Wollongong gets a laneway culture of its own
World-famous for its network of alleys and arcades, Melbourne has led several Australian cities down the laneway revolution.
In the past decade, Sydney has revitalised its network of convict-built back-alleys, prompting an explosion of small bars and art installations in the city’s hidden thoroughfares. Likewise, Brisbane City Council has invested millions into a “Vibrant Laneways” project, creating outdoor galleries and upgrading its backstreets to entice people into the inner city’s forgotten places.
Luckily for Wollongong, the urban design firm which helped make Melbourne’s lanes a global success way back in 1994 – Gehl Architects – has been employed by Wollongong City Council for the past two years to drive a people-focused change in the CBD.
The Copenhagen firm’s philosophy is based on the concept of the “human scale”: that is, successful, lively cities have lots of things happening at a human level and are not just a network of empty streets connecting skyscapers. With their nooks and crannies, flower-filled facades, glowing little bars and vibrant street art, Wollongong’s lanes have proved the perfect place to lead the city’s change.
This dog-legged lane connecting Burelli Street, Church Street and Crown Street Mall has been a frontrunner in Wollongong’s transformation.
A few years ago, its most prominent features were a couple of shops, the back of Myer, the downstairs of Angus and Robertson bookstore, an empty electorate office and an old Thai restaurant. But now, on pretty much any night of the week, it’s a buzzing enclave where The Little Prince patrons sip on whiskey sours, burgers and tacos are served up at His Boy Elroy and Beach Burrito, and dessert-loving night-owls cram into Hungarian cake shop, Kurtosh.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, Globe Lane became the envy of party-goers around the world, when local music bookers Yours and Owls managed to convince London record label Young Turks to host one of their infamous end of year parties – headlined by DJ Jamie XX – in Wollongong.
With many empty frontages remaining, there’s untapped potential in Globe Lane, but – in their 2015 analysis of Wollongong’s streets and public places –architects from Gehl praised the level of activity in the lane, noting it was one of the only places in the inner city where pedestrian numbers increased in the evenings.
Crown Lane has been home to many well-known Wollongong establishments over the years – some fondly remembered, some not so.
Perhaps the most notorious was the Crown Gardens disco, nicknamed the Head and Fingers after teenager Kim Barry – whose body was found decapitated and missing all fingers – met killer Graham Gene Potter there one Friday night in 1981.
In recent years, the lane has been not much more than a construction zone and shopping centre backstreet (with the notable exception of lively record store Music Farmers, which has now moved to a shopfront of Keira Street). Eerily quiet with little street light shining through, it was a pretty scary place to traverse at night.
But, with the opening of rooftop bar Humber in the old Hillman Humber car dealership at the corner and restaurants like Beast and Bread and Grill’d which now flank the intersection of Crown and Keira Street, there’s now life at all times of day.
Pizzeria Kneading Ruby opened in March in the old Music Farmers building, with a dramatic renovation transforming what what was built as a dance hall in 1924 (and became a sports store, pool hall and art gallery through the years) into a plant-filled, warehouse-style restaurant. Named for the original builder’s daughter, Ruby, the eatery was modelled on Melbourne and Sydney’s laneways bars – with the owners hoping patrons will simply stumble upon it as they wander up Crown Lane.
From afar – standing at the top of Richardson Street, at the northern exit of GPT’s West Keira building and looking down the length of Keira Lane – the charms of this thoroughfare are not immediately obvious.
But start walking down the street – past Simple Cycles, Sifters Espresso, the back of the 1938-built Hotel Illawarra, a sign proclaiming The Bunker at the bottom of 151 Nightclub – and its gritty appeal begins to take shape. Keep going towards Madrid-inspired eatery Bull and Bear, with its Spanish tiles and vibrant mural, and past the back of Keira Street’s Amigos, Red Square, Caveau and Lupa and its clear Keira Lane could easily become one of the best in town.
A one-way street past the back of Wollongong Police Station, the Wesley Church and a multi-storey car park, Court Lane has got a way to go before it becomes a life-filled laneway. But the pleasant hum of patrons enjoying wine and cheese at Throsby that floats up over a brick wall and into the lane, and the leafy floral arrangements spilling out of Wildflower Florist is a good start.
Town Hall Place
Surrounded by construction sites, this laneway behind the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre could change dramatically in the coming months, as hundreds of new residents move into the 14-storey Oxford Towers that now loom above.
Joined by Ethel Hayton Walk, which links Crown Street to the arts precinct, the colourfully-painted Town Hall Place is home to the cavernous converted pasta factory, Three Chimneys. It’s also the access way for whiskey bar Howlin’ Wolf and popular Crown Street eateries.
Coombe Street – a narrow dead-end off Market Street – features one of the best pieces of Wonderwalls street art: a haunting blue portrait of an Aboriginal man.
Other places to explore
Simpson Place – which connects Kembla and Burelli Streets parallel to Crown Street Mall – has a number of successful businesses (like Swell Coffee, the Fox and the Hair, Rad Bar) at its edges.
Moore Lane is home to Lower East Deli and more Wonderwalls magic, while Queens Parade – which runs between Market and Crown Streets to the east of Corrimal Street – could see big changes ahead as hundreds of apartments take shape across the road.