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Friday, September 7, 2012

Pop Up Shops, and Art Incubators: A New Way to Utilize Urban Space

Last year I had the chance to talk to Lawrence Gibbons, plus some other concerned inner-city cats, about the sad and sorry decline of Oxford Street, Sydney's original Golden Mile. I must have missed this story while I was away in my 10 years in Japan; when I left Sydney in 2000, Oxford Street was one of the trendiest parts of the city, and certainly one of the most colourful. Nearly every March I would cram in with the throngs on the side of the road, shirts off and hopping, as the Mardi Gras floats made their hectic way beneath the rainbow flags. Mardi Gras is still held every year, but it doesn't seem the subversive festival that it used to be... perhaps somehow it is a little tired? Or maybe I am the one who is tired of it! Furthermore, back in the day, Oxford Street was the place you picked up imported dance music, trance and techno, drum&bass; throbbing beats spilt up dark stairways, out of shopfronts on to the pavement, promising rare treasures. I am sure those record stores are still around, but surely they must be a little redundant now, in this age of the digital download? Who wants to spin vinyl these days, anyway, when there is a whole universe on your iPhone? Who buys clothes on Oxford Street, when the prices in Australia are so obscene? According to Lawrence Gibbons, president of the LOVE 2010 Business Partnership of local businesses, there has indeed been a retail flight from the Golden Mile, and a collapse in daytime trade. Oxford Street still rocks at night, perhaps even more so than ever... but it takes more than pubs and clubs to make a community, Gibbons reckons. Exacerbating the problem, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) treated the Golden Mile like a thoroughfare, with cars and buses flying along it out of the city, to Bondi.

Oxford Street, Sydney's famous "Golden Mile" (Australia, 2005)
Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore (the woman they should not ignore) agrees that Oxford Street is in a bad state, and said she sees art as being part of the solution. "It is a centre of intense night-time activity yet suffers from perceptions of a lack of daytime trade, imbalance in the business mix and safety issues," Moore said in a 2011 mayoral minute. "The intensity of daytime traffic, which includes more than 200 buses per hour, and exacerbated by RTA's removal of parking and creation of clearways, also severely impacts on Oxford Street as an attractive destination." Another mayoral minute put out in 2011 goes on to say: “Artists living and working in an area bring a vibrancy, diversity and bohemian feel. Due to the high cost of living, gentrification and increases in the rental market artists are being forced out of the City. The City of Sydney owns a number of buildings in the Oxford Street Cultural Quarter that may be appropriate for conversion into use for the creative industries as retail, studio and exhibition spaces.”

In line with this vision, the City has announced cheap rents for artists in 16 underused areas on Oxford Street. On top of that, enterprising creatives are colonising otherwise vacant spaces with a new style of retail, known as the "pop up shop". This year we have seen, springing up like beautiful weeds in a discarded parking lot, pop up cafes, pop up boutiques, a pop up Nike outlet, and now the most innovative of them all, a Pop-up indoor camp site. These shops and cafes and urban camping sites are not supposed to last forever; they are meant to be ephemeral.

There is something Hakim Beylike in this process of moving into the cracks and crevices, left empty by the retreat of High Capitalism, and creating something beautiful. Even especially if they are fleeting. Pop ups are transitory, nomadic, Vagabondist... just like me really! Now, I know a Nike outlet might not exactly satisfy Bey's vision of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, but I still think it is kind of cool. A lot cooler than parading around on Mardi Gras, anyway, pretending that you are changing the world!

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