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My love affair with Sydney and my fears for its slow strangulation

My love affair with Sydney and my fears for its slow strangulation
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Cities are remarkable devices. They enable us – some might say force us – to share physical space: roads, walls, trees, parks, pools and services. Hunter-gatherer life would have us spend most of each day collecting the necessaries: food and warmth, sex and shelter. The city bends this rule, stretches it. Together, we specialise. In each individual life, this creates time.

My new book is about issues and patterns that affect cities across the contemporary world. It’s also about one particular city, Sydney – about what makes it uniquely lovable and what threatens that enchantment.

Narrow street, BalmainCredit:

Sydney, nature and culture

Sydney is especially rewarding to explore on foot, partly through the sensualities of nature but especially because of the way this odd culture has fashioned that nature into a coat. People wax lyrically about Sydney’s glittering harbour, its beaches and bushwalks, the coves and inlets nestled like lovers into the angophora-tangled foreshore, the long, narrow, extravagantly frilled harbour that is really a drowned river mouth. For me, though, even the harbour is most interesting in its nature–culture interaction – its jetties and boat houses, its harbour pools and terraced cliff-walks, its seawalls, rock-top apartments and fingerwharves. Rather than nature pure, it is this endless shaping and reshaping of nature for our pleasure and survival – this complex evolving dance – that is the real treasure.

I love how these same coves and inlets are studded with tiny weatherboard boathouses and knock-kneed jetties; how the long Rose Bay beaches and seawall were lined (until recently) with dinghies barnacled onto the littoral; how small, slightly ramshackle boatbuilding enterprises snug themselves into Snails Bay and Balmain – much like clumps of tiny marine snails; and how the apartment buildings at Bondi Beach seem to grow straight out of the rock with all the charm of the unselfconscious.

The dinghies have gone and the tiny turquoise boathouses have given way to plate glass and infinity pools, each indistinguishable.

Around the city’s coastline, however, much of this has been lost. When the rich move in they bring with them the urge to clean up, sanitise and varnish. The dinghies have gone and the tiny turquoise boathouses, perched on the sea edge, have given way to plate glass and infinity pools, each indistinguishable from its neighbour. The clanking and squawking, the tugboats and fishing trawlers, the coal lighters and eighteen footers of the old harbour in its working days have been forced out, along with the relatively charmless container wharves, for glossy and profitable redevelopment like Barangaroo and its neighbouring Crown casino, that now occupy the old East Darling Harbour container wharves.

Streetscape, Glebe.

Streetscape, Glebe.Credit:

So far, though, with a few exceptions such as Green Square and Kings Cross, the old inner-city streets have largely survived this sanitising push. Darling Point, Double Bay, Paddington, Woollahra, Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale, Darlington, Glebe and Balmain are still haunts of endless delight where the forces of ignorance, pragmatism and habit miraculously fashioned nature into an improbable local form of the picturesque.

Surry Hills, bordering Chinatown, was the rag-trade and opium district; a squalid slum run by ruthless madams and razor gangs, rife with prostitution, petty crime and sly grog. Its houses, often less than three metres wide, were crammed in, side by side, and even, in some cases, on top of each other. A lot of these houses still exist – and although they’re now mosques, bespoke hat shops and absinthe bars, as well as homes to the middle class, and although they’re overlaid by wisteria, climbing fig and vermilion-flowered bougainvillea – the spirit of the old can still be felt.

Anzac Parade trees

Anzac Parade treesCredit:

The radical proximity of these inner-city streets, with its constant and thrilling clash of incongruities, is another version of threshold. The living room that is millimetres from the street, the giant street eucalypt leaning into the upstairs balustrade or pushing through the downstairs fence, the cars forced to park with two wheels nudged up and onto the footpaths so that others might pass, the rubbish truck that clears the domestic walls either side by a finger’s width; these are its gifts to us.

The astonishingly narrow house in the old rag-trade district of Surry Hills, barely wide enough for a full-length bed, that is somehow validated by the euphoria rites of spring, with consecutive flowering of jasmine, bougainvillea and jacaranda where for two full weeks the streets are carpeted in fluorescent mauve and cars leave petal-shadows on the asphalt overnight. Or, in Forest Lodge, the cherry blossom.

Tree and fence interact.

Tree and fence interact.Credit:

I find it impossible not to love this intensely textured fabric; the houses whose stairs are incised into their street walls, the stone front steps, worn soft as a pillow, spilling onto the street, the limitless variations upon a sapling fence theme – from picket fences to wrought-iron balustrades, the balconies with their cast iron ferns and tendrils shadowing the street like a scrap of Istanbul, the jutting overhangs, glowing basements and, everywhere, wound throughout, the bougainvillea, the wisteria, the soaring gums and the sinuous fig as sinewed and hairy as Caravaggio’s Holofernes. This endless, iterative collision of nature and culture is exhilarating.

Modernist city misogyny

Sydney offers many examples of laneway enclaves. Redfern, Surry Hills, Paddington and Darlinghurst all offer examples of streets where residents have furnished and, in some cases, colonised the thoroughfare almost completely, first with planting and then with tables and chairs so that they become impassable for vehicles but beloved as shared community rooms.

Think of the city as a coral reef, a complex conglomerate of forms and spaces, designed – if designed is the word – to accommodate a vast plurality of life forms, some sedentary, some motile, in a myriad of niches. The reef is made of stuff. It’s an object, with form and texture and surface that collects sunlight and grows food but in many ways the purpose of those forms is to create the spaces between.

