Kareem Tawansi: Businessman

Previously, I’d been living in the Eastern Suburbs, and a particular flatmate of mine had to move out in a hurry, and I ran out of options on the weekend I had to move to select something in the Eastern Suburbs, so reluctantly I found one place I thought I could bear living in, in Surry Hills, and that was the beginning of it.

I moved into Surry Hills in 1991. Back then it was more colourful and run down. The Clock Hotel was so scary that I walked past it numerous times without going in. Terrace houses were not sought after and filled with students and squatters.

These days, one of the features of Surry Hills, being as central and vibrant as it is, is the fact that it attracts a lot of people from all over the place to come and drink here. This has both upsides and downsides. One of the downsides is when some people from outside the area have a bit too much to drink and use SH like their own personal toilet – I’m an unfan of that!

One of the most interesting things about Surry Hills is that in the early 2000’s there were virtually no children. Then people moved in from all over the place for a variety pf reasons, drawn in by its colour, which seems to have strengthen the sense of community here. Many of those people have chosen to stay here and raise a family here. Fortunately, the government is building a high school in the area for all the kids currently in the 2 local public schools – Crown Street and Bourke Street.

Before living in SH I resided in a variety of suburbs within the Eastern Suburbs. One thing I noticed then was the lack of connection between neighbours – nobody would talk to anyone. It wasn’t a vibe I was comfortable with. Meanwhile, from the early days when I was a school kid (in the 80s) I watched Paddington go from a place filled with punks living in squats to becoming the genteel area it now is, where all the pubs seem to close at 10:30pm. I’m hoping SH doesn’t go that way.

When I walk down the street in SH, because I’ve been here for so long, I know lots of the locals, which is great. SH to me still has a lot of that sense of community, in fact, in some ways there’s more now than ever before. I think one of the main reasons for this is it’s a place where you can survive without driving. You walk everywhere, you see the same faces you know and there’s always stories to be told or chats to be had. I often say I don’t live in Sydney, I live in SH. There’s a bit of a joke that I won’t go further than a kilometre away from Crown Street – it’s actually quite true.

I have a mixed reaction about the gentrification here though… I like dining out and eating great food and enjoy the increased greenery, but what worries me is the potential demise of generally affordable housing. I think public housing in SH, for example, is part of what makes it so wonderful – it guarantees diversity. I’m also thankful for the large gay community here because it has always had a strong cultural impact and it’s one of the pillars of SH’s overall culture. On top of that, SH also has a commercial and established business district (specifically in both the digital and fashion industries). Between all 3 of these pillars is the rising wave of gentrification, both in terms of restaurants & bars and housing. It is my hope that there’s not so much of this that it diminishes any of what is the essence of SH.

I founded my business nearly 25 years ago. The 25-year-old version of me made decisions that the 50-year-old me has to live with – both good and bad. While I don’t regret it, I made some decisions along the way that not too long ago put me very much on the back foot. It was a difficult time in my life as I was really struggling. I was 48 and found myself dealing with significant challenges on almost every front. At one point, I came far too close to losing it all, and then I lost my father right in the middle of that. But, as the saying goes, “what doesn’t break you ….”. I managed to battle my way through it all and I can now say with confidence that I am on the front foot again.

What it all taught me is, instead of thinking that life is happening to me, it’s up to me to steer my way through life – both out of bad situations and into good ones. One thing I won’t do is be a victim of the world. After getting through it all and continuing to live in my beloved Surry Hills, I feel life is good!

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