Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Love song to the gritty city
SYDNEY is a seriously misunderstood city, and no one misunderstands her more insistently and energetically than Sydneysiders. In other world cities we happily savour the underbelly, happily see the grittier parts of London, Barcelona, New York, Istanbul, Shanghai or Mexico City as giving depth and character. But we seem determined to smoothe and gentrify our own glorious town within an inch of its life, to light-blast the shadows, to rethink this old-built punishment as all glam, no grit. All party, no hangover. It’s as though we think, or maybe wish, that the sanitised tourist version is all there is.
This year’s National Trust Heritage Festival, Industrial Heritage – Our Working Lives, is a determined tug in the other direction. From the factories of Alexandria to the Darling Harbour docks and the Pyrmont shipyards, the festival celebrates a side of Sydney we are rapidly, thoughtlessly losing.
At one level, of course, we know better. Tours of the Tank Stream, which take the chosen down to Sydney’s seamy point-of-origin twice a year, sell out so fast participants are chosen by ballot to stop the phones melting. The Tank Stream, or what is left of it, symbolises both the untried fertility of the virgin continent, and our willingness to poison our own wells for short-term convenience. This is potent stuff, and we rightly want to see it, feel it for ourselves. To taste the earthy, mossy underground of our own dark town.
This is the stuff that makes Sydney sexy. Sexy in a Maria Callas, rather than a Kylie Minogue, sort of way. Sydney is a born drama queen, a town with the contrast turned up full. Physically, it’s all muscular intricacy: brilliant sun and deep, black shadows; exuberant topography and baroque shoreline; sunlit sandstone and the bottomless black under the Port Jackson fig. Our down-and-dirty industrial history has the same gritty appeal.
Sydney has always had a high-contrast, chiaroscuro character. Cowboy town it may be, but one whose slums and razor gangs, thugs and standover men, are essential to Sydney’s remarkable, charismatic energy. Sydney without its Abo Henrys and Tom Domicans, without its Robert Askins, Davis Hughesesand Eugene Goossens would be no more engaging than a Canberra or an Auckland. Clint ain’t Clint without the bad guys.
We know this, really. We know that cleaned-up sani-town is dull even for tourists, certainly dull for locals; that The Rocks and the Cross, Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay were all more interesting back when they were real, working places. And that in our ruthless overcleansing we have lost some subtle but irreplaceable flavour, something essentially ours that, just maybe, we could have kept.
From the lanolin-soaked hessian and clanking steel of the Darling Harbour sheepyards to the drive-in finger wharves of Woolloomooloo and Walsh Bay, work of the loud, rusted, grimy sort is being replaced by up-market residential, fluoro-lit convenience stores and air-conditioned cafes. At Woolloomooloo and Walsh Bay those great, muscular working wharves are now stuffed with multimillion-dollar apartments while at Darling Harbour, Sydney’s no-expense-spared bicentennial jewel, there is a persistent sense ofthe dismal.
Sometimes, we vote with our feet. The bistros of Cockle Bay Wharf and King Street Wharf might be packed, but Darling Harbour itself, rehashed during the late ’80s when planners worked on the expectation of total leisure, has stubbornly resisted all attempts to make it live. Why? Because it turned its back on the city, and turned its back on work.
All this sucks the blood from a town. And yet, even as we regret it, we go on doing it. Urban cleansing is full steam ahead in the Cross, where not only the hookers and the hooked are disappearing from the expensively repaved streets, but also the underfed artists and emigre bohemians, who made Australia’s most densely packed urban quarter what it was.
Redfern, too, is under the knife, with plans afoot to de-black The Block, gentrify the station and turn the grungy railyards into a shiny moment in Sydney’s global arc. For 75 years The Block has been an Aboriginal crossroads for people from all over Australia. Pretty soon, it’ll be little more than another shard of globalism: 20-storey office towers, white-collar apartments and government-funded Koori-cultural centres. Welcome to plastic-land.
So? you might shrug. That’s market forces. C’est la vie. But it’s not God-given, this stuff. It’s planned. And it doesn’t have to be quite as deathly, or quite as irreversible.
When a city’s artist, or bohemian, or Aboriginal communities get moved on, they don’t simply reassemble somewhere else, in suburban Ashfield or Botany. Deprived of the special inner-city conditions that sustained them (such as density, access or value) they simply cease to exist. The individuals may survive but the communities, and the richness they offer a city, die.
The answer lies in perception; in our preparedness to see beauty in unexpected places, and to see past dollar value. Melbourne has been much more successful in keeping its city-centre vitality because, in imposing a strict city-centre height limit, it kept values down to the point where the smaller, older, less mainstream (and therefore more interesting) remained viable. In Sydney, by contrast, we tend to operate a commercial monoculture; if it can’t pay for itself, forget it.
The same attitude informs our heritage legislation, where listing – notwithstanding the hysteria it generally provokes – is easily sidestepped through a Site Interpretation Strategy (glorified artwork) or direct appeal to the minister on grounds of hardship or state significance. Take Chatswood railway station, where the 106-year-old 28-lever signal box, in flawless condition, was last year demolished with special ministerial permission, supposedly for public access but really to make way for a $165 million residential high-rise.
If the Federal Government has its way, and heritage listings become voluntary and negotiable (as proposed in the Productivity Commission’s recent report), this situation will become only more pronounced.
And yet, surprisingly often, the heritage mafia themselves fall for the rhetoric. Australand’s recent botoxing of the last Burley Griffin Glebe incinerator remnant, for instance, which is about as lively as plastic shop-window sushi, is cited as an example of heritage loveliness.
The latest and most obvious case – which doesn’t feature in Our Working Lives – is the working harbour itself. The Government spin machine, determined to turn the port into floggable waterfront real estate, has purposefully redefined work to include cruise ships and water taxis. Twelve months from now, as the Government prepares to move the last of the port space down to Botany, that’s what will be left of this once-proud working port; a harbour ringed by smart apartments and glossy office towers.
Does it matter? Only if we want Sydney to be fully realised, rather than some wrinkleless, expressionless botoxed copy.
JACQUI GODDARD accepts that not everyone sees the beauty in old power stations or railway yards, but insists our industrial heritage should be celebrated. “These are the places that formed us,” says the conservation director of The National Trust, NSW. “They tell stories and there’s a real fear that we will lose it all.”
The trust’s Heritage Festival, which begins tomorrow and runs until April 16, features more than 400 exhibitions, tours, concerts and community fairs across NSW. There will be guided visits to places such as the Tank Stream as well as talks about long-lost structures such as the Pitt Street Natatorium, a saltwater swimming pool which opened in 1888. Sydney artist Jane Bennett will have an exhibition of her paintings of Sydney’s vanishing industrial sites.
For full detailsof festival events go to www.nsw.nationaltrust.org.au/.
PHOTO: Back then … Jane Bennett’sThe Fingerwharf from Harry de Wheels (1999).