Streetscape, Glebe

Streetscape, GlebeCredit:

Those spaces are where the creatures dwell. They provide safety and identity and home. The form, the outies, are critical but the innies, the holes, are the point. In coral-reef terms, then, Rowe Street was an innie. It was a Flask Walk, all strong containment, urban hum and dark, creative interiors. Within opening to within. What replaced it, Harry Seidler’s towering MLC Centre, was extreme outie: a centralising heroic tower in gleaming colonial white, all dominant object with its side-mushroom of the Commercial Travellers Club sprouting adjacent.

MLC Centre

MLC CentreCredit:

This was a general story, across Sydney and worldwide. The laneways were narrow and inconvenient. You couldn’t drive a rubbish truck down. But they were alive with poet John Keats’s “negative capability” – the essence of poetic imagination. When they were built over and paved over, it was part of the push to botox innies – mysterious, dark, ancient, seductive – out of history.

Thus the old, gender-balanced city form was overtaken by the extroverted, Modernist, masculinist model.

What’s interesting is the collective impact of this change. One or two centralising towers in a raft of 12-storey red-brick courtyard buildings might make for an interesting change of pace, but once the tower model becomes dominant, the space around them dissolves into incoherence. One tower, centralised on its site like Australia Square, might be a relief, but you can’t make a city like this. Cities need walls, and furnishings – the shops, openings, decoration that give texture and life to the wall. Without defining walls there are no streets, only roads.

Places to move rapidly through, not places to be. Across the world, this shift from courtyard centred, street-making buildings to self-centred, street-destroying towers coincided with the shift from mixed-use downtowns to the men-only (and pompously named) Central Business District from which women and children were consciously ejected. As early as the 19th century, this gender separation was inherent in the drive to suburban living – leave your wife and children safe in the burbs and drive into the economic centre of things – the city.

The colonnade at the GPO.

The colonnade at the GPO.Credit:

We usually think of suburbia as starting with Ebenezer Howard in 1902, followed by social reformers like Raymond Unwin, Sydney and Beatrice Webb and then Modernism proper. We think of the city’s central core – or CBD – starting with the 19th century skyscraper race between Chicago and New York, vying to build highest first.

We usually see these pushes as driven respectively by public health concerns and economics. But Modernism’s separative principle applied to people as well. Much has been written on how, from the 19th century on, literature tended to separate male and female experience, equating male with public and confining women theoretically to the private realm. But the same separating push occurs in the physical fabric of our lives.

Westconnex, Newtown.

Westconnex, Newtown.Credit:

Theorist Robert Fishman argues that the suburban push originated a full century earlier than Howard, with the London-based evangelical movement and in particular the writings of William Wilberforce Bird MP. As noted earlier, Wilberforce was best known for his anti-slavery crusade but campaigned too against the evils of the inner city, and to have women domiciled, with their children, in separate houses outside the city in order to draw men away from the card-playing actress-filled temptations of inner-city night-life. Then came the philanthropists, with their vehement opposition to the crowding and squalor of the industrial city, the abuse, disease and undernourishment that marked urban poverty and the belief in sunlight and open space as a cure.

The Block, Redfern.

The Block, Redfern.Credit:

This may not seem unreasonable as a response, but it is always a mistake to try to solve social problems with spatial solutions. The nineteenth-century urban poor were undone not by overcrowding per se but by the poverty that made it into a trap. (NSW Liberal opposition leader John Brogden made the exact same error in February 2004 when after inhabitants of The Block in Redfern rioted in anger at the death of a young boy in a police chase, he called for their houses to be bulldozed.) But back at the start of the twentieth century Ebenezer Howard, the tireless proselytiser for his garden city model, capitalised on this growing anti-city sentiment to change the patterns of how we live.

The modern project involved deliberate and sustained erasure of all the city’s dark withins: laneways, courtyards, narrow streets, small shops, old buildings. In this way Modernism’s projectile values, height and speed, became bundled with use separation, gender separation, profit and misogyny. The city centre became a place for men, and men’s business – the CBD – while women were safely imprisoned in the burbs. Now, 20 years into the century that should know better, the misogynist urban destruction that started with twentieth-century Modernism is being completed with frightening efficacy by post-postmodern instrumentalism.

It is always a mistake to try to solve social problems with spatial solutions.

A Citizen’s Manifesto For Everyone Who Wants to Help Sydney Find its Better Self

Make noise. Get engaged, get elected, get your local hero elected. Make the issues matter. Plant
things, mainly trees. Build your own self-help and co-operative housing. Understand permaculture, go solar, keep chooks. Go pedestrian: walk constantly, absorbedly, everywhere. Don’t drive to work and then to the gym; buy a bike and use it. Live less in private and more in public. Engage deeply in your neighbourhood, but not at the expense of other neighbourhoods. Know that the spaces are more important than the buildings that define them. Understand these spaces as our core habitat, protect them, fight for them. Do not be intimidated by wealth and power. Speak truth.

Street, Surry Hills.

Street, Surry Hills.Credit:

Believe in beauty. Disdain misogyny and racism. Practise dissent, accommodate it, learn from it.
Teach your children respect, because respect refuses exploitation. Teach them manners, because manners build respect, and kindness because kindness builds manners. Cultivate their imagination, because imagination is the key to empathy, and read them stories, because stories feed and furnish our imagination. For this reason, read fiction. Understand cities as made things. Refuse to be bullied into silence. But also, listen – to others and to nature. Above all, refuse the category consumer. Select the category citizen. Vote with care, and not for popularity. Settle for a smaller dwelling, a narrower radius, less frenetic connectivity . . . and a bigger, richer, more imaginative life.

This is an edited extract from Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul by Elizabeth Farrelly is published by Picador on Wednesday January 27.

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