On the spirit of Sydney


Words || Cameron Colwell

I first started thinking about Sydney’s identity after several months of being a member of the meme group called New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. While initially starting as a fairly jokey place, the page has since generated much discussion on urbanism and transport. Similar groups that are more localised have since popped up, like the meme page dedicated to the T1 North Shore and Northern Line or Comparing Japanese and Australian railway systems.

Here in Sydney, the new generation of young adults emotionally investing in the place due to moving into the workforce have a new way of viewing their city.

See, for instance, the proud city-centric pride of ‘KEEP SYDNEY OPEN.’ Drawing battle lines against property developers in the defence of commercial sites such as the Cross and its bars, the Keep Sydney Open movement is interesting as an example of Sydneysiders assuming a city spirit.

Personally, I think these movements risk indulgence in a pretty shallow notion of the place, based on its nightlife in areas which have been gentrified for decades — that particular sense of cultural belonging only feels relevant to the young and middle-class. The attack on one kind of commercialism for the defence of another can’t sustain itself if it’s always based on different options for where to spend money.

There are other searches from less commercially minded Sydneysiders happening: Look at Western Sydney, where a culture has emerged formed by its characterisation against the rest of the city, by entities such as literary movement SWEATSHOP. Also notable is the SHH Centre for Hybrid Arts in Parramatta, where the battle for a cultural spirit became very real recently when the Parramatta City Council attempted to evict the owners, leaving notices of termination and sending Independent Locksmiths & Security to the studio, where they performed what the police deemed an act of breaking and entering, damaging several locks and the property of the owners. This happened despite the rent for the studio being paid. A motion went up at a recent Town Hall Council meeting to extend the stay, which was carried.

Renditions of Sydney in pop culture are centred on the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. See, for instance, Pacific Rim, which tells of a global unity against an alien threat. The sequence depicting the destruction of a giant wall built to protect Sydney Harbour makes sure to include a shot of both icons, even if, as multiple people who have watched the film have noted, building a wall where it is in the film would mean it is far from the mouth of the harbour.

There’s also The Matrix, where Sydney stands in for the featureless city landscape that constitutes the titular digital world. It’s interesting that the Wachowskis wanted a generic metropolis and decided on Sydney, clipping out (most of) the icons like the Opera House. What does it say about a city that its only globally notable traits are the ones we put on postcards?

Drawing on Sydney’s lack of understanding itself is the satirical newspaper The Betoota Advocate. The Sydneysider in its satirical articles is a very particular character: A property investor, generally, or a wowser, contrasted against the more casual, less restrained Queenslander, in articles like ‘Brisbane man says ‘Sorry Mate’ 72 times in Sydney nightclub’ or ‘Prince Harry Told To Quiet Down By Baby Boomer Property Investor While In Sydney Pub.’

In Jonno Revanche’s Kill Your Darlings essay ‘The Golden Land: Writing the millennial Sydney fantasy,’ which inspired this essay, , the author characterises their experience with Sydney as one with tied up in its mind-boggling size:

“What I most often take away is a sense that the city is just dizzyingly big, and mostly disappointing – it promises so much and yet speaks unto no-one, as lonely to natives as it is to transplants.”

I suspect the loneliness Revanche speaks of has a fair amount of overlap with my sense of Sydney as a place that craves to fill a hole where a sense of itself should be. Millennials now fill this particular void with memes: While I doubt many of the posters would think of themselves as urbanists, the awareness, wry and ironic as it might be, is an interesting one. The young are not happy with their city. Its definition and resentment from the street: a meme about a miniature hamburger’s price or a YouTuber making jokes about coming to terms with never being able to own a house are the new versions of angry street graffiti, which has now been commodified and perhaps shaved off its edges in Sydney with the establishment of council-approved ‘street art’.

What all this is really about is the question of what we talk about when we talk about Sydney, when we imagine where it’s going to go, and more specifically, what the alternatives are to a Sydney defined by consumption, both in the sense that developers are consuming our city to create properties very few can actually afford and the sense that the young people of this place seek to regain just as much of a commercial element to the city, but one open to us – which is understandable, but raises the question of how limited activism is if it’s only done for this cause.

It would be morally destitute to not recognise that the city’s development was only made possible by the violent theft of colonisers, who identified the Indigenous people they came across as Eora – a word used by the Gweagal clan who encountered the first settlers and attempted to explain who they were, using a word which means ‘from this place.’ What most call Sydney had nearly thirty separate language groups.

The progression from a buildup of online resentment at the corporate masters of the city to a realisation that it does not have to be like this is not an obscure thought experiment; the struggle for the soul of the city is one we live through daily, whether we’re dissatisfied with the steady destruction of our public transport, starving to pay our rent, or we’re wondering what there is to do here for fun at night.

Now, youths are developing a different sort of consciousness of the city as a place than has come before, illusory as it might be, and that’s a good thing, because it allows us to recognise that it doesn’t have to be the chrome-and-glass corporate playground its current masters seem to want it to be.