A woman whose life was saved by one of Sydney’s largest hospitals has said she is “devastated” by its plans to shut down an iconic business in the surrounding community which she used to frequent to take her mind of her agonising treatment.
Neoni Banks, from Canberra, has called on St Vincent’s hospital to reverse its decision to shutter the 127-year-old Green Park Hotel in Darlinghurst in the city’s inner east, which it swooped on and bought for a rumoured $ 8 million last week from previous owners hospitality group Solotel.
Ms Banks’ is part of a growing chorus of anger after the pub’s sale and closure, which will occur before Christmas, was announced without any community consultation.
A local restaurant manager told news.com.au the closure “broke her heart” and she was concerned about a significant drop in trade.
The hospital already surrounds the pub on two sides; its enormous bulk overshadowing the historic structure seemingly waiting to pounce like a cat preying on a mouse. It has said it, “appreciates the Green Park holds a special place in people’s hearts” but there was a “huge need” for more health services.
The “warmth and charm” of the pub, the very thing people flocked to it for, was why it was targeted for a mental health drop in centre.
However, it has emerged the hospital already makes use of a former pub only a short walk away.
‘THIS PLACE MEANS A LOT’
The tree-lined strip of Victoria St provides a breather between the hubbub of Kings Cross and Oxford St in one of Australia’s most densely-populated suburbs. It should be thriving but news.com.au counted at least 15 for lease signs.
There was the low hum of chatter from an after-work crowd at the Green Park earlier this week. All dark wood, nooks and crannies, it’s about as far as you can get from the harsh halogen globe lit, TV screen strewn interior of many modern bars.
Outside, Ms Banks was enjoying an afternoon beer in the sun with her partner John Larkin and dad Ted. It was a small toast after a regular check-up at St Vincent’s. Last year, she was given the all clear from nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare variant that manifests in the neck.
“After my radiation treatment, I could hardly swallow, I couldn’t eat anything.
“We’d come here and have a drink. It would take me an hour and a half to get through it but it was the only thing that would help me keep the weight on,” she said.
Ms Banks said she craved being somewhere she could take her mind off being in hospital.
“This place means a lot. To be told I wasn’t going to survive but be here today helped turn a very bad memory of my illness into a good memory.
Mr Larkin said the hospital’s reasoning behind buying the bar didn’t pass the pub test.
“They’re going to gut the pub for a mental health facility, but this pub is in itself a mental health facility.”
STREET WILL SUFFER
A few doors up Una’s restaurant was serving schnitzels and goulash beneath the trees to hungry Sydneysiders. It’s something the eatery has been doing since the 1970s.
“When I heard the Green Park was closing, it broke my heart,” manager Sabine Westerwaller told news.com.au.
“The pub is a proper part of this community.”
Pubgoers would often pop in for a feed of a night. “And sometimes breakfast and a Bloody Mary the next morning,” she laughed.
“Years ago St Vincent’s tried to buy it. My theory is they knew the community wouldn’t be happy so they did it all quietly. Everyone here is shocked.
“It used to be such a busy little street once – it’s sad”.
After he saw the “emotional and fiery” reaction from locals regarding the sale, actor Gus Murray set up a Save the Green Park Facebook page which has now amassed almost 1000 followers.
“The loss of foot traffic when the Green Park closes will be the nail in the coffin of this once vibrant strip.
“I don’t want to sit by and watch our neighbourhood wither to a faceless ghost town,” he said.
“St Vincent’s gradual creep across this part of Darlinghurst has now reached breaking point.
“It provides such a valuable service. But there is an obligation on them to be good neighbours too.”
EVERY RIGHT TO SELL
Chair of the Darlinghurst Business Partnership Stephen Gyory was more pragmatic. He told news.com.au pubs had suffered during the pandemic and the owners had every right to sell the venue.
“The question is why they didn’t sell it to another publican?
“I don’t see the argument that (the hospital) needs that pub when there are plenty of empty spaces. It makes no sense.”
St Vincent’s, Mr Gyory said, was “definitely encroaching on the suburb” and its newer buildings, which presented little more than a wall to the street, had created a “retail wasteland.”
“When you have these big zones of non-activity it fundamentally changes the character of areas.”
High rents, he added, were also a factor in local shops being shuttered.
A spokesman for St Vincent’s said it had 6000 staff on site many of who frequented local businesses.
‘BIG BAD BULLY’
A staff member at a local Thai restaurant was less concerned about the closure. She said as long as other pubs nearby – all also owned by Solotel – stayed open, she hoped trade would remain.
Local Phil Radford was less convinced. He told news.com.au people made a bee-line specifically to the Green Park, partly due to its popularity with the LGBTI community.
“It’s true to its roots as a classic Victorian watering hole and as prosperous as any other hotel recovering from COVID.
“It’s not been possible to get in on the weekend without queuing.”
Mr Radford said the purchase had damaged St Vincent’s reputation.
“St Vincent’s is now the big bad bully of Darlinghurst: closing down a popular business and pretending that it’s doing it for the benefit of the community.
“The real reason for buying and closing it down is because St Vinnies is greedily adding to its property portfolio. As part of the Darlinghurst community, its credibility is shot.”
St Vincent’s said it was “happy to stand by it record to the local and LGBTI community”.
HOSPITAL ALREADY HAS CLINIC IN FORMER PUB
Mr Murray said no one had an issue with St Vincent’s opening a mental health drop in.
“Everybody is supportive of mental health services, but the issue is where are they best placed?”
St Vincent’s said it purchased a pub precisely so it wouldn’t feel like a hospital. However, the hospital already has a clinic in a former pub – the Albury Hotel on nearby Oxford St.
Just like the Green Park it was once a hangout for the LGBTI community. Some locals have asked why, if the hospital wants a pub, they don’t use the one they already inhabit.
St Vincent’s told news.com.au it did not own the former Albury Hotel but wouldn’t elaborate on why it wasn’t converting that space into a drop in centre.
“There is a huge need for health services in our local area that cater for people experiencing mental illness,” a hospital spokesman said.
The hospital said there was a “missing middle” in mental health care provision for people who were not unwell enough to require treatment on a ward.
“With the Green Park, we saw the potential to establish a mental health service that builds on the pub’s community legacy, retains its role as an important neighbourhood asset, and makes a virtue of its warm and welcoming atmosphere, and in a way that a vacant shopfront or a clinical location inside the hospital would not.”
Mr Murray urged the hospital to reconsider closing the venue.
“It’s a culturally unique icon that is also the last remaining economic driver of the retail strip.
“The Green Park is everyone’s bar: gay, straight, nurses, artists, bankers, actors. The sense of acceptance and casual non judgment is what has made this a safe haven for the marginalised.”
As Ms Banks finished her drink a few more punters, fresh from work, were swallowed up by the Green Park. Maybe for the last time before it’s swallowed up by the hospital that looms over it.
“It devastating to think when I come back for my next check-up, it won’t be here,” Ms Banks said, with a sigh.
The Green Park’s last day is planned for December 20.