This article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Section 13 July 1991 p39

Bondi Bloody Bondi

I LIVED in New York for 12 years before I washed up in Bondi. I came back to Sydney late last summer. Two days later I rented a studio apartment 1 1/2 minutes' walk from Bondi Beach. The flat, which overlooks the road, is noisier and dustier than my loft on Broadway, in downtown Manhattan. And Bondi may be as prone to the other torments of post-modern urban life. Six days after I bought a second-hand Colt I found that someone had tried to break into it.

I was neither burgled nor mugged while I lived in New York. Before I moved to the loft, I was in a tenement building in Little Italy, a neighbourhood that lived up to the rumours. Whether or not the "wise guys" who loafed around were in the know about the mafiosi who dropped into the Ravenite Social Club, a dank little joint on Mulberry Street said to be John Gotti's hangout, our area was so free of casual street crime that none of my neighbours seemed at all worried about the fact that the front door of our building was missing for months.

In Bondi, in contrast, none of my neighbours seemed at all surprised to hear that an apprentice lock-picker had been practising on my car while it was parked in the garage. But it didn't change my opinion of the place.

If you want to be surrounded by teeming life, you'll always find some low-lifes. At least they're out at night, along with the mere strays and the children with purple hair. In much of Sydney, the streets are so deserted, an hour or two after dark, that it looks as if a neutron bomb's gone off. I grew up in a place like that and I didn't want to go back there.

Bondi was always different. Though there are plenty of other neighbourhoods with enough immigrants to fracture the complacent, outward proprieties of third- and fourth-generation Anglos, in no suburb was the mix of national and cultural styles as vivid as in Bondi. Like New York, it was full of outsiders. Astonished to discover that they could rent a cheap flat more or less in sight of The Beach, they settled in Bondi before they were aware that the native-born expected them to assimilate, in a week or two if possible.

Waves of immigrant youth rolled over the Jerusalem Steps, between the beach and the pavilion. The weedy Jewish boys and over-ripe Jewish girls vanished, at some time in the '60s, to be replaced by Italo-Australians, preoccupied with muscle definition before it was fashionable.

They were followed by young Serbs and Turks, likewise working on their triceps. Then came the South Americans, who brought their boom boxes and danced, like the Puerto Ricans on Orchard Beach, at the edge of the Bronx, where it is impossible to find a spot in the sand more than a metre from a ghetto blaster with concert hall amps.

On the promenade at Bondi, however, elderly Russians, Poles and Hungarians strolled through the wall of sound as if it did not exist: recognisable at a hundred paces as Jews from Eastern Europe, they ambled along arm in arm, and never stopped talking.

They're still there, still talking, as if oblivious to the winter occupants of the Jerusalem Steps - the narcissists exercising with devout self-absorption. Down below, regardless of the time of year and the time of day, are Japanese tourists near the water's edge with all their clothes on, staring in mystification at the Japanese surfers (who first descended on Bondi three years ago). Maybe they've never seen other Japanese slacking off.

The tourists do not take it easy, of course. Six years ago, when I was back in Bondi for the summer and happened to visit Bondi late one afternoon, I watched a phalanx of Japanese who got out of their bus clutching empty plastic sandwich bags. Before they took so much as a photograph, let alone looked at the view, they marched on to the beach and they all bent down and filled their little baggies with sand.

The following week, or the week after, I bought a small, rundown flat, on the cliffs beyond the north end of the beach. I wanted my own bit of Bondi, before it disappeared.

The prospect seemed real enough at the time. The conservatives then dominating Waverley Council included Jim and Carolyn Markham, a plump and jowly matched pair who seemed to have slipped out of a satire on the 1980s. Jim collected property, Carolyn collected shoes. Hoisted into office with assistance from some of the ratbags of the Liberal Party's ultra-right (who were showing an insistent interest in a couple of councils in the eastern suburbs), the Markhams took turns being mayor.

When it was Jim's turn to give a leg up to the developers, he called his, uh, vision for Bondi "Camelot by the sea". In this paradise, as reported in the Eastern Herald, there was a four-storey waterslide on the beach front, with its own gymnasium and underground pool. Across from the beach, on Campbell Parade, Camelot's main drag, Jim could see "international hotels"looming up into the sky. "I don't think a 13-storey building is necessarily high-rise," he told a reporter for Good Weekend, who had asked about plans to replace the Hotel Bondi with a monolith.

