Sydney City Council has completed the first stage of a $1.6 million upgrade of Frog Hollow Reserve in Surry Hills, once home to one of the city’s most notorious slums.

The site, situated on the corner of Albion and Riley Streets, now features a granite and sandstone staircase as its centrepiece plus new trees, landscaping and lighting to allow better public access and safety.

The facelift signals a new era for the reserve, which had been poorly lit and dangerous since being converted into a park in the late 1920s.

Before then Frog Hollow had houses on it, built during the depression in the 1890s despite the site being a veritable swamp.

The gully was crammed full of small homes built on top of one another. The housing was substandard -“ dark, damp and overcrowded -“ accessed by steep stairways and with poorly lit and narrow laneways.

It was a place of poverty, city historian Shirley Fitzgerald explained. I think there were about 40 houses there in the end, and about half of them looked down on the other half, so all the water, sewage, rubbish would have drained down. It would have been foul, with very little sunlight.

Frog Hollow attracted some of the most undesirable characters living in Sydney at the time.

Among those who called it home was Samuel Jewey Freeman, leader of the notorious Riley Street Gang, and for a short time notorious madam Kate Leigh. Gambling, gang fights, murders, illegal drinking and prostitution were daily occurrences.

It was very private. There were back entrances into many of the places, so if the cops came you could get through the whole maze fairly quickly because everybody was in the know, Fitzgerald said.

After plague hit Sydney at the beginning of the 20th century, the council won the right to resume what they considered slum areas for the better health and organisation of the town. Frog Hollow was resumed in 1925 and slowly converted into parkland.

They did huge resumptions all over Surry Hills, which also raises the possibility they were trying to get rid of the Chinese, because there was quite a big Chinese population living behind Central in the area that is now Wentworth Avenue, Fitzgerald said.

There was always a touch of racism in what they decided was a slum.

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