SYDNEY, Australia—Down the hill from my house, there is an old building with a saw-toothed roof that once warehoused trams, back when the bay was heavy with industrial waste and working-class people could afford to buy a home this close to the city and harbor of Sydney.
Now that building has been revived and repurposed as a dining destination for our perfect little inner-city neighborhood at Glebe Point. The graffiti that marked its derelict years have been retained—except for offensive words, which have been scrubbed out. A bakery mills its flour right there before you. A restaurant serves produce from farmers known to the chef. It is “local and authentic,” the kind of local and authentic that deserves scare quotes because it is just as likely to be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the Shoreditch neighborhood in London.
The work of the urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs is the subject of public discussion again, with the recent publication of a biography about her, “Eyes on the Street.” Ms. Jacobs is credited with helping save her New York neighborhood, Greenwich Village, from the threat of an expressway. Through her books, such as the seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she championed the diverse and dynamic urban neighborhood—sidewalks busy with foot traffic rather than automobiles and ripe for chance interactions; the friendly chaos of old and new, home and work, all within the same few blocks—seeding ideas that have been taken up in other cities around the world.
Yet for all its worth and triumph, at some point in the last 20 years, this dream died and became something else. Those urban villages, once diverse melting pots, became shiny, wealthy and inward-looking. The big ideas became small and hard and sparkling as diamonds.
This is how it is playing out here in Sydney. In every direction the city center is ringed by desirable neighborhoods with exorbitant housing prices, where residents can dine, work and shop without ever traveling far from home.
It is a beautiful life, and effective at reducing car travel. But there is a darker side to it. The urban village ethos has encouraged prosperous neighborhoods to turn inward and even take pride in not connecting with fellow citizens in the suburban areas beyond.
The language we still hold on to about the inner city disguises the changes that have taken place. We still invoke the social justice battles of urban neighborhoods of the past—community, environment, heritage, people power—in an endless war to fight for even greater advantages for ourselves.
This is something I have thought about a lot this year when I wake before dawn for my long commute outside this bubble, to the public hospital in the outer suburbs of Western Sydney where I work as a doctor.
Western Sydney sounds as if it must be merely a quadrant of Sydney but it’s actually a vast region of suburbs that is home to nearly half the five million residents of the Sydney metropolitan area.
When I leave the house each morning I join tall, tight columns of car traffic inching along the road to the west. This road is also a construction site for a freeway linking the west with the city, a freeway that the inner city is fighting to stop because of the houses and trees that will be destroyed and because of the traffic it will spill onto our gentrified streets.
Meanwhile, our representatives fight for a ferry—a third mode of public transport, in addition to bus and a light rail—to help residents of my neighborhood make the short journey to the central business district.
As I drive I listen to the Hilltop Hoods, a group that delivers hip-hop in a broad Aussie accent that speaks to the life of the outer suburbs and the small towns of Australia, the commuter trains, parks and pubs. Their songs are usually about Adelaide and its South Australian surrounds, but they could be about the place where I’m headed: “And we’re nowhere near nothing, man, it’s so true/I don’t tell ’em where I’m from, I tell ’em where I’m close to/And I can go through an atlas and show you on a map but/You’d still look me sideways and treat me like I’m backwards.”
The midpoint of the journey west is marked by the suburb of Parramatta, where the blue harbor dwindles to a river, narrow and brown. The name Parramatta is thought to be derived from the word the Darug people gave to the place during the 30,000 years they have lived here, a name that means “where eels lie down.”
Late last year the state government announced that the Powerhouse Museum, the inner city’s beloved science and applied arts museum, would be sold to developers and moved here, closer to the bulk of the Sydney region’s population and especially its children.
The announcement was met with a revolt in the city proper. An alliance was formed. Letters were written. Business owners, designers, artists, filmmakers and gallery directors of the city, 178 of them, signed an open letter urging the government “to reconsider its plan to relocate the Powerhouse Museum from the heart of Sydney to Western Sydney.” From the heart of Sydney.
I accept that the fight to keep a historic building in public hands is a valuable one. And that the protesters do want some kind of museum for Parramatta. A good one.
But the fight left me uneasy. The language—against developers, in favor of public assets—served as a linguistic sleight of hand that disguised the fact that an influential, overwhelmingly city-based and white cultural elite was mounting a fight against sharing resources with a less privileged part of the Sydney area.
A similar position was put more bluntly in August when it was announced that Tropfest, which bills itself as the world’s largest short-film festival, would be moved from the city to Parramatta Park.
Adam St. John, a film producer who lives in the inner-city neighborhood of Newtown, told The Daily Telegraph that there was “no way I’m going to hop on the train and go to the middle of nowhere for it.”
“I won’t go to Parramatta, no way. Why would you put something that was so famous into an area where no filmmakers are based?”
But what is the middle of nowhere? And for that matter, what does it mean to be sophisticated? What does it mean to be cultured?
These are questions many cities now need to struggle with, including New York. Once it was common to deride those who visited Manhattan from the other boroughs and the suburbs beyond as “bridge and tunnel.” In other words: naïve simpletons escaping their bland monoculture. The city mocked the blandness of the suburbs, then it became the blandness.
Western Sydney is not bland. Trapped in the urban planning disasters of the past, culture struggles on amid the eucalyptus and highways and yellow grass and shopping carts.
I take blood from a patient and learn about the history of the Egyptian community in Sudan. In the courtyard of the palliative-care unit, Pacific Islanders sit in a circle taking turns to play a guitar.
In another ward, a frail old man is tucked into bed with a blue and yellow blanket, the colors of his rugby team, the Parramatta Eels, named after the eels in that brown river.
On the night shift, once the urgent jobs are done, the junior doctors take a break, laying down our stethoscopes and pagers to eat Halal Snack Packs, a Western Sydney delicacy of meat and fries, smothered in garlic sauce and packed in Styrofoam.
In Western Sydney more than anywhere, our future nation is being formed. The streets are not built for street life, but there is life, in spite of the streets. Thousands of years of culture are being woven into something loose we call Australian. And it is passing by those who refuse to venture beyond the inner city.
The challenge for our city and many like it is to think beyond the urban villages. The passion for well-designed communities needs to be directed outward instead of inward, geographically and in spirit. We need to let go of some of our resources; we need to learn to share. And if we are going to fight for our perfect little villages, the most honorable fight is the one to retain and expand public housing, to keep what little diversity we have left.
Culture is more than expensive and refined tastes in wine and food. I don’t want to live in the kind of city where we endeavor to know our grains and our meat, but not our fellow citizens.
Lisa Pryor, a medical doctor, is the author, most recently, of “A Small Book About Drugs.”
Artwork by Robert G. Fresson. Source: The New York Times.