Plant/Life: Cat Alley

Now more than ever, most Australians live in cities. We are, in fact, one of the world’s most urbanized countries. As populations increase, land gets scarcer, and our lifestyles change, inner city living makes sense; It means living close to work, entertainment, and services. But what about plants?

Humans need nature. We need trees, plants, gardens, and all forms of non-human life around us. It sustains us on a number of practical, psychological and spiritual levels. This, whilst often not easy to quantify, is a serious matter. Incorporating accessible and engaging green spaces into the most inner realms of our inner cities has to happen, and (thankfully) is happening in a range of ways – encouraged by passionate individuals, local governments and developer led initiatives.

A brilliant example of the power of green space in nourishing and supporting space-challenged inner city communities is McElhone Place, aka Cat Alley, in Surry Hills, Sydney. This street is kinda famous, both for its cats (hence the name) and its street garden. It is, in my mind, a kind of inner city utopia – where living doesn’t just happen behind closed doors but communally, on the street, in the garden, in shared living spaces. Long term resident Claudette Roy agrees,

We are good PR for inner city living. We don’t have backyards. The street is our backyard.

The tiny houses of McElhone place were built between the 1830s and 1870s, as part of the McElhone family’s real estate portfolio. A slum in the early 1900s, it was threatened with demolition for most of the early part of the 20th century, but by the 1960s most of the houses the street were owned by individuals, and attempts by council to demolish the street were met with resistance. It was in the early 1980s that the greening of the street began.

The street garden began with a few window boxes, installed by Claudette and her neighbours. Some pot-plants followed, consequently stolen by thieves. Claudette remembers going to the local police station to report the theft and being told unsympathetically; ‘Well, what do you expect?’ Undeterred, they persisted, moving from planting small pots to big concrete washing tubs as they were near impossible to steal.

The garden grew, and grew, and grew and soon the street was winning council gardening awards. From 2004-2007 it won the City of Sydney gardening award every year, with the competition getting so strong that different sides of the street entered separately!

Claudette Roy has lived on Cat Alley since the late 1970’s and instigated the greening of the street!
The old sandstone workers cottages on Cat Alley date to the late 1800’s. They are very small inside, some with just two rooms.
Cat Alley residents Chanelle Collier and Joe Wilson

Artist Chanelle Collier has been living at McElhone Place for the last eight years with her partner, also an artist, Joe Wilson. I had a chat to her about life at Cat Alley.

What do you like about living at Cat Alley?

The neighbours, definitely. For the most part everyone treats the street as an extension of their home. All the houses are tiny, so this is practical, but it also means you end up having to have a relationship with your neighbours because you’re not only living in close proximity, but are also sharing a communal space, which I find to be great. There’s always someone to borrow whatever I need from, or have a coffee with, or get plant or cat advice.

How do the gardens add to the street aesthetically and socially?

I think the gardens confirm the street as a communal space, a space that has been claimed by everyone in the street, having equally put their own mark on it. The gardens also draw everyone out of their homes and provide a common thread for interaction.

I particularly love it when the end of winter comes and half the street is out happily planting and re-potting on the first sunny day. theres also a lot of street gatherings aka “neighbourhood watch” which entails morning coffee or after work beers with the neighbs just because its a nice space to be in.

Having the gardens also means that everyone is very protective of the street. This makes it feel safe. There’s always someone within earshot or on the lookout for plant thieves (which does happen) or people driving up the street too fast….You cant get away with anything around here.

Are you a gardener?

I am now, but I wasn’t always. I didn’t have much interest for the first few years I lived here. Although I thought it was great and lovely, I left it to the other neighbours. Once I started about three years ago, I couldn’t leave it alone. I think that’s when I really started to get to know the neighbours actually. When you’re out in the garden all weekend you see everyone at some point.

Has living on Cat Alley affected your thoughts about the importance of incorporating plants and gardens in our lives?

Yes, definitely. I feel that my mind works much the same way when I’m gardening as when I’m art making. Visualisation, strategizing, and patient execution. It seems to work the same brain muscles for me – I never would have thought that before.

Just staring at the garden, planning the next moves, often either puts me in the right frame of mind to focus on my work or provides an effective break from it, because I can stop, get up, walk outside and get back to my desk without leaving that productive zone.

Do people keep their gardens contained to just the front of their houses or is it a more communal affair?

Both. Everyone has their own front garden and mostly they tend to it themselves. However, if they’re not interested or if the place is empty, someone else will get involved. For instance, Denis and Claudette handled my garden before I took over. As soon as I became interested it became my own and they left it to me.

I often interfere with Peter’s garden next door, usually with his permission, because he’s not as into it as I am and he’s Joe’s dad, so its ok. But generally everyone’s space is respected, and if you want to do something in someone else’s garden – move stuff, get cuttings, pick flowers, herbs for dinner, use their hose – just ask. I’ve always found the answer to be yes.

Our Plant/Life stories are produced in collaboration with The Design Files.

Chanelle and Joe’s garden.
Ian Haggis and his dog Theo have been living on Cat Alley for three years. When he first moved to the street he used to buy plants but he doesn’t anymore: ‘I know not to go to the nursery and buy plants now. I just go to Dennis and get bulbs or cuttings of other plants that he reckons will grow well in certain spots’.
Peter Wilson, Joe’s father and next-door neighbour. Peter is a longstanding resident of the street, and a self-confessed ‘lazy gardener’. What he lacks in gardening fervor, however, he makes up for with knowledge about the street and its history. He’s a walking encyclopedia!