With the Olympics only weeks away, Sydney, rich in natural wonders, casual elegance and cultural diversity, is perfectly poised to welcome the world
By STEVE WATERSON
Cities, like people, reveal themselves in different ways. There are those whose charms emerge shyly, after long acquaintance; others whose grandeur inspires awe and respect; some whose attractions are sought in vain. And there are others whose personality is instantly engaging. With confidence leavened with humor, self-indulgence tempered with generosity, brashly modern yet strangely ancient, Sydney is such a place.
two centuries old, Sydney has grown into one of the world's great cities,
a bustling repository of dreams for its 4 million inhabitants, whether
their aim is to take on global financial markets, dazzle the world's artistic
or sporting communitiesor tend the backyard of their quarter-acre
suburban block. Allowing for differences in size, Sydney is as exciting
as New York, as sophisticated as Paris, as colorful as Hong Kong and as
irreverent as '60s London.
Within an hour of the CBD, Sydney is enclosed by virgin bush. Nobody who saw the fires of January 1994 will forget the fierce orange glow of the night sky, all roads out of the city closed where they crossed the blazing forests, houses claimed by flames racing down the fingers of vegetation that probe the city's suburbs. To the west, the national parkland of the Blue Mountains, named for the eucalyptus oils that evaporate from the gum trees and tint the air, is a 10,000-sq.-km wilderness of heavily wooded gullies and forbidding cliffs, home to well over a thousand species of plants. Only six years ago the Wollemi pine was added to the list. These prehistoric trees, previously unknown, were found in one of the region's remote canyons, where they were thought to have grown undisturbed for five million years. To the city's north, the Ku-ring-gai Chase, Marramarra and Brisbane Water national parks preserve the country as it would have appeared to early settlers in all its intimidating vastness; and even closer in, much of the harbor's 250 km of foreshore is blessedly protected, so that at North and Middle Heads, at Bradleys Head, in the valleys of Lane Cove, along the mangrove swamps of the river near Parramatta or in the upper reaches of Middle Harbour, you can fancy yourself back in the time before European settlement.
More moving are the engraved records of that time, when Sydney's original inhabitants fished, hunted and gathered their fruit and witchety grubs. More than 2,000 Aboriginal carvingsof kangaroos, fish, platypus, hunting sceneshave been found in Sydney's sandstone outcrops, mute reminders, some of them 5,000 years old, that progress comes at a price. Modern estimates put as many as 750,000 Aborigines on the Australian continent in 1788; the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, thought some 1,500 lived between Botany Bay to the south and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River to the north. He knew them all as Eora, although they were several distinct tribes: Gayimai, Cadigal, Wangal, Walumeda. Within a year of making contact with the British arrivals, half of them were dead of smallpox.
So began two centuries of suffering, though a new spirit of reconciliation is finally acknowledging and addressing this legacy, albeit painfully slowly. Aborigines were granted the right to be counted in the national census only in 1967for many years they had been classed as fauna. The life of a hunter-gatherer requires patience and endurance; that may be the only respect in which the lifestyle of many Aboriginal people is unchanged.
The changes came in 11 ships, carrying 778 convicts, overspill from British prisons, and their guards. Eight kilometers within the Heads, past pale harbor beaches, rocky promontories with colonies of fairy penguins, tiny islands and sweeping bays, they anchored in a semicircular cove Phillip named for the British Home Secretary. It was Jan. 26, 1788. The day is celebrated each year as Australia Day; the Aborigines, with some justification, call it Invasion Day.
All cities have their dark side, but few, like Sydney, had their darkest moments at birth. The scenes of debauchery and brutality recorded by most of the early chroniclers of the infant colony would have scandalized the Marquis de Sade; down the years, that tradition has been maintained. The last convicts arrived in New South Wales in 1840, and many were absorbed into gangs, or pushes, of "larrikins"hooligans. The Forty Thieves of the Rocks and the Iron House Mob of Woolloomooloo segued neatly last century into fearsome razor gangs; the North Shore, nowadays so sedate, was terrorized by the Gore Hill Tigers and the Blues Point Mob.
The gangs are less visible now, so visitors enjoying Vietnamese food in Cabramatta may never be aware that Sydney's heroin trade has its capital here; few diners in Chinatown could identify a member of Hong Kong's ruthless triads; unless they're very unluckyor foolishrevelers can blithely blow their spending money in the strip clubs and girlie bars of Kings Cross without encountering the standover men and drug dealers who haunt the shadows.
The slum clearances that restored some order to the dangerous streets of Sydney were the first of many modifications to the city's fabric. Old Sydney was a stone town. The softly glowing Hawkesbury sandstone, seemingly designed on some primeval color wheel to complement the Australian sun, sea and sky, was hewn from quarries in the suburbs of Bondi, Maroubra, Neutral Bay and Pyrmont. It built some of the city's greatest landmarks: the Town Hall, the Queen Victoria Building, St. Mary's and St. Andrew's cathedrals. Granite came from as far away as Scotland, sitting as ballast in passenger and cargo ships; later it was quarried at Goulburn outside Sydney, and on the southern New South Wales coast at Moruya, which provided the stone for the pylons of the Harbour Bridge.
