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Behind small bars

“Rent is still cheap, and the people are many!” says Jed Clarke, owner of the Dock, on Redfern Street. “I grew up in Surry Hills, the next suburb over, and seeing the way that Surry Hills has moved in the last 10 years, and seeing the way that Redfern’s been going, and it’s been moving at such a quick rate, I thought that this would be a great place to start up a small business.”

Josh and Ai Nicholls, who run Milk Bar by Cafe-Ish (though not technically a small bar, as it doesn’t sell alcohol), recently closed their Surry Hills establishment to settle and work in Redfern. The reason for their decision was very simple: “The rent! And the market. Surry Hills was over-saturated. We weren’t having fun.”

Tim Duhigg and his wife are in the process of opening their own small bar next to Milk Bar by Cafe-Ish on Regent Street. They have called it Hustle & Flow, and it will offer a different flavour to patrons by playing more hip-hop and R&B: “We were not gonna go anywhere else except Redfern,” Tim says. “I just love Redfern, it’s got character. I hope it doesn’t change much.”

He himself enjoys visiting the bars currently on offer in Redfern, and it was actually while having a drink at Dry Land back in December that he and his wife thought about opening their own bar, but one that reflected more their own personalities and lifestyle, rooted in the hip-hop culture: “We thought that would really suit the area, it suits us, and that was it, we wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Further down Regent Street is the already very popular bar Arcadia Liquors, owned by Brett Pritchard and Dave Jank. Pritchard explains that they chose Redfern because of its strong sense of community, not unlike Woolloomooloo where they used to work, at the Old Fitzroy Hotel: “They’re good, solid communities, where people know each other and everyone looks after one another.”

All of them have a steady following of local customers: “That’s what Dave and I want, we want to know our patrons, a place that is an extension of your lounge room,” says Pritchard.

Josh and Ai from Milk Bar, Roy from Dry Land (Photos: Sandra Beeston)
Josh and Ai from Milk Bar, Roy from Dry Land (Photos: Sandra Beeston)

These small bars have evoked a positive response from locals, and are also becoming a destination for people from other areas of Sydney.

Josh already had a big following with students, bloggers and twitterers, and a lot of these customers have followed Cafe-Ish to Redfern to get their fix of soft-shell crab omelette, chilli chicken wings and their new $5 burgers: “Our Surry Hills customers still come here. A lot of people are coming from everywhere, because they know us from social media, but a lot of locals as well, because there’s nothing down this end of Redfern … and Ai makes an amazing coffee.”

With what seems like an unquenchable thirst for small bars, does any feeling of competition ever come up between recent and less recent bars? Jed Clarke from the Dock doesn’t think so: “Redfern is still sorta finding its feet as a small bar hotspot, it needs more than just a couple of bars to get people to come into Redfern and to see it as a destination. I don’t think it’s a competitive thing at all, I think the more bars that we have, the more people that we’re all gonna get.”

It’s an opinion shared by Brett from Arcadia’s: “That’s important for Redfern right now, to create a bit of life on the streets, not just the day-time economy but in the night-time economy, it’s good for employment.”

With the rapid gentrification of Redfern, there has been concern that Redfern could lose its village feel, with some more marginalised parts of the community being pushed away by rising real estate prices. Are small bars a sign of the changing face of Redfern or could they even be contributing to it?

Roy Leibowitz, who opened Dry Land Bar on Redfern Street at the end of 2010, says: “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t want to live in a nice area close to the city, and expect people to stay out of it. The area itself is good and that attracts people to it, I don’t think it’s the bars. Gentrification’s a funny thing. It’s not necessarily something you can control. I like Redfern the way it is, I don’t want to see it turned into something else, but I think it can grow organically and still be a great place with a community feel and the fact that new bars, shops come into it, doesn’t take away from that; the two things can go hand in hand. I would hate to think that people wanting to add more to a suburb are in some way being accused of ruining it, that’s a pretty odd idea!”

Brett Pritchard is a firm believer in social housing, where he previously used to work, and he thinks it’s important to keep a good amount of social housing in Redfern: “Having a good mix across the community keeps it honest.” He says: “I think it’s important to hold on to the heritage, especially in Redfern, with Aboriginal elders, the Indigenous community … it should stay true to its original roots.”

Amidst the hype, small bars have also been subject to criticism. The recent assault resulting in the death of 18-year-old Thomas Kelly has reignited debate on alcohol-fuelled violence and some fingers have been pointed at small bars, which have benefited from relaxed alcohol licencing regulations since the implementation by Lord Mayor Clover Moore of the small bar bills. The small bar community reacted strongly against this suggestion, and so does Brett Pritchard: “I completely disagree! Small bars aren’t a problem. You’ll find that people are just coming in, having a drink, might grab a toastie, have a chat. They’re not in here for the long slog, downing beer after beer … It’s a really friendly, happy environment. Small bars create a different environment than a big beer barn. They have their place, we have our place.” He says that “spreading”, rather than “clustering the drinking”, is the smarter move.

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