Sydney Harbour’s Bays Precinct – watch that (huge) space

Last month I took advantage of the public open day at the Bays Precinct – White Bay and Glebe Island specifically – in Sydney’s inner western harbour and went for a walk by the water. That area has been the heart of Sydney Harbour’s working waterfront since the mid-19th century. An abattoir at Glebe Island in the 1860s was followed by timber yards, boatyards, and a coal gas works. In the 20th came ever bigger things – the White Bay power station, huge grain silos and, later, a coal loader and deep water long-shore wharf front that accommodated containers, bulk carriers, tankers and car carriers.

The Stolt Vanguard chemical tanker at White Bay in April 2015 with power station behind, Photo by Ian Hoskins
The Stolt Vanguard chemical tanker at White Bay in April 2015 with power station behind, Photo by Ian Hoskins

Seven years ago, as I was writing my history of Sydney Harbour, the sight of thousands of vehicles parked on the concrete apron beside the harbour awaiting delivery by truck to yards around the city raised several questions in my mind, among them: Was there a better use of waterfront? What would happen to the ‘muscular’ working harbour if this commercial use ended?

It only dawned on me after finishing the book that the Y-shaped configuration of bays – White, Rozelle and Blackwattle – form an extraordinary inner waterway within the larger harbour. This could be such a vibrant mixed use ‘lake’ which might even see a revitalisation of the harbour as a means of transit and possibly maintain a vestige of the working harbour.

The departure of the last ‘roll on, roll-off’ [RORO] car carrier at White Bay in November 2008 prompted rumination about the loss of the harbour’s soul. It seemed that the writing for the working harbour was on the wall. The container terminal at nearby East Darling Harbour had just closed. The high density residential development, Jackson’s Landing, was underway on the old Colonial Sugar Refinery site at Pyrmont opposite. The White Bay Power Station had been redundant for years.

Storage silos on Glebe Island with Anzac Bridge behind. Photo by Ian Hoskins
Storage silos on Glebe Island with Anzac Bridge behind. Photo by Ian Hoskins

My recent walk by the Bay – seven years after the ROROs had left – impressed upon me that the working harbour is not quite dead. There was a large chemical tanker berthed at White Bay and cement is still being stored at Glebe Island. A new cruise ship terminal has just been completed to cater for small top-end and domestic liners.

Because this area was refitted in the second half of the 20th century, there is none of the fine-grained waterfront of Walsh Bay where finger wharves survive to maintain texture and wonderful scale in the new guise as cultural and residential precinct. The open space at White Bay is vast and waiting to be filled. Redeveloping the area is a huge opportunity to produce something wonderful; or something very wrong. When there is nothing little that is layered or organic – ie developed over time – the master plan has to be extraordinary. The ever-increasing bulk of Barangaroo does not augur well. Hopefully UrbanGrowth NSW, which is the government instrumentality overseeing the Bays redevelopment and several other huge Sydney projects, has learned something from that process.

White Bay Power Station and vacant land, April 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins
White Bay Power Station and vacant land, April 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins

The upside of the wind-up of the working waterfronts is that public access to the harbour is improved. The downside is the potential transformation of a busy waterway, with all the interest and excitement that goes with that, into a pleasure pond which is largely empty during the week and full of yachts on the weekend. Along with the oil tankers that continue to dock at Gore Cove, the large vessels arriving and departing from White Bay add working texture to a waterway that has lost so much of that. The retention of waterfront jobs is far less an issue because there are relatively few workers needed at White Bay.

The Port Authority of NSW, who manage the facility, are keen that this work be maintained alongside greater public access to the waterfront. It will be fascinating to see how that is achieved. And a good thing if it is done successfully. There are many, myself included, who would regret the passing of the last remaining parts of the working harbour.

But although there has been much anguish expressed over the shrinking working harbour, those sites and upmarket residential waterfronts mix about as well as oil and water. Security and safety make access to working sites difficult while, noise, pollution and heavy traffic offend the sensibilities of those who regard the area as home rather than a workplace. This has been the case in the Harbour’s working west since gentrification began apace in the 1980s. The prospect and realisation of the new cruise terminal has caused angst in neighbouring Balmain for years now.

The question of how many people will live in the wider Bays Precinct has already prompted suspicion. In November 2014 the State Treasurer, Andrew Constance, suggested as many as 16,000 people would be accommodated there, pre-empting the results of a masterplan and community consultation. It is ‘essential’, he said, ‘that UrbanGrowth captures a fair return on the value of the Government’s land assets and commensurate with their development potential’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 2014).

