What does the future have in store for Oxford Street and the broader Darlinghurst area? This is a question that many are pondering,  while others hold grave concerns for the once vibrant area, particularly after 2020 as the area deals with the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and on a more localised scale, the sale of the Green Park Hotel, Kinselas and Courthouse Hotel.

In a recent interview with Star Observer Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore proclaimed that the council was doing everything it could to revitalise the Oxford Street/Darlinghurst area. However, there are others among the ranks of the City of Sydney Council that hold wildly opposing views on what work has and should been done by the council to preserve the unique cultural fabric of the area. One such councillor, and proud member of the LGBTQI community, is the esteemed Dr Kerryn Phelps AM, who was elected to council in September 2016.

Clover Moore has had 16 years to revitalise Oxford Street – there’ve been multiple plans, multiple announcements and media releases, multiple focus groups, – but Oxford Street remains a shadow of the vibrant destination it once was,” Phelps told Star Observer.

“Last year, Clover used our Mardi Gras parade as a backdrop for her campaign launch and since then every move has been with one eye on the Council elections.  This week’s Lord Mayoral Minute is another attempt to gloss over the chronic problems on Oxford Street.

“The City of Sydney has been a major landlord of Oxford Street properties for decades but many of the buildings have been left empty and rundown and this has meant that the street’s economic viability has been on a steady downward trend.”

 If anything is of merit, it was the decision by City of Sydney to hand over a number of significant properties along Oxford Street to AsheMorgan on a 99 year lease. As Phelps explained “results are already being seen on a retail level.”

Over the coming few years, those buildings will undergo extensive refurbishment so there will be a transitional period which will have to be managed to support the precinct while that work happens.

“Council can help with street activations and public space improvements. One example is the derelict building in Taylor Square North which could be repurposed to activate that part of the street.”

On the subject of street activation is the councils plans to close Oxford Street as part of Mardi Gras 2021, of which no further detail has been announced despite the fanfare it was announced with last week, and with only months to go until the 2021 festival. Phelps went on to say, I have not seen any practical proposals yet. The decision to abandon the traditional street parade along Oxford Street in 2021 because of ongoing pandemic restrictions and instead stage a ticketed event at the SCG is a rational one. But these businesses have been doing it tough for years now.

 “The two to three weeks over the Mardi Gras Festival can account for almost 20% of the annual turnover at some of the small businesses so next year’s festival will be crucial. While the COVID pandemic is beyond Council’s control, in the short term the City is still able to change the look and feel of Oxford Street for the two to three weeks over the Mardi Gras festival.

“My main concern is that encouraging the post-parade crowd of 46,000 to descend on Oxford Street en masse along with others looking for a party is just not practical. It would also make contact tracing impossible in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.”

Phelps also added that she believes that the plan to close Oxford Street is not likely to pass scrutiny by NSW Department of Health, a point pertinent in light of the recent COVID-19 cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches and the decision to reintroduce a raft of restrictions to curb a potential second wave in the harbour city.

But with all the recent talk around Mardi Gras, and the closure of the Green Park Hotel and sale of Kinselas and neighbouring Courthouse Hotel, it is perhaps able to be said, that many are forgetting the history of the local area, and how hard the fight was to have these safe and inclusive spaces for the LGBTQI communities. Concluding we asked Phelps what she believed the community stands to lose with the demise of areas such as Oxford Street and Darlinghurst.

When we start to see the demise of traditionally LGBTQI areas like Oxford Street, we lose a part of our history and that strikes at the heart of a community. It is difficult to overstate the symbolic and historic importance of Oxford Street to Sydney’s LGBTQI community. It is where, in 1978, protesters marched “out of the bars and into the streets” calling for an end to discrimination, incurring 53 arrests. The Mardi Gras parade began the following year, and our community has gathered there ever since.

The potential is still there to save the heart of Oxford Street as a focus of Sydney’s LGBTQI community, but it will take a concerted effort.

© Star Observer 2022 | For the latest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, be sure to visit starobserver.com.au daily. You can also read our latest magazines or Join us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.