Head an hour from the central business district of most cities and the world, and you'll most likely find yourself in either the bland heart of suburbia or well beyond the city limits. Do the same in Sydney, and you're barely half-way to the limits of those who think of themselves as Sydneysiders. This past week has been spent at a conference at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, a suburb which has as many people living east of it as it does to the west. Unlike most pockets of surburbia, Parramatta is a proudly independent place, even boasting a CBD all of its own, only partly tongue-in-cheek.
Though Sydneysiders might scoff at the thought, Parramatta is a lively place with a real heart and sole. It's crowning glory is Church Street, a street with a collection of cafes, bars and restaurants to satisfy every palate. Just to the north of the Parramatta River lies a new arts complex hosting acts of surpisingly high standard, whilst just south of Church Street is a pedestrian mall with tastefuly sculpture and a sense of history.
Parramatta must give hope to those who yearn for urban renewal. Rather than satisfying itself as a place merely for people to rest, it is also where they play and work. Locals feel no need to head into the 'other' CBD in Sydney for a night out on the town, and there is a civic pride evident that most surburbs would envy.
It would be wise not to get too sentimental about Parramatta: it does have its own problems of crime and unemployment. It is, though, a worthwhile example of what can happen when town planners show some faith in the maxim that if you build it, they will come.
Oh, and stay away from The Roxy. This converted cinema now serves as a nightclub, bar, cafe, restaurant and pokies venue, and with it's neon signs and giant projections screens is also the only place in Parramatta that can be seen from the moon. It's loud and garish and is the sort of place that, if it was a retail store, would be termed a Category Killer. People of Parramatta: don't let it kill your categories. Check out the Mars Hill Cafe instead (how many suburbs could boast of having a cafe who's slogan is "Where Thinkers Drink"!?).