Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Shop, horror – nightmare on Oxford Street
Tuesday was shopping day. Did Oxford Street. Took the kids, frolicked in the January sales. Lunched in some organic warehouse or other, frolicked further, came home, weary and heavy laden, by train. Worth it? Hell yes. Oxford Street, Sydney? Hell no. Oxford Street, London.
Oxford Street, London isn’t that special. It’s not Bond or Jermyn or St James or even the newly hip Marylebone High Street. Plus, brimming with big-name department stores, it makes a less-than-perfect comparison with its Sydney namesake. Other London streets, like the Kings Road, are closer.
But Oxford Street, London, unlike Oxford Street, Sydney, works. While our Oxford Street has had the mealy bug ever since Westfield opened almost five years ago (and in truth the peakiness began earlier), Oxford Street, London, is permanently thronged with shoppers – not just yesterday, but last year, 20 years ago, 100 years ago.
So the question exercising the collective mind – if mind is not too strong a word – of the council, the chamber and the groovy-train leagues of “cultural consultants” is this: what makes a good shopping street? Why, despite the supposed global comeback of shopping-street over shopping mall, did Oxford Street, Sydney, drift from brilliantly funky in 1973, through chic in 1993, busy even in 2003 (after Westfield opened) to now resembling nothing more than some unpicked corn cob with half its kernels brown and shrivelled?
Shopping-strip design gurus have certain rules of thumb, fundamentals of retail life. These include maintaining a constant stream of passing wallets; eschewing gaps, vacancies, one-sidedness and any other worn-thin patch that might let us see outside the bubble; avoiding level change, other than downward; and, above all, providing parking.
Throughout, the principle is ease. Shopping, like its copycat democracy, is a courtship, a seduction, and as any half-decent seducer knows, you go with gravity. Bearskin by the fire? Sure. Low-slung satin chaise? Absolutely. Up the rickety staircase? Well, boy, she better be keen. Real keen.
The city’s recent Oxford Street report, produced by Urban Consultants and necessitated by that embarrassing $24 million upgrade that left the strip quite as unwell after as before, is recommendation-rich but analysis-poor. It is largely silent, for example, on why Oxford Street devolved so dramatically from its creative heyday of the 1960s and ’70s to its current dominance by dollar-stores, fashion chains, fast-food and gay-bashing vomitoria.
As a shopping street, of course, Oxford Street broke the rules. Gappy, mainly single-sided and universally parking-impossible, it should never have succeeded in the first place. But rules of thumb are descriptive, not creative. And the legions of shopping precincts that break rules and thrive argue eloquently that now, quite as much as during the silk-route centuries, shopping is an exercise in cultural exploration and exchange.
At Tadao Ando’s high-end Omotesando Hills in Tokyo, for one, shoppers willingly rise through half a dozen levels before spiralling gradually down past retail shrines of breathtaking artistry. They do it because what is on show – the exquisite cakelets suspended midair and spot-lit like precious stones, the wild haute-couture spectacle sold by slender chaps with samurai beehives, the finest gentlemen’s leather goods offered like sacraments – is shown nowhere else.
Commerce, at its best, farms meaning. We’re greedy for it. As Urban Consultants note, “culture is meaning … A cultural quarter which produces no new meaning … is likely to be a pastiche.” Shopping is an exchange of meaning, and a generator of energy. But energy can be neither created nor destroyed. However many well intentioned reports are written, cultural strategies adopted, venues established and rebranding exercises undertaken, energy will flow along the path of least resistance.
What the good burghers neither see nor wish to see is that Oxford Street was creative because the young, the experimental, the idealistic and the skint could afford to be there. A generative hotspot, for example, back in the ’70s, was the Paddington markets, an uncommercial collection of hippies and church landlords that together generated a unique source of cultural energy including some of the whackiest buskers ever seen. Since then, the tripling and quadrupling of rents that made the Chamber of Commerce guys rub their hands in glee sent the hippies and creatives off to Surry Hills, then Newtown, Enmore and Erskineville.
Urban Consultants talk up the role of “culcha” in urban regeneration. They would. For them, the line-up of fluttering vacancy signs means work. But culture-led regeneration (Glasgow is the obvious example) generally follows prolonged and humiliating admissions of defeat. Oxford Street, Sydney, is a long way from that, its burghers still seeing revitalisation as a means of precluding rent reduction, rather than a response to it. You can only hope that, sooner or later, they will understand that Westfield did us all a favour in cauterising the ugly rash of franchises and chainstores that was turning Oxford Street into some tacky sub-Chatswood clone.
Of course it is not just the property people; council also has a role. But any authority that talks street culture from one side of its mouth while demanding licences from buskers, graffiti artists and pamphleteers with the other has a certain credibility gap. As they say in London, mind the gap.