It’s a fine winter day in Sydney. I walk down the ramp in front of the State Library of NSW where I’ve been working. The braille and raised print letters on the plaque of the traffic light read ‘Macquarie St’, followed by the unique identification number.
I know where I am, of course, thanks to the knowledge accumulated over a decade of walking the streets of the City. This is the corner of Macquarie and Hunter Streets – the inner sanctum of Sydney, where historic government buildings stand cheek-by-jowl with luxury apartments.
The Vivid Festival and its crowd-drawing light displays of the early winter are over. The City feels like my own again, free from the frenetic tourists ogling Sydney through their camera lenses.
Sometimes it’s so easy to forget that I was once a stranger here too. I have walked these streets so much. It seems as good a way of fitting in as any.
Someone said when I first learned my way about the City, ‘The trouble with Sydney is that they never planned the City. It just happens. Not like Melbourne where the streets are constructed neatly on a grid.’
Neat it certainly is not. The streets make tantalising patterns – dead-end T-junctions and avenues that would put any stranger through baptism by lost.
Where I stand, lines of governors make their way down to the Harbour: Macquarie and Phillip traversed by Hunter and King. Other intersecting streets denote historical significance: Bridge Street, where the bridge of the Tank River was located, and Spring Street, location of the fresh water source that clinched Arthur Phillip’s decision to settle on Sydney Cove. Near Circular Quay Station, Young Street (descriptive) makes a T-junction with Alfred Street (in honour of Queen Victoria’s consort).
Back up the hill, scattered through the block behind me, are landmark streets named after the buildings they house: St Mary’s Road gives a clue as to where the Cathedral is located; Art Gallery Road gives a fair idea of how to approach the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Conservatorium Road – in case people wonder about the castle-like structure on the corner of Macquarie and Bridge Streets.
Not long ago I took Mum to see the exhibition Lady and the Unicorn. She told me that rather than getting off at St James Station, exiting the Macquarie Street tunnel, and cutting through the Sydney Eye Hospital and the Domain, it would be simpler to walk to Museum Station. It turned out that to do so, we had to take some back roads close to the dogleg between Macquarie and College Streets, and cut by St James Avenue by way of Hyde Park, that would take us back to our original starting point. ‘You can walk down the middle of Hyde Park to Museum Station if you want, of course,’ a friendly gallery staff member told us. Mum realised how deceptive this part of the City could be. The best way to get around is to navigate by its landmarks.
The wide boulevard of Martin Place (just one block down from Macquarie and Hunter) is Sydney’s best attempt at grid planning. From Macquarie Street, one can walk down the hill to Phillip, Elizabeth, Castlereagh, Pitt, and finally George. Elizabeth, which I thought referred to the present queen, turned to be Mrs Macquarie. Castlereagh and Pitt were British figures in the nineteenth century, and George was King at the beginning of the colony.
It’s a familiar pattern repeated elsewhere. In Parramatta, the fast-growing capital of Western Sydney, the streets are laid out in much the same way – give or take some rejigging, add in Argyle Street. The South-West capital Liverpool also bears more than a passing resemblance to this grid in Sydney proper.
Martin himself was Sir James Martin, one of the first generation to be born to British parents in Australia, and a keen advocate for the upper classes to earn their places on merit rather than bloodlines. Not much of a progressive by today’s standards. I suppose one has to start somewhere. Today, Martin Place symbolises a meeting between government and the businesses that have their premises there. A memorial on the corner of Phillip Street marks the event of the Lindt Café Siege in 2014.
From the bottom of Martin Place, I take a stroll down George Street to the corner of King Street, where the Apple store is. Beyond George, the streets honour the names of the King’s sons: the dukes of York, Clarence, Sussex and Kent. These make up the bones of Sydney’s central business district.
At the terminus of King Street, where land meets sea, is the King Street Wharf. Long past its original function as commercial port, nowadays it’s a collection of venues whose business come from tourism, retail, residential and maritime developments. It runs along the eastern shore of Darling Harbour.
Sir Ralph Darling doesn’t have a street named after him in the inner sanctum of the City. But his name can be found in every type of topography – Darling Harbour, Darlinghurst (an inner-City suburb), Darling River, Darling Point.
