Like most people, I take the city I live in for granted. Having always lived in and around Sydney, I don’t really give much thought to what makes it the city it is, what endears me so much to it, what creates this strange love affair with bricks, concrete, glass and steel.
I have always had a pretty good knowledge of the history of Sydney, and have walked much of its historic paths, and many lesser known alleys over the years. I travelled, at least for a while, over the Harbour Bridge on an almost daily basis. I have walked the pathways of the bridge many times, and have traversed it also in trains, and as a vague recollection, in trams. The bridge pylon has long been a favourite haunt as a place to escape the madding crowd – at least on weekdays – and as a place to meditate the beauty of my city, and be constantly in awe of the majesty of its harbour. The recently started climb up the actual span has added another dimension to it again, and a view of the harbour and city that is so beautiful it makes you weep. In my many journeys across it over the years, how often I wondered why I could not climb that arch! That dream is now available to all.
It is only as I have grown older that I have really started to get into the feeling of walking through time as I move about the city. Many others before me have walked streets that I walk, they are named after those who used them as far back as the first settlement. Suburbs are named the same way, as are homes, parks, bays, beaches, hills and mountains. Tongue-twisting Aboriginal names confuse many a tourist, and the buggerisation of their language is evident in many spellings of place names around the city. They have become not just names, but a patchwork of living history. I now go to Balmain knowing that at one time, the whole suburb was sold for five shillings. I know that Millers Point is just not a name, but an activity that occurred there, and that Brickfield Hill is named for the same reason. The Rocks is so because of rocks, Rushcutters Bay because they cut rushes there, Cockle Bay was renowned for its cockles and Double Bay because it is – yes – two bays.
The very trees and gardens in the Eastern suburbs hold history. Rocks bare graffiti from 1788. Archeology is all around, at places such as the dig at Suzannah Place in The Rocks, and more recently at Walsh Bay, and when the Conservatorium of Music was being restored (the old Government House stables). We no longer cringe at the suggestion of being from convict stock. There are many like me, whose families came out as free settlers in the mid-eighteen hundreds, who would beg, borrow or steal to have a convict history. It is only now that books are revealing the true facts of our past, the real people who were on the first fleet, the true conditions they endured to become the first white inhabitants of this land. This is a truth we no longer shrink from, but accept as part of our cultural colour. It is a shame we cannot be as proud of our treatment of indigenous cultures.
Up until I read John Birminghams ‘Leviathan’, I had always thought that John Macarthur died back in England. I had no concept of the hard time he had given his wife, nor that he died being declared insane. I had no knowledge of the back biting and factioning that went on between Governors, settlers and the Rum Corp, nor of the workings of the Unemployed Workers Movement of more recent history. I would not have known that free-settlers built homes in the highest areas of The Rocks, and that those living below them were engulfed by the sewerage running down the hills. Digging trenches around the lower homes did little to alleviate the problem – the sewerage just overflowed the trenches, and proceeded to boil and fester in the heat.
That I would never have been taught any of this at school does not surprise me. Growing up in the fifties and sixties in Sydney was a lot different to growing up here in the nineties and beyond. ‘Going to Town’ is no longer the event it used to be, where parents and children were dressed in their Sunday best, as though making a pilgrimage to the centre of their culture. My parents could not have imagined the squalor of the late nineteenth century, nor the depressions earlier in that time. Their parents lived on the legacy left to them from the depression of the twentieth century, and expected their children to carry the
same values forward. My apologies to them but they are wrong. I will not carry that guilt for them!
I love my city for having survived the warring factions, the depressions, the plagues, the demolitions, and the cultural and architectural history destroyed by a string of uncaring governments. I love her crowded streets, her bastard mix of architecture, and crooked, crazy alleys and lanes. Yes, she has grown as an old whore, but oh, a whore with so much class.
I was unbelievably impressed by the Olympic site at Homebush, and how much it was a measure of how far we have come. We have taken a toxic dumping ground and rejuvenated it into a suburban paradise. Twenty years ago, nobody would have given a damn about the Green and Gold Frog becoming extinct, let alone contemplating creating a space for it to thrive in. We now think about the spaces we are creating. No more just throwing up buildings as though there was no tomorrow – well, perhaps east Circular Quay is an exception to that rule. I see history being restored, and put to modern use. I trust we have got over the facadism of the eighties, and now choose to preserve buildings in their entirety, breathing into them a new life which they richly deserve.
Now when I walk up Palmer Street or Campbell Street in Darlinghurst, or drive down Old South Head ŷRoad, the names invoke a sense of history to me. They are not just boulevards, they are lives that have been lived, and continue to live as long as people care.