At exactly the same time, UrbanGrowth was convening an ‘International Summit’ of 71 experts – planners, architects and politicians for the most part – which arrived at a set of 20 principles. These say all the right things about sustainability, liveability and transparency. One of the 20 is diverse housing which I’d like to think includes affordable housing – so that this vast 80 hectares doesn’t become simply another prohibitively expensive and exclusive enclave. I love visiting Walsh Bay but I am aware that the lower income population that called that area home for over a century are now invisible on the waterfront (one or two rod fishers aside) and the present Government is determined to remove the last vestige of their presence from nearby Millers Point public housing.

Walsh Bay finger wharf, 2014. Photo by Ian Hoskins
Walsh Bay finger wharf, 2014. Photo by Ian Hoskins

Remarkably enough the very first of the 20 principles is to ‘build on’ of the ‘unique’ history and heritage of the area. Given the strange absence of any historians in the select 71 that is heartening. It suggests that the huge Power Station that sits in a wonderfully picturesque state of decay will be reused in some way. That will be a challenge for I really can’t see it working as a ‘museum’ – the most-common off-the-cuff solution to its obsolescence. Our present set of collecting institutions are having trouble enough keeping their heads above water, so to speak.

White Bay Power Station, 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins
White Bay Power Station, 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins

It is still relatively early days. There is public consultation planned – see – and have your say.

I share the scepticism of many that the Sydney property market is the ‘magic pudding’ that can deliver equity with the proceeds of leasing or selling public land. I suspect it is hoped that it can at least underpin some of the 20 ‘International Summit’ principles. But chasing top market dollar may undermine those very principles.

View the principles at UrbanGrowth NSW.


Solastalgia, Sunset Strip and losing my local DVD store

I’ve just watched Hans Fjellestad’s 2012 documentary Sunset Strip – a good exploration of that famous Hollywood thoroughfare otherwise known as Sunset Boulevarde. There are plenty of rock stars reminiscing and a lot of salacious detail. One theme that emerged for me was the paradoxical relationship between change and stasis.

The Strip has changed dramatically since the first club was built. Each entertainment epoch has risen and fallen with consequences to the look of the thoroughfare. But its extraordinary role as a place transformed from a rural road to somewhere where excess was largely tolerated throughout from the speak-easies of the 1920s through to the next century. Police crackdowns in the late 1960s notwithstanding, it seemed that the Strip was a place of perpetual carnivalesque inversion.

Keanu Reeves referred to it as a ‘sacred place’ with resonances of the past still present. However, many with some regret at the people and styles that have followed their own heyday – thinking perhaps that the essence they cherished has been lost.

One event that had an impact on many was the closure of Tower Records around 2006. The building was a landmark that defined the Strip, and the music it made available was pivotal to the culture of visitors. Technology it seems had moved and people were no longer buying CDs in the volumes necessary to keep the huge outlet open.

I watched Sunset Strip on DVD rather than by download rental. The transience of that tangible technology (ie a disc rather than a digital stream) and the reality of lost places became weirdly convergent almost immediately afterwards when I popped up to the local DVD rental store, Network Video+DVD in Sydney’s inner west. The staff told me store would close in a month or so. Their whole library was being sold. People were streaming from home not coming in to borrow. Faced with that I bought some documentaries I would not find easily on-line.

Network Video at Stanmore, March 2015 photograph by Ian Hoskins
Network Video, Stanmore, March 2015, photograph by Ian Hoskins

Network is one of the only DVD rental stores left in Sydney. It has long been the best with an extraordinary stock and great staff (including the genial and knowledgeable Charlie who could pass for David Crosby’s twin). For this reason I thought it would live on indefinitely, providing a service to a niche but viable demand in a big city where such things should be possible. The apparent incontestable logic of the market has dictated otherwise.

The news was upsetting. Network Video+DVD, as the name suggests, has been there a long time – it predates the digital age and my arrival in the area. It is an institution, and its demise will sadden many, for Network disseminated culture and connected people in a way not dissimilar to the local municipal library. DVDs, like books, can be discovered on a shelf in a way they usually are not by browsing a catalogue. Were the store to be replaced by homes, it’s loss would be easier to accept for Sydney is in the grip of a perpetual housing crisis. But it seems that the Network site will become another liquor outlet – evidence that the market isn’t always ‘right’, as if that wasn’t already clear.

The connection between the sense of loss and place has interested me for a long time because I feel it so often and hear it expressed by so many others. At its simplest it might be dismissed as ‘remember the good old days’ nostalgia, something I can find annoying and try to circumvent in my own reactions. There was a bit of this in the Sunset Strip memories.

As an historian I’m also aware that there is some relativity about profound feelings of loss. Change has been a part of ‘Western Society’ for a long time. The poet Henry Lawson decried the ‘brand new throng’ who were displacing his local community back in 1909 – a time we now look on as one that was surely slower and conducive to close knit community. Indeed this sense has affected people for centuries. Oliver Goldsmith’s lamentation ‘The Deserted Village’ was written in 1770.

