IN THE BEGINNING
In 1972, a small group of local women and children occupied two derelict terraces in Ridge Street and set up the fledgling group that eventually become the North Sydney Leisure Centre.
Before that, the group had been fruitlessly lobbying North Sydney Council for a venue to provide creative after school activities for local children. Using the Ridge Street premises as their base, they put the issue high on the local agenda and within a few months, Council offered them a more suitable premises.
The group was given a week-by-week ‘lease’ on the old Meals on Wheels building just behind James Place which was earmarked for demolition to make way for a major development. The Centre remained in that building until 2005 when it was demolished to make way for a grand new Community Centre. More on that later!
The first step taken by the group was the organisation of a Medieval Fair to raise funds for repairs to the old building. Dr. Tony Vinson, then Director of the Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Research, spoke enthusiastically about the social benefits of the project.
The After School program was the first activity to be established and a year later, playsessions for the under 5’s were commenced. Special interest adult classes were introduced around the same time, offering - weaving, breadmaking and pottery – a true reflection of the seventies! The entire project was run by an enthusiastic group of volunteers.
The Centre was originally set up under the auspice of the Creative Leisure Movement but broke away in July 1975 to form an independent organisation. However, the name ‘Leisure’ remained.
A "DISGRACE TO THE COMMUNITY"
Soon after its establishment, the Leisure Centre became embroiled in a heated battle with North Sydney Council aldermen over a proposed high rise development on the site. Outlined in the $34 million Sabemo Civic Centre Plan, two 17 storey office blocks were to be built on the Leisure Centre site and surrounding area. In the proposal, Sabemo was to be granted a 99 year lease on the Council-owned land. The issue split the Council and galvanised community opposition to the development.
It was the decade of dreams, communes and flower power, long skirts, pigtails and beards. It was also the decade in which people took on big developers and won. For two years the Council, developers, parents and children waged a bitter battle over the site. Residents formed the North Sydney Civic Heart Action Group and flew black balloons on the site at an elevated level of 17 storeys.
Press clippings show that the issue was hotly debated in Council Chambers at that time. One North Sydney alderman attempted to discredit the women on Council by claiming that they were “only interested in child minding centres, family planning clinics and creative leisure centres”. He further immortalised himself by adding that “North Sydney would never produce a champion footballer – they would be too busy modelling plasticine”. The Leisure Centre was branded a “disgrace to the community” by some in the chamber.
In 1974, the development proposal was dropped and the battle for the Centre and surrounding open space was won. The park (Civil Park) between the Council chambers and the Stanton Library is the memorial to that community struggle.
THE ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND ERA
In the mid-seventies, adventure playgrounds were thought to develop young people’s physical skills and “build character”. University of Sydney students helped construct the Leisure Centre’s play structures with an emphasis on scavenged materials and it featured massive concrete pipes creating tunnels, marine ropes hanging from trees and rude timber structures such as tree houses.
‘Creative, untidy, truly adventurous and spontaneous’ is perhaps the best way to describe the early playground. Back to our favourite alderman. He was concerned about “the filthy conditions of the area with piles of wood and abandoned building materials around the site” and called on Council’s health inspectors to carry out “sunrise spot health checks” on the Centre.
In later years, when concern about public safety and possible litigation became paramount, the adventure playground was bulldozed and the area cleared up. A new climbing fort was constructed by North Sydney TAFE students in the early 1980’s and remained one of Sydney’s most interesting play structures until its sad but necessary demolition in 2005
FESTIVALS & MARKETS
By the mid seventies, North Sydney Council was providing the Leisure Centre with financial assistance to employ a part-time Director but fundraising was, and still is, vital for the Centre’s survival. Several fundraising ventures were organised over the years, including the Earthshine Festivals of 1977 and 1978 - remember it was during the Hippy Days! Barbecues and large bonfires were often held and Cracker Night, on the Queen’s Birthday holiday was an annual event.
These two markets between them contribute close to 30% of the Centre’s current income and help support wages and other costs involved in the provision of services.
ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE
The North Sydney Leisure Centre has had three Artists in Residence over the years assisted, in two cases, by the Australia Council.
Noted Aboriginal Potter Thancoupie worked with After School Care children at the Centre in 1986. The ceramic tiled mural, which resulted from Thancoupie’s work with the children, is mounted on the wall just outside the front door of the current Centre.
In 1986, composer John Shortis spent several months developing a musical production with local schools and retirement communities. Music written with Playgroup and After School Care children was produced from this Residency.
In 1998, photographer Lisa Hogben was contracted to compile a photographic record of the Centre’s activities. An exhibition of these contemporary photographs was held at the Stanton Library to celebrate the Centre’s 26th Anniversary.
WHO WE ARE TODAY
Though changing its name to North Sydney Community Centre in 2000 and moving into a new building in 2006, the Centre remains as it began - driven by a voluntary Committee of local residents from all walks of life. Teachers, solicitors, publishers, journalists, public servants and business types all pool their energies and skills to ensure the Centre answers to the needs of a changing community.
These days, the Centre offers a wider range of activities including Changeable Art, an open gallery to showcase the work of visual artists, and Corporate Workshops for the business community.
North Sydney Council supports the community centre by not only providing the building and playground, but also in the form of an annual grant covering 10% of the Centre’s operating costs.
The Centre is run by a Director, three Administrative staff and a Program Development worker. Nine permanent part-time staff run the children’s services, and up to 60 casual tutors facilitate the Adult Classes.
The Centre has an annual turnover of around $1 million and all funds raised are turned back into the Centre to maintain and expand services to the residents and workers of the area.