly merchanised products and an endless supply of brands that promised to make life easier for modern housewife.

 

Retail KeroseneFridge Clintons CN 5 Jun1941
A promotional advertisement in the Camden News on 5 June 1941 for a kerosene refridgerator sold by Clintons Distributing Pty Ltd at Narellan (CN 5 June 1941)

 

In the USA a parallel development occurred in the kitchen. There was the development of refrigerators, the gas stove and products started to be promoted in cans. As the US economy developed fewer women went into domestic service and wealthier middle class women started going shopping in these new supermarkets.

 

Retail CocaCola Promo 1951

 

The design of the supermarket was based on making them feminised spaces based on the latest psychological theories. Sex appeal made its way into shopping. Supermarkets were brighter, more colourful, cleaner, and sexier than the dingy general stores. The new aesthetic meant that these  spaces were made to titillate and fascinate women. Supermarkets were clean and efficient with modern fluorescent lighting and carefully selected colours.

One of the earliest feminist authors Betty Friedan wrote about how women were shackled through shopping to their domesticity in 1963 in her book The Feminine Mystique.

Supermarkets are sites where gender roles are re-enforced where women’s sexuality is ‘contained and re-directed’ to consumption.

 

In 1941 press reports from Los Angeles stated that the hype surrounding the opening of the latest supermarkets ranked with the opening of the latest blockbuster Hollywood movies. The Southern Californian housewife went on the hunt for the latest bargains. The supermarkets operated with huge carparks, large neon signs, with some staying open 24 hours 7 days a week. They traded under names like Bi-Best Market, Sel-Rite Market, The Stop-and-Save, Thriftmart, and Wundermart.

 

Retail Woolworths 1950 BeverlyHills 1stSelfService
The mad enthusiasm of women at the opening of Woolworths first self-service supermarket at Beverley Hills, NSW, in 1950 (Woolworths)

 

In the post-war years elf-service retailing gained  momentum in the Sydney area. Kings Cross grocer Mr Jack Greathead was the owner of a small self-serve store, and in 1950 cut the price of his butter and triggered a price war. Chain stores joined the price war. Mr FC Burnard the grocery buyer for David Jones predicted after a visit to the USA that self-service and other retailing innovations would soon be implemented in Australia. He was particularly impressed with the use of trolley-carts and pre-packaged hosiery and frozen goods.

 

Camden Woolworths 132 Argyle Street 1970 CIPP
This image shows the new Woolworths stand-alone self-serve supermarket at 166-172 Argyle Street. This was Camden’s first self-service supermarket which was built in 1963 (CIPP)

 

In Camden Woolworths came to town in 1963. Woolworths opened the first stand-alone self-service store with a modern design, that was clean and made shopping more efficient. With modern lighting, wide isles, bright colours and lots of appealing merchandise to choose from with nationally advertised well-known brands. Some of the brands were American re-enforcing the international and cosmopolitan nature of the new shopping experience.

 

Retail CocaCola Promo mid20th century

 

The new Woolworths store at 166-172 Argyle Street Camden was light and airy compared to the local general stores up the road which appeared old-fashioned and stodgy in comparison. The new supermarket encouraged local women to experience the thrill and titillation of going shopping. Slick brand marketing created dreams in the minds of the shoppers. Shoppers were encouraged to immerse themselves in the dream. Shopping became sexy. Shopping stimulated the sense with bright colours, in-store music and excitement of the new experience. Shopping became exciting. Shopping was sensual as much as it was practical.

 

The Woolworths supermarket consolidated a number of lots in Argyle street that was occupied by W Ward the butcher, Monica Ray and Beaton and Wylie.

 

Camden Coles 2017 ICW Murray St
This image is of the Camden Coles self-service supermarket in Murray Street Camden. The supermarket was built in 1979. (I Willis, 2018)

 

Coles opened a stand alone grocery store in Camden in 1979 and Woolworths moved into its current store in Oxley Street in 1986.