Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
In matters Parra, God trumps art
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So I’m chatting with this priest over lunch – fear not, I confess nothing – and he says, “Catholicism’s two saving graces are the saints and the arts.” This idea appeals to my simple, pattern-addicted mind, which spots a neat fit with that old theological divide between the immanent and transcendent aspects of God (aka good works and spirituality) or what I see as horizontal and vertical religion.
And I’m about to point out that Christianity isn’t doing either terribly well just now, what with churches that look like greasy spoons or the offices of dandruff-flecked accountants and calls to indict the Pope for child abuse. I’m wondering, further, whether this is their mistake, mixing their horizontals with their verticals (so that properly vertical things, like churches, now strive for squat, mass-appeal ugliness while properly horizontal things, like education, are constantly polluted with spirituality – not to say priapism). Then I realise, this is exactly the tug of war going on in Parramatta.
Poor old Parra. Were I her, I’d feel just a tad let down by history. Two centuries ago, she was home to Sydney’s A-list, people and buildings; our seat of government and our smorgasbord, standing solidly between Sydney and starvation.
Now look at her. Never mind that Parramatta is NSW’s second biggest CBD and the country’s sixth biggest, nor that the government insists it wants to build her self-esteem. Parramatta remains very clearly poor cousin material, her river concreted in neglect, her building stock trashy, her sweet street grid brutalised by the RTA’s one-way treatment (so last century) and a new Catholic cathedral that is only marginally less barn-like than the debilitating Westfield that should never have been allowed to suck the shopping life out of Church Street.
For a while, under lord mayor David Borger, there was hope. Bright and ambitious, he studied urban design and seemed genuinely to care about the place. He brimmed with improvement ideas, including a proposal for a creative arts precinct in the old King’s School.
Addressing an arts audience in 2007, Borger placed himself carefully in the city-improvement tradition. To this end, he said: “We need strong local champions who see the arts as a cornerstone to … building great cities and towns. Sadly we have … few politicians able to or interested enough to make the arts an electoral winner.”
Yet, he continued, “my experience in Parramatta suggests it is possible to build a political constituency around the arts. My regret is that of those many in western Sydney who are making or have made fortunes in western Sydney, few of them live in the west and hardly any contribute philanthropically back to it.”
And now? Now, when the moment comes to make the old King’s School arts precinct a reality, cabinet’s budget committee, as beach bully boy, jumps on it with both feet. David Borger, Tony Kelly, Virginia Judge and other implicated ministers go to ground despite their previous support. Why? Perhaps because the church has expansion plans of its own.
Let’s be clear. It’s a fabulous site. Over a hectare of handsome heritage buildings and a lawn twice that size with absolute river frontage; neighboured by the World Heritage-listed Parramatta Park, the Riverside Theatre and – you guessed it – the Catholic Church.
Which is, literally, the rub.
The arts proposal, says a cabinet paper, includes a major Art Gallery of NSW outpost, so that westies, for the first time, wouldn’t be travelling 50 kilometres to see a Cezanne; a major events space; state-of-the-art digital media facilities; artists’ studios and riverside cycling-walking tracks. It also includes a branch of the National Art School, the first-ever major fine-arts education institution outside the Sydney CBD, offering futures for talented local kids.
This has to be good, right? It has to be what the government metro strategy means in earmarking Parramatta as a “major social and employment hub of western Sydney”. It has to be what David Borger, Minister for Western Sydney, means by bringing “creative energy and engagement to the suburbs of my youth … and chang[ing] the feeling that … creative success can only be achieved by … going to the metropolis.”
Parramatta desperately needs a genuine creativity hub, a vibrant north bank, and a compatible use for this friable heritage precinct. The arts proposal was perfect. Yet the cabinet has blocked it twice and put it off until after the election.
It happens that Parramatta’s Bishop Anthony Fisher, a 2008 World Youth Day co-ordinator, has lobbied intensely for the site, including meeting the Premier – who considers World Youth Day among her highest achievements.
It happens that Fisher’s diocese newsletter in the same month detailed his proposal – which includes counselling for gamblers and junkies, refugee support, a range of TAFE courses and adult learning, “all within a Catholic pastoral environment”. (There they go, mixing their verticals and horizontals again). It happens that Tony Kelly, Planning Minister, went to the Vatican for the Mary thing.
And it happens that this site would massively leverage the church’s landholding, adding what it now lacks, 200 metres of absolute riverfront.
What? Did we think church and state were separate, in what Cardinal George Pell, Fisher’s boss, now calls “ideological apartheid”? To test this theory, imagine if it were a mosque, say, or a synagogue, grabbing riverfront land.
“I don’t come with any agenda apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church.” Thus spake Bishop Fisher on taking appointment in January. But could this be the same teaching by which the church argued in court (I kid you not) that it was not obliged to act in good faith in the case of sacked choirmaster David Russell v the church?
Cardinal Pell insists that “people without religion are frightened by the future”, but to me this looks very old-fashioned churchiness indeed. It looks, in fact, like an old-style, out-and-out land grab.
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON