South of Darlinghurst’s Oxford Street and due east of Central Station, Surry Hills was traditionally the centre of the rag trade. Rows of tiny terraces once housed its poor, working-class population, many of them of Irish origin. Considered a slum by the rest of Sydney, the dire and overcrowded conditions were given fictional life in Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy, set in the Surry Hills of the 1940s. The area became something of a cultural melting pot with European postwar immigration, and doubled as a grungy, student heartland in the 1980s.
By the mid-1990s, the slickly fashionable scene of neighbouring Darlinghurst and Paddington had finally taken over Surry Hills’ twin focal points of Crown Street, filled with cafés, swanky restaurants, funky clothes shops and designer galleries, and parallel Bourke Street, where a couple of Sydney’s best cafés lurk among the trees. As rents have gone up, only Cleveland Street, running west to Redfern and east towards Moore Park and the Sydney Cricket Ground, traffic-snarled and lined with cheap Indian, Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, retains its ethnically varied population.