Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A bit of dirt on Sydney’s port: it’s a good thing for the city
Elizabeth Farrelly. This is an edited version of Elizabeth Farrelly’s recent YBE 2004 ”Harbour of the Future” talk at the Town Hall.
A working harbour is commercially viable and adds that touch of gritty reality, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It was science fiction writer Philip K. Dick who famously imagined a future in which sheep real, dopey farting-and-burping sheep had become so scarce that only the very rich could afford them.
The ordinary, common-or-garden androids had to make do with electric versions of the wool-bearing quadruped.
If you believe economist David Boyle, Dick’s fantasy has come to pass. Boyle’s recent book, Authenticity, argues we’ve all had such a gutful of virtual reality of GM, cloning, fast food, theme parks, e-dating, “reality” TV and phoniness generally that we are gripped by a great primal yearning for real, working reality. Boyle calls it The New Realism: slow food, geek-chic and a desire for warts-and-all authenticity.
You may share my scepticism that authenticity will ever make much of a dent in popular culture, devoted as it is to artifice.
And yet it’s the same urge that drives our desire to preserve a real, working harbour. Even in pleasure-seeking Sydney, it seems, we’ve had enough. Enough of the hype, the gloss, the spin. And we equate work, interestingly, with what is real.
Why? We know that real cities have never been just about having fun, or even watching others have fun. Fun is absolutely a by-product of cities after all, they’re fun to be in. But it’s not their essential driver.
So we regard the sanitising push in Sydney with some doubt. On land it has already meant cleaning up the Cross, cleansing every speck of industrial grunge, filling every grubby warehouse and mossy cleft with polished floorboards, lifestyle canapes and Miele fridges.
And we are wary, quite properly, of the same happening to the harbour. Cleaning up is one thing, but a concerted napalming of history and culture is another.
We’re torn: we want things safe and comfortable, but we see that safety and comfort come at a cost. That reality is not actually like that, and that the cost of generalised comfort, even assuming it’s achievable, is generalised denial. A kind of collective solipsism. (Technical term: bulls—.)
Suddenly, we feel sickened by the sanitising. We don’t want a city that is all fast talk, smooth money and white collars, all banks and boardrooms, all surface and no depth. We want to keep some realness in the city’s central places; and we feel intuitively that this means keeping some work some authentic dirty, smoky, old-fashioned work around the place.
Or do we? Is this a genuine value, or simple old-fashioned nostalgia? Is it real working reality we want, or just the look?
This is important, since preserving the working harbour for its picturesque looks for the tugs and trawlers, the container ships’ Jeff Smart supergraphics and the seagull-trailed fishing fleet to preserve it for such strictly visual reasons would undermine the very realness we wish to keep.
So what is work, exactly? What is the essential difference between work and play? Seriousness? Purposefulness? Not-being fun? Is work just whatever makes money? Are the save-the-harbour mob now pro-commerce?
Uh, no. Not so simple. We equate work with realness because of need. Pleasure is optional; work has to be done. So work brings a sense of useful necessity. This is what we crave.
Aside from work and play, another distinction we habitually draw, quite as if it were meaningful, is the nature/culture one.
But Sydney Harbour is a permanent reminder that the nature/culture divide is fuzzy, at best. Quite as much cultural artifact as natural one, our harbour was made by nature, made-over by culture. Working culture, at that. With attitudes that, by today’s standards, are somewhere between arrogant and barbaric.
Valuing its utility but not its looks, Sydneysiders saw the harbour as transport link, dunny and all-out collective rubbish bin.
With a careless wave they reshaped shorelines, carved cliffs, concreted mangroves and erected finger wharves, nourishing its waters all the while with daily offerings of offal, raw sewage, noxious chemicals and animal carcasses. It would be a brave developer that would go there these days.
That was the real working harbour. Which is not to say that the clouds of romance softening our view should be ignored; rather that we need to dig deeper for real values, and underlying market patterns.
The serious question is not what do we want see, but what, in the total picture of freight movements counting all the energy-use and pollution-generation of all road and rail trips needed to distribute all goods around all markets, and vice versa would be the most efficient, and least polluting, ports pattern? Would it, or would it not, involve a city-centre port?
It’s this kind of thing we have governments for. So, do they have the answer, then? If not, why not? And if so, why aren’t they waving it rhythmically about? What aren’t they telling us, and why?
Admittedly it seems crazy, first up, to keep trucking fully-loaded semis through narrow city streets. But there is a rail link to White Bay; maybe the only one in the state (except Olympic Park) functioning below capacity.
Plus, there’s this. If, as Waterways Authority statistics show, 80 per cent of all in-freight at Sydney and Botany is bound for the Sydney market, and 80 per cent of all in-bound freight at Newcastle or Wollongong is transported back into Sydney; knowing that shippers are as likely to move to Melbourne or Brisbane, as to Hunter or Port Kembla; and knowing, further, that the Sydney-Newcastle rail system is struggling to meet demand and that the night-hours arterials are already one long road-train of semis; then, in the light of all this doesn’t it seem crazy to delete Sydney’s port facility, then truck everything back? Doesn’t it make relocating Sydney Ports’ vast infrastructure to Hunter just a tad indulgent? Irresponsible, even? Just for the sake of commercial gain here, political gain there? It’s not like it’s reversible. Remember the trams. When they go, they go.
Better, then, to grasp the nature/culture theme, apprehend the harbour as fabulous work of art already of mythic proportions, but very much in progress: an ongoing collective masterpiece.
This puts it onto us all to resist the sanitised, plasticised version and keep it real. Real working reality. No electric sheep.
ILLUS: Keep it real .
the harbour is in danger of losing the character that comes from its mix of culture, nature and hard yakka.
Photo: Nick Moir