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What Do Pubs Mean For Our Community?

By jimmyhutton on January 1, 2018 in

The good old days, by Rennie Ellis

By now most local residents would have heard the news that well-known hotelier Justin Hemmes has purchased The Royal Hotel on Bondi Road. Does anyone really care? Does it matter who owns a pub? Probably not, until it starts to sink in just what it means for this grand old establishment.
Some will be excited at the idea of a new ‘trendy’ watering hole in the heart of Bondi. Others, however, will be nervously waiting to see just how big a high-rise, or how extensive a revamp, will be required to quench Justin’s thirst for owning Eastern Suburbs hotels.
Whatever your view, the certain transformation of one of the last old school, blue-collar, working class – and whatever else you wish to call it – establishments in the east provides us with a chance to reflect on the role pubs play in our community and broader society.
Increasingly, as we lose more and more public open space to development (a topic for another time), the community turns to public places like pubs; places where we can gather with family and friends and enjoy our leisure time, without hammering the hip pocket too much.
Societal change is also impacting this trend. More people are staying single for longer and living in smaller spaces than a generation ago, often in ‘the vertical village’. Instead of church on a Sunday, or backyard beers and cricket, people – especially in the Eastern Suburbs – are putting the ‘public’ back into the ‘public bar’.
While many local residents would like their social needs met in the comfy old lounge bar of a rustic hotel, the changing demographics of the area have meant that the traditional characteristics of our favourite establishments are under pressure – think The Royal, The Nelson, and The Clovelly Hotel, and shed a tear for Billy The Pigs, The Mill Hill, The Grand, and The Watsons Bay Hotel (before it became Doyles’ Palace).
With the high turnover of people in the Eastern Suburbs, there is an increasing demand for Hemmes-style redevelopments. No more comfy old lounge bar with ‘old mate’ pulling the beers – now you have to dress like you’re about to work a day trading derivatives and battle your way through the throngs of elites soaking up the ‘ambience’ created by the smoothie maker, while sampling the degustation menu (don’t even mention that hip pocket).
A broader problem is that everything starts to look generic. Your old school, local establishments are now trendy hipster dens – complete with tattooed bearded guy behind the bar – on every street corner of every suburb. Bondi looks like Malibu, looks like Coogee, looks like Santa Monica… and so on.
But perhaps all is not lost with the rise of the funky new ‘social space’. The old school pub was not always some egalitarian utopia. Two generations ago, women had limited access to pubs, there was no such thing as ‘child friendly’, and if loud music or a sea of pool tables wasn’t your thing, the good old local probably wasn’t your cup of tea.
As a community, we need to recognise how our lives are changing and decide what we want from our community spaces, whether they’re privately or publicly owned. What opportunities do these newly ‘transmogrified’ emporiums provide to meet the needs of current and future generations? There could well be plenty of positives.
Rather than lament the past, let’s tell Justin exactly what we want from the new Royal. Do we want our children to be able to join us in our beer gardens? Is there a greater need for kids’ play areas in our pubs? Do we require free wi-fi so we can mix work and play in these spaces? Is first rate disabled accessibility an utmost necessity (of course it is)? And, to really court controversy, should there even be an alcohol-free area?
The development of pubs like The Royal on private land cannot be simply seen as a reinvigoration of old to new – from rustic past to shiny future. Could this space, however, provide a golden opportunity to build community social capital and redefine the way our community interacts?

Dr Marjorie O’Neill is a current Waverley Councillor. The views expressed here are her own.