The city center has been so zealously made over by each generation that little remains of the early buildings of Sydney Cove. Traces lingerArgyle Place in Millers Point and Susannah Place in The Rocks date from the early 19th century; further west, toward Parramatta, now the demographic center of Greater Sydney, stand Australia's only 18th century buildings, Elizabeth Farm and Experiment Farm Cottage. It seems miraculous that any of them have survived so many waves of reinvention.
First came the six- and seven-story buildings of the 19th century; then, in the second decade of the 20th, the advent of the elevator allowed 13-story blocks. Finally, the repealing of a 46-m height restriction in 1957 saw the fiercest frenzy of redevelopment and the erection of the skyscrapers that now mark the CBD. The Rocks area of Sydney Cove, thronged with tourists buying opals and boomerangs, and an aesthetic and financial delight to the city fathers, was saved from destruction in the early 1970s only through the intervention of the Builders' Labourers Federation and its members' "green ban" refusal to perform demolition work. The old buildings of Woolloomooloo owe their existence to a similar but depressingly raretriumph of the popular will over developers' check books.
Butserendipity, againthe lack of planning has turned out well enough. Unlike many overplanned cities of recent vintage, Sydney has the narrow, twisting streets and lanes of more ancient towns, thanks to a thousand tiny acts of defiance by individual settlers who refused to adhere to their betters' visions of boulevards and grand public squares. In its variety it is akin to lower Manhattan, before the grid of streets and avenues imposes its discipline on New York. This haphazard layout, frustrating to the uninitiated, compensates by surprising the visitor with architectural objets trouvEs: a sudden startling view of harbor or Bridge; a tired landmark refreshed by a new and unusual line of sight. Many of the city's less favored buildings conspire to produce this effect: even the much vilified new apartment block at East Circular Quay, known unflatteringly to Sydneysiders as the Toaster, is a setting for the Opera House, integrating the icon into the broader matrix of the city.
Beneath the Toaster, smart new bars have revitalized the social life of the Quay. As many locals as tourists gather here on sunny days, families piling onto ferries, pausing with ice creams to watch the clowns, mime artists and didgeridoo players, walking the rim of Sydney Cove from Campbell's Cove to Bennelong Point, and up into the serenity of the Royal Botanic Gardens. A look at the faces tells you that, like New York, Sydney is one of the world's great melting pots. The 19th century gold rush brought Chinese from Canton; by the turn of the century the city was home to bustling communities of Greeks, Lebanese and Italians. There have been crude attempts to control immigrationuntil 1958, the so-called "White Australia" policy allowed immigration officers to exclude would-be migrants with a dictation test in Gaelicbut a more enlightened attitude prevails today.
For Australia realizes it is still a nation of migrants. More than a quarter of Sydney's residents were born overseas, half of them in Europe, the remainder primarily in Asia. Luckily, they have been absorbed with little friction. While there is a natural tendency for groups to coalesce around certain areas Italians in Leichhardt and Five Dock, Chinese in Chinatown or Chatswood, Vietnamese around Cabramattathese are not so much ghettoes as nations in miniature. It is an Australian commonplace to say that non-Anglo-Celtic migrants have enriched the nation's once-stodgy culture, but the mix of people sampling Portuguese suckling pig in Petersham, Macedonian burek in Rockdale or Korean kimchi in Campsie testify to its truth. And whatever else they brought, migrants have settled in Australia without much metaphorical baggage. The murderous intricacies of Balkan or Middle Eastern politics rarely surface in Fairfield or Lakemba. Like their predecessors, the newcomers have learnedand taughttolerance.
Mix this new liberalism with the hedonistic self-indulgence of beach culture, and you have the crowd in Darlinghurst's Taylor Square on a Saturday night in February. Sydney has unbuttoned itself to become one of the gayand gay-friendlycapitals of the world, with a Mardi Gras festival of such exquisite vulgarity that even robustly heterosexual Sydneysiders feel a stirring of pride as they watch the sparkling floats, each more outrageous than the last, and the gyrating, glistening, gym-honed bodies of the participants. Not everyone's happy with it, of course: a few resolute souls gather to pray for rain on parade night. But for the rest of the city, well, they love a party, and who cares who's throwing it?
But the supreme pagan pleasure of Sydney is sport. It has its cathedrals: the Sydney Cricket Ground, where howling devotees celebrate bleached-blond, zinc-smeared gods; Bondi Beach, where slick surfers slip down the cliff-face of the ocean. A thousand lesser temples abound: cricket pitches, rugby grounds, Aussie Rules football ovals, bowling greens (for age is no obstacle to faith), tennis courts. Now, at Homebush Bay, the grandest cathedral of all has been raised, its gleaming curves visible from vantage points all over Sydney. It is Stadium Australia, and followers of the Olympic Games will worship their idols here.
Just as millions of migrants have followed their private dreams to Sydney, in September athletes from all over the world will come in pursuit of their public dreams. For some, there will be triumph; for many more, disappointment. The city, as always, will embrace them, console them, entertain them, infuriate them. Above all, it will astonish them. Neither they, nor Sydney, will be the same again.
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