The Pleasures of Sydney

Andrew Phillips September 18 2000

The Pleasures of Sydney

Andrew Phillips September 18 2000

The Pleasures of Sydney


Australia's Olympic host is a brash and booming city where folks just love a good time

Andrew Phillips

Right at the beginning of his 1987 play

about manners and morals in Sydney,

Emerald City, playwright David

Williamson has one of his characters tear a strip off the place that Australians like to consider one of the most beautiful (if not the most beautiful) cities in the world. “No

one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life,” proclaims the cynical literary agent Elaine Ross. “It’s getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest.’’ ¡ ^ That’s one common view of Australia's premier city: blessed with a gorgeous natural setting in the sparkling harbour at its heart; brash, moneyed, newly cosmopolitan and sophisticated— but also a touch crass, even philistine in its obsession with real estate and getting your own personal view over that magnificent water. Sydneysiders (as the local folk call themselves) may enjoy a physical setting that

surpasses and Vancouver tendency than now. even to go As they those for on sheer and count of on Rio beauty. about down de Janeiro, But it, they to and the San also never start Francisco more of have so their a biggest-ever bash, the Games of theXXVII Olympiad, Sydney may be as confident, upbeat and all-round pleased with itself as any city has ever been,

To be sure, it has a lot of reasons to be smug. I he four million Sydneysiders enjoy a climate to rival that of Southern California (they live almost exactly the same distance from the equator as y0^ Los Angeles). Glorious white sand beaches (Bondi being only the most famous) await just 15 minutes from gleaming downtown skyscrapers, Then there’s a richly diverse population drawn from all over the world; restaurants as varied and trendsetting as those anywhere; a legendary capacity to have a good time; and to top it all off, a booming economy, The boom has been going on ever since the Games

were awarded to Sydney in 1993. The city spent some $268 million to repave streets, improve the parks, and build a new highway and rail link from the airport to the Central Business District, or CBD, as Sydney unromantically calls its downtown. Developers poured in another $4.7 billion, adding to the already impressive skyline. Another $2.5 billion went to build the cleanly modern Olympic facilities in the western suburb of Homebush Bay, including the 110,000-seat Stadium Australia. Local leaders are upbeat, even cocky as they begin welcoming the 15,000 athletes from 198 countries (including 311 from Canada) and eight million other visitors. Sydney, undeniably, is ready for its close-up.

Nowadays, when the world thinks of Australia it thinks of Sydney—but it wasn’t always so. Until relatively recendy, Sydney was an also-ran even among Australian cities. Melbourne, the capital of southern Victoria state, was considered the centre of culture, good living and economic power. Sydney was a backwater, dismissed by haughty Melbournians as “Sleepy Hollow”: even the pubs closed at 6 p.m.

When the Summer Games first went to Australia, in 1956, they went to Melbourne, which seemed natural at the time. But it was that decision that helped to shock Sydney into I pulling itself together. The city tore I down a ramshackle tram shed that i stood on Circular Quay, a magnifI icent promontory jutting into the

harbour, and commissioned a bold new arts complex designed to symbolize what it hoped would be a new, forward-looking Sydney. That building, finally opened in - 1973, is the famed Sydney I Opera House, whose soaring, I angular roofline evokes the 1 white sails that crowd the sur-

2 rounding water, and provides the iconic symbol of modern Australia.

The Opera House did more than just provide a symbol. It drew people to Sydney’s waterfront as never before. The harbour divides the city in two, and has a coasdine that meanders around gende bays and fjordlike inlets for a full 240 km—but Sydneysiders had never taken much advantage of it. That all changed. Areas like Darling Harbour, until the mid-1980s a jumble of wharfs, abandoned warehouses and disused rail lines, were reborn with trendy new restaurants, shops and museums. The Rocks, once a seedy warren of boarding houses, brothels and bars, was spmced up into a tourist-friendly shopping zone. The Opera House, Jan Morris writes in her 1992 book on the city, Sydney, “is like a very emblem of fresh starts.” That may resonate deeper in Sydney than other places because its whole history is one of fresh starts. Unlike most cities, it can pinpoint its origins to an exact day—Jan. 26, 1788. It was then that a fleet of 11 British ships carrying about 780 convicts (historians don’t agree on the exact number) and their jailers sailed into the harbour they called Port Jackson after a 252-day voyage that took them quite literally to the ends of the earth. Most were petty thieves—the first of 83,000 prisoners transported to the colony over the next five decades by a mother country anxious to rid itself of its burgeoning criminal class. The sailors landed at a small cove between where the Opera House now stands and the site of the Harbour Bridge. They raised the

Union Jack and called it Sydney Cove, after Lord Sydney, the British home secretary of the day.

The early colony, not surprisingly, was notorious for its violence, crime and filth, as befitted what amounted to an open prison. Most of the prisoners had no idea where they were: some thought China was just over the blue-tinged hills they could glimpse on the western horizon. “A more wicked, abandoned and irreligious set of people,” Gov. John Hunter remarked in the 1790s, “had never been brought together in any part of the world.” No wonder the first words that the Aborigines who lived in the bush around Sydney Cove addressed to the white intruders was “Warra! Warra!” (Go away!)

They did not, of course, go away, but instead constructed a metropolis that now sprawls over some 3,750 square kilometres—most of it undistinguished suburbs stretching west

Once notorious for its violence, crime and filth, sprucedup Sydney now is the ‘very emblem of fresh starts’

towards the Blue Mountains, named for the colour imparted by the leaves of the eucalyptus trees that crowd their slopes. Those who try to figure out what gives Sydney its special flavour often profess to detect traces of its convict past in its glamorous present. There’s the raffishness that has always been part of city life (represented by Kings Cross, the red-light district just east of the CBD). There’s the famous Australian disdain for snobbery, and the value set on “mateship”—a kind of loyalty rooted in working-class egalitarianism.