A couple of years ago I took a guided tour around Circular Quay. The guide spoke at length about the disputed monument of the First Landing. The place is now the best Sydney offers by way of tourism. Each day, a babble of tongues is heard moving through the most beautiful harbour in the world. Also noticeable are the photo sessions – the endless attempts to capture both of Sydney’s most photographed icons: The Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. To those who’ve morphed into locals, it’s the Australian Dictionary of Biography, not the street maps, that reveals the stories shaping the litany of Sydney streets.
Down the veins of Sydney’s CBD are crowds of names commemorating colonialists of some import: Forbes, Bourke, Gibbs, Dumaresq, Wentworth and others. Also included are names of politicians who never set foot in Australia. I discovered this when reading a novel about magicians’ renaissance in Regency England. Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, helpfully plotted how the subjects met with the government of the day: Lords Liverpool, Castlereagh, Goulburn and Bathurst. They contemplated raising the dead Mr Pitt and curing the madness of King George.
A common practice of British colonialisation was to transplant place names from the Isles. Hence to find a place on Google maps, it’s best to specify the region of the world that it’s in. Before location tracking, restaurants in Oxford St, Sydney are placed on the same page as their counterparts in London. Bangor and Menai in South-West Sydney originated in North Wales, whilst Swansea and Cardiff, names from South Wales, are found 150 kilometres to the north in the Newcastle region.
I used to find travelling in London disorienting. The places jumbled. Hyde Park, which in Sydney is flanked by the Museum and St James stations, is nowhere near St James Park in London. Paddington, which in Sydney is notable for not having a train station, is, in London, a major railway exchange.
Streets ought to give a sense of continuity. But what makes the inner sanctum of Sydney such a confusing place is its number of discontinuous streets; the T-junctions. Market Street, aptly named for the Westpoint shopping complex, ends on Elizabeth Street while King Street, from the wharfs, terminates at Queen Square, where the law court buildings stand. This corner currently plays host to the construction site of King & Phillip, a residential project, whose advertisements promise to be a marriage of unparalleled city living with scenic parkland surrounds. Its first release of apartments apparently reached over $250,000,000 in sales.
Streets give an illusion of permanence; their concrete slabs and rows of buildings fixed addresses with immutable histories. In fact, streets change names, open or close off, and disappear altogether. Sydney is unique in that it grows without plan or direction. In their stroll around town, Dr Shirley Fitzgerald and Dr Lisa Murray discussed the difficulty of reading old maps of Sydney, because it has gone through more changes than any other city in Australia. Lanes and rows bear the names of people who owned them and altered them while they changed hands. Names disappear when ideas transform. Councils control duplications for the sake of posties.
Sometimes we forget that streets are ways: a tract of passing as well as the act of passage. If there is an obvious part of the story that has been missing, it’s what lies beneath.
I am sitting in the Thomas Keneally Centre, a few blocks down from the Pitt Street Mall, listening to the author dispersing advice on the writing process. The Centre houses his extensive library; framed letters include one he received from the Eritrean dictator before the latter’s worst acts. Keneally speaks over the top of the accompanying building works.
I note wryly that this sound could surely be heard in scores of other buildings across Sydney. In the last few years, the droning has become ubiquitous. There are two types of drones: a long, drawn-out vibration on the mid-range Hertz, and a high-pitched drone reminiscent of the dentist’s drill. From time to time, there is a loud rat-tat-tat sequence. Once they enter my attention’s radar, it’s impossible to shut them out.
I walk through deafening noise and Martin Place one December evening. The King & Phillip project is in full swing. Bound by the strange law that could land them in contempt for disturbing local court proceedings, the construction relegates most of its noisy works to evenings or weekends. On the other side of Martin Place, performing a Bach oratorio, we do our best to ignore the grinding noise coming from deep underground. It feels like a scene from the Nibelungen.
