Small Garden

Cat Alley

Today our gardens columnist Georgina Reid introduces a brilliant example of communal gardening in inner city Sydney.

Welcome to McElhone Place, Surry Hills, aka ‘Cat Alley’, known for it’s lush street garden, planted and maintained by local residents.


Georgina Reid

Cat Alley residents Chanelle Collier and Joe Wilson. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Chanelle and Joe’s garden. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

The old sandstone workers cottages on Cat Alley date to the late 1800’s. They are very small inside, some with just two rooms. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

The entire garden sprawling along Cat Alley is grown in pots! The heavier, the better, according to resident Claudette, to discourage stealing. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Claudette Roy has lived on Cat Alley since the late 1970’s and instigated the greening of the street! Photo – Daniel Shipp.

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’. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

A wide range of plants inhabit the street gardens of McElhorne Place. Claudette Roy, one of the instigators of the garden said in the beginning they made a point of not planting ‘flashy’ plants, just ordinary ones that no one would bother stealing! Photo – Daniel Shipp.

The voluptuous gardens of ‘Cat Alley’ in Surry Hills have completely engulfed the footpath! Photo – Daniel Shipp.

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!  Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Georgina Reid
11th of May 2015

Now more than ever, most Australians live in cities. We are, in fact, one of the world’s most urbanised 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.

The tiny houses of McElhone place were built in the 1870’s, as workers cottages for the McElhone family. A slum in the early 1900’s, it was threatened with demolition for most of the early part of the 20th century, but by the 1960’s 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 1980’s 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!

Artist Chanelle Collier has been living at McElhone Place for the last eight years with her partner, also an artist, Joe Wilson. ‘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’ says Chanelle. ‘The gardens 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’.

The communal gardens also means that everyone is very protective of the street. ‘This makes it feel safe’ Chanelle continues. ‘There’s always someone within ear shot 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!’

Cat Alley is a wonderful example of a way of living I think we’re going to have to get a little more comfortable with in the future, if we want to live close to the city; smaller private living spaces and larger shared living spaces, with gardens that are beautiful, useful, and engaging. If this is the future, bring it on!

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