Most of all, there is a pride in building such a desirable place out of such unpromising materials. Australians, at least those in polite society, once considered it a major faux pas to

talk about their collective convict past—what was known as “the Stain.” Nowadays, they tend to stress how far they have come. “It’s quite amazing that this city was a place people were sent to for punishment,” says Sydney’s lord mayor, Frank Sartor. “The city we have today is a place people go to for reward, a city that everyone wants to come to.”

For the past four decades or so, they have been coming from nearly everywhere. The so-called White Australia policy, which essentially meant excluding all but Europeans, and mainly Anglo-Celtic ones at that, died in 1958. Since then, much like Toronto or Vancouver, Sydney has welcomed huge numbers of migrants. First, came southern Europeans— mainly Italians and Greeks. Then Lebanese, some 200,000 of them. More recently, the newcomers have included large numbers of Asians—Chinese, Koreans, Cambodians and Vietnamese (so many settled in the suburb of Cabramatta that it became known as “Vietnamatta”). More then a quarter of the city’s people were born in another country. They have been absorbed with remarkably few social tensions, a tribute to the city’s tradition of tolerance and fair play.

There are plenty of other signs of that relaxed tone. The suburb of Darlinghurst, southwest of Kings Cross, is the focus of one of the biggest gay scenes in the world. A city that little more than two generations ago was a stodgy outpost of colonial British culture has remade itself into one of the most hedonistic places in the world, with an annual gay Mardi Gras festival renowned for its vulgarity. It’s also set to host the Gay Games in 2002. Gambling is another local obsession. New South Wales, Sydney’s state, is said to have more gambling machines than anywhere outside of Nevada. Sydneysiders are famed for betting on anything from boat races in the harbour to video-poker machines. In Darling Harbour, Star City Casino stands ready to lighten Olympic visitors’ wallets. And restaurants developed a sophisticated local cuisine, fusing Australian and Asian influences (though less-demanding visitors will still be able to find old Sydney standbys like the “pie floater”—a meat pie in a bowl of thick pea soup).

Sydney’s renowned tolerance, however, has not been much extended to the Aboriginal people who form a tiny and

largely dispossessed minority in the city. There are some 386,000 Aborigines in Australia (about two per cent of the population), with about 20,000 in Sydney. By every social, economic and medical measure, they are among the most deprived native groups anywhere, lacking even the land and political legitimacy enjoyed by many Canadian First Nations. Compared with other Australians, Aboriginals have poorer housing, worse education, more addiction and disease—less of life itself (their lives are, on average, 20 years shorter). In Sydney, many are concentrated in Redfern, a suburb notorious for crime, dilapidated housing, wretched schools and drug and alcohol abuse. It has also become a hotbed of Aboriginal activism.

Aboriginal leaders promise to make their presence felt during the Games. The focus of their protests has striking parallels in Canada. From about 1910 to 1970, as many as one-third of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their parents to be raised in foster homes or state-run training centres.

The idea was to prepare them for living in the white world, but the results were predictable: families torn apart, lives destroyed. Aboriginal | leaders want a formal apology from | the national government for what they call the “stolen generation” and other historical wrongs, but most promise to keep their protests peaceful. “There’ll be no disruption of the Games, we’ve said that quite loudly and clearly,” says Jenny Munro, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council.

The Games themselves, or about 70 per cent of them, will take place far from central Sydney. One of the first events, the triathlon, will be held in and around the harbour, starting with a 1.5-km swim from the Opera House, followed by a 40-km bicycle race and a 10-km run past the Royal Botanic Gardens and through the downtown skyscrapers. But the main events will be 15 km to the west at Homebush Bay, a swampy expanse that until recently was the site of a slaughterhouse and a municipal dump.

Now, the area has been remade into a spanking new Olympic Park with a dozen facilities—the 110,000-seat Stadium Australia, the 20,000-seat Sydney SuperDome for basketball and gymnastics, plus centres for swimming and diving, baseball and tennis. The New South Wales official in charge of Olympic design, Chris Johnson, proudly calls it “the largest number of sporting facilities in one location in modern Olympic history.” VIPs will be brought into the site on a new fast ferry up the Parramatta River, but the 300,000

regular visitors expected every day will arrive via a special rail link to central Sydney. The set-up is designed for efficiency and security—but does nothing to take advantage of the city’s spectacular natural setting.

The road to the Games hasn’t been entirely smooth for Sydney. Spillover from the bribery scandal surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah’s bid for the 2004 Winter Games tarnished the Olympic image. Revelations that ordinary Australians would get fewer tickets than they had been promised, with the lion’s share going to corporate sponsors and other VIPs, offended the country’s sense of egalitarianism. And on glamourous Bondi Beach, local activists buried themselves up to the necks in sand in an unsuccessful bid to prevent construction of a temporary beach volleyball stadium.

Now, though, even the people Sydneysiders call the “Oly-skeptics” have mostly fallen silent. The Games are about to begin, and the city is ready to play. “Sydney is just a wide-open field where the best and the worst of human nature comes into play, and has done for 210 years,” says John Birmingham, author of a new and highly popular book, Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney. “Sydney doesn’t care who or what you are: she’ll just put her wet, hot lips on you and take you for whatever you’ve got.”

Ean Higgins

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