Another aspect of Sydney life that is rarely mentioned is the construction barriers. On my way to the Thomas Keneally Centre, I worked out the route in my head: get off at Town Hall Station, take the Druitt Street Exit, cross George Street and walk down Park Street. The place is somewhere around the Pitt Street block. If I hit Bathurst Street, I know I’ve come too far. What I forgot to calculate was the time it would take getting through the roadblock on George Street. It’s not as if they are new things. Sydney has been ‘under construction’ since 2015. Barriers – temporary ones marked by witches hats and railings, as well as semi-permanent fibro half-walls – are as much part of the City as cafés.
A city’s future is in the hands and minds of its citizens. In the case of Sydney, it’s the dream to own a patch of one’s own, along with better transport, better roads. Time, after all, does not wallow in the past. We must look to the future. So goes the rhetoric of our time.
My old singing teacher owns a painting that captures how her Peermont home used to look, before the place mushroomed into harbour-viewed, high-rise apartments. The artist who painted it specialises in portraying places that are about to change. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of that painter. There’s a tree in her painting, unremembered except in this piece of art. As with every major project, trees are the first casualty.
So, it falls to those who’d remember: archivists and historians working in the diminishing storage space too unattractive for rent, or the living commemorators, of which I am one.
For years, I am involved in the St James King Street music ministry. The church is renowned for commemorations – of anything like the time Sydney was part of the Sea of Calcutta, to war remembrance, to NAIDOC celebrations. There is a hymn we sing when marking any event to do with Australia, that has now become an anchor in my journey:
People from the ancient dreaming,
They who found this country first,
Ask with those, the later-comers,
Will our dream be blessed or cursed?
Most public events in Sydney’s CBD are opened with the words: ‘We acknowledge the elders past and present of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, upon whose ancestral land this [insert place name] stands.’ With this in mind, I head back to Circular Quay. I want to talk to the Indigenous buskers who perform there on the weekends.
Dave and Max’s performances often form the highlight of tourists’ Sydney sojourns. Dave, who plays the didgeridoo, is Ku-ring-gai. His traditional lands are north of the Bridge. Max, who joins Dave with clapsticks, is from Western New South Wales, beyond the Great Dividing Range. I ask what was here before. Dave responds, ‘trees.’
It’s such an obvious answer that I can’t help but feel disappointed by the anticlimax. Obligingly, Dave tells me more. ‘It was a hunting ground of the Gadigal. You know where Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is? That used to be holy stones.’ The Chair refers to a hand-carved sandstone where Mrs Macquarie, the Elizabeth of Elizabeth Street, used to sit watching the Harbour. Dave’s tone is casual. He doesn’t present a grudge. His mission is to provide a way for those who want to learn about Country. It fills me with sadness. On the face of his acceptance, I can’t find anything to say that doesn’t sound glib.
I walk a short way up George Street, imagining the streets as groves of trees. Here where traffic buzzes, buildings stand and Sunday-afternoon crowds swirl aimlessly. It’s a futile exercise. After all, to quote Malcolm Turnbull, ‘this is the real capital of Australia,’ home to over five million people. From this view, it’s prospering. The testament is in the half-finished constructions. But there’s a way to still get a sense of what was.
With guides from Achilles, I go on a bushwalk in the Royal National Park. An hour south of the City, the Park is the closest thing this City has to ‘wilderness’. But it’s threaded with walking trails, landmarks and other bushwalkers. Boulders are strewn along the path we’ve chosen to walk: the Heathcote track to Karloo Pool. It feels uncannily like walking along a dry river bed. There are tree roots so thick they act like retaining walls. I poke for stones at the bottom with my hiking stick. They are ankle-rollers. I am part of a party of four, all of us newcomers, marvelling at theland.
Back in the inner sanctum, the oldest living inhabitant is a Forest Red Gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis) that stands in the Royal Botanic Garden, not far from Macquarie Street. In his book The New Nature, biologist Tim Low describes the tree in poetic terms: ‘She’s a stand-out example of Sydney’s original architecture, with no plaque to tell her story and no rail to guard her dignity.’ The book was written in 2002. Things have changed since. But it’s still a testament to the author’s point: ‘many an old story is writ in wood.’ In the end, this is what I’ve come to. Here stands a silent witness amid the violence and affluence that are the pillars of the City.
Note: the verse by Michael and Carrol Thwaites quoted in this piece has been altered to reflect contemporary preferred wording: dreaming, not dreamtime