When it was Carolyn's turn as mayor, she promoted a developer who wanted to privatise Bondi Pavilion (and a part of the surrounding park). In Carolyn's, uh, vision, the strays and misfits and dole bludgers were gone from Camelot. "I went down to Bondi Beach on Friday," she told another reporter, "and you can't tell me that the 20,000 down there are doing something profitable ... "Nine-tenths of them were dole bludgers, she said. All they were doing, it seems, was cluttering up the real estate. "At one council meeting," Labor alderman Ted Plummer told me, "Carolyn said, 'Why don't you go and let them live in the western suburbs with dignity ... '"

The inimitable Carolyn is no longer mayor. Labor won the next council election, and forced the developers to modify their plans. Though the Hotel Bondi is lit up at night, like a hotel in Disneyland, and the Grand Hotel (now in the hands of the receivers) looks as if it was transported, brick by brick, from an unfashionable precinct of the Riviera, neither building is tall enough to overwhelm the backdrop to The Beach.

Considering that the place was spared Camelot's concrete canyon, you might have thought that the last thing Bondi needed was another, uh, vision. But we're threatened with another visionary, nonetheless. I found out about it last week when I switched on ABC radio and heard Michael Yabsley, now the Minister for State Development and Tourism, talking about Bondi. The place was tacked on to his electorate last year. What it needed, he said, was "a visionary approach from headland to headland ... "

Until that moment no-one could have accused Mr Yabsley of being forward-looking. In his previous incarnation, as Minister for Corrective Services, he stopped just short of reintroducing the lash. But now he had shifted the focus of his attention; it seemed to bother him to see a bit of peeling paint. Bondi had become more and more down-at-heel, he said.

In fact, he "misspoke", as Richard Nixon's press secretary used to say. Several stretches of Camelot's main drag have been spruced up in recent years. The Astra Hotel, a rat's nest of junkies and dealers until the present council closed it down, was renovated and turned into an old folks' home.

Bondi, a working-class suburb in transition, is a place of extremes. Its demographics (like its local politics) are interestingly messy. An unusual proportion of its locals are very old or very young. They don't need visions; they need low-income housing, because they're being displaced.

It isn't just the developers doing the displacing, either: it's people like myself. Film-makers, writers and artists - the usual heralds of gentrification- started moving to Bondi in the early '80s. Fashionable cafes line part of the avenue. We even have our own bookshop, on Hall Street, opposite Ravesi's, the sort of restaurant that serves stuff stuffed with stuff that 99.9 per cent of the people of Sydney haven't even heard of.

But the signs of gentrification must have escaped Mr Yabsley. Something had to be done, he said. He didn't want the place turned into Surfers Paradise, but he wouldn't mind if it looked a bit more like Bermuda (where the houses are all painted in the same colours).

I've seen pictures of Bermuda in advertisements in the New Yorker. The ads are full of sleek entrepreneurs, lolling about on yachts, and, for a moment, I imagined that was what Mr Yabsley was talking about. He's more at home with people like that, who inhabit the other part of his electorate. Though he didn't say it, it sounded as if he, like the Markhams, thought Bondi was wasted on the working class.

"Bondi became an issue when the Markhams came into power," says Waverley's Labor Mayor, Barbara Armitage, "and now it's happening again." Where I had been irritated by Mr Yabsley's posturing, she was hopping mad. The minister had said that the State Government had the power to take over planning for Bondi at the stroke of a pen. He certainly did not say he was going to do it, there and then, but he managed to create a few headlines.

"He sees Bondi as a stage," says Armitage, who had stormed up to confront him while he was on The Beach, for a photo opportunity, " ... and he told me he wants it like Manly."

I was startled. I grew up near Manly, as it happens. My parents still live in the neighbourhood and I used to stay with them when I came back from New York for the summer. I even wrote a book called Manly Girls. In short, I am in the position to share something of my expertise with the minister. Mr Yabsley's focus is limited, if intense, and he may not have noticed the critical flaw in Manly's transformation.

The place looks different, these days, with its "international hotels" and its mall. Expanded and well restored, by the bloke who had hopes of privatising the Bondi Pavilion, Manly Wharf even has its own Body Shop, amid the boutiques.

Manly may look different but it doesn't feel different. The sort of people who went to Manly when I was a girl go to Manly still. Now and then you might see a Swiss backpacker or a pair of Japanese, but they're exceptions. Practically all the visitors to Manly are the sort who make the minister uneasy. They're working people from suburbs where the only daytrippers are social workers and poll-takers. They're people from large families, all of whom flap about in rubber thongs all day; people who still cook themselves lobster-red on the first real day of summer.

They may swarm from the ferry hour after hour, Mr Yabsley, but just in case you are still thinking of turning Bondi into Manly, I should warn you that they're not the sort you see lolling about on yachts.