Every time I come to Sydney, I understand it less. The streets are more confusing, the construction louder, the traffic meaner, noisier and more dangerous. The poverty sicker, the decay more rife, the wealth more rampant, the messes larger and more ingrained.
But I think I get it now – it’s supposed to be like that.
In Brisbane, we see a problem and we fix it, or rather we knock it down and build a road or a block of flats on it. In Sydney, when they have a problem they just go around it, and wait a hundred years. It’s a very old European approach, appropriate for a city that never quite escaped the 19th century, and doesn’t ever intend to. And the result is confusion, is a kind of madness, and that’s the point. It doesn’t work, but it endures, and you get by anyway, and maybe eventually you get into the rhythm of it. You learn to appreciate the jungle, instead of wishing you were back in the zoo.
That’s the best analogy. In Brisbane, we keep everything nice and segregated and peaceful. Cars over there, people over there, and only very rarely do they meet. Our roads are wide and straight and lead far away down glistening highways to other vistas; Sydney’s roads snarl inwards and around and lead to dead ends and piazzas and trafic jams we would never tolerate up north. Your first reaction is to recoil in fear, to never own a car, to never drive through the madness, nor even try to cross a road if you have to. Even after coming here so often, I still forget and dart back from the roads and the fierce honks and darting motions of the hungry cars. But you learn, eventually, that that’s just the way. Here, unlike the quiet north, predator and prey live side by side, and we all drink at the same waterhole. A little nervously, sure. but with an understanding. It’s not safe, but it’s social. It’s not quiet, but it’s not silent either. The rich devour the poor, the cars devour the people and the roads devour the cars and the houses devour the roads and the houses devour each other to get to the harbour, but if you can stand the violence of it all, it’s a living system. Desperately, savagely alive. And in any kind of comparison, Brisbane is dead as a corpse.
The difference between the two cities is the difference between the dead and the dying, which is all the difference in the world. The dead are inert, staid, and dull; the dying thrashing, wild, passionate, terrifying, violent, ugly, brutal and disturbing – and alive, so very, very alive.
If you took West End and crossed it with Chinatown Mall, and made it 5am on a Saturday night which is also New Years Eve, you’d get for just a second how alive Sydney is, all the time, almost everywhere. And how different and strange and ever-moving. You see more cultures, more lifestyles, more types of people in a walk through the city then in a hundred years in Brisbane, and it doesn’t fade as you go out. I once remarked that Sydney’s CBD is what you always imagine New York would be like, but it isn’t. In the same way, King Street, from Redfern to Newtown, is what you always wish Portobello Road would be like, and it isn’t anymore. It’s good then, for those of us with too-vivid imaginations, that we have Sydney instead, and we can walk down King St, as I did today, and see that kaleidoscope and chaos, to see enough communities with enough identities to actually clash, or at least bump against each other and move back into the turbulent stream.
Sure, there was a point where the junk stores turned into antique stores, and then into retro stores. The flophouses gave way to student digs and then to fix-them-ups. But the line was never clear, and sometimes, it happened in the very same store, or house. The seedy end was full of nervous trans ladies drinking tinnies and the better end full of new gay dads having coffee but the food was all the same and the churches inbetween were full to bursting. Schools sit a block from brothels, but both were empty because there was too much to do on a Sunday. The city was the wilds, but King Street is the waterhole, and everything is permissible, weird and straight, poor and – well, middle class. The rich by any logical standard. The very wealthy were elsewhere, having won by leaving the jungle. But everyone else was still here, still amongst it.
They say God drinks at the Sando – the old Sandringham Pub – but that might just be because they let anyone in there – or because he knows he can get a seat, because few come back. It’s dying, and they’re trying to save it, according to the rally in the park I walked through, but I’m told they’re always trying to save it because it’s always dying. Welcome to Sydney – still alive but dying. Dying – but still alive. So alive. And coming out swinging, throwing punches to the stars with broken, bloody fists. Not done until the fat lady stops singing, and she’s got an opera house to fill.