But capitalism is dynamic – indeed ever more so since Goldsmith’s time. Places are disappearing or altered and damaged more quickly than ever. Environmental change intertwined with economics is increasing the pace. Change is now so fast it is hard to maintain orientation and perspective; so Australian academic Glenn Albrecht has identified a new malaise, ‘solastalgia’, a homesickness one feels while still at home – such is the swirl that envelopes us. It has, he argues, implications for mental health and social cohesion.

Given the profundity of the forces involved, this all seems irreversible but Glenn clings to optimism: ‘as recognition of the damage that degraded and desolated environments do to our mental health increases, it is possible that we can respond more effectively to simultaneously restore mental and ecosystem health.’ I hope so. In the meantime I guess I’ll be watching fewer DVDs.

There is an introduction to Glenn’s ideas with specific reference to climate change at ‘The Conversation’.


Deciphering church buildings

It being nearly Christmas, some may be considering things loftier than the usual splurge on gifts and food. My mind was turned to religious architecture again during a recent wander around Armidale in northern New South Wales – a country centre with two fine cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) and a very handsome Presbyterian Church adjacent to the retail centre.

St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins
St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins

I often tell those who come on my guided walks around North Sydney that architecture provides the  most accessible way of comprehending the material culture of past generations. Unlike clothing, cars or other forms of technology, the structures of the past are still all about us.

Few buildings wear the ideological intent of the architect or owner more clearly than places of worship and their associated structures. These were literally built to express and evoke religious sentiment. And what I find especially fascinating is that, despite the apparent immutability of the truths presented in them, buildings erected by the various Christian churches in Australia reflect changing architectural fashion and thought just as non-sacred structures do.

Gothic architecture, in its various forms, was the dominant mode of sacred expression in this country through the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not surprising given that the consolidation of British occupation of the Australian colonies coincided with the revival of the Gothic in the ‘mother country’. Americans, by contrast, were far more willing to erect a church that looked like a Greek or Roman temple, something that would have appalled John Ruskin for whom classicism was synonymous with paganism.

The spiritual message of much Gothic architecture is clear. Cathedral spires and pinnacles reach for the heavens. Even in their absence the pointed arch window directs one’s gaze, and hopefully thoughts, upwards. Then, of course, in Catholic and some Anglican churches there is the obvious iconography apparent in statues and stained glass windows.

All this is very apparent with St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Armidale. It was designed in 1910-11 by the firm Sherrin and Hennessey who did a huge amount of work for the Catholic Church at the time. Heavenly thoughts are conveyed to all who enter or pass by with the spire, pinnacles and pantheon of saints.

The Cathedral is built of brick rather than stone, as was the case with many Federation-era Gothic churches. In this instance the construction also shows off the characteristic local light and dark bricks and the polychromatic brickwork of the prolific local builder, GF Nott. St Mary and Joseph’s looks like it belongs in Armidale because of this localism.

The extravagant expression of Gothicism was pared back during the first half of the 20th century by the impact of Modernism, which celebrated mass production and tended to eschew ornamentation. Accordingly the celebration of the craft of the carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, so apparent in earlier Gothic structures, was muted and then lost altogether.

Cathedral Hall, built 1938, photograph by Ian Hoskins
Cathedral Hall, built 1938. Photo by Ian Hoskins

This move to austerity is so apparent in the ‘Cathedral Hall’ that was built by Armidale’s Catholics near the sublime structure from which it gets its name. It is clearly a building that has been designed rather than simply erected as a functional shelter. The Gothic ancestry is referenced by the stylised battlements on the bay front. The decision to leave the grey concrete render unpainted seems to be part of the original intent of the architect or builder. There is a grimness about it that may reflect the impact of the Great Depression, just past when the place was built. Possibly cost was an issue. To me it also expresses an age when totalitarian ideas were in conflict with democracy and the Catholic Church was trying to find its place within this turmoil. But was arrival at the Cathedral Hall meant to uplift and express hope in the future through its modernity? Or was the bleakness an attempt to cower a congregation and secure their allegiance? Either way, for such as small building, it is amazingly affecting.






The meaning of trees

Two things have got me thinking again about the meaning of trees. The first was the trip to New England NSW I have mentioned in the previous two blogs. There trees are hard to ignore. They stand in stark lines across sheep pastures. They clump around dwellings. They form avenues, glow with autumn colour or dot the grassland as contorted grey trunks, ringbarked years ago or killed by die-back.

Poplars and willows north of Armidale
Poplars and willows north of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

The second was re-reading Michael Pembroke’s really beautiful book Trees of History and Romance: Essays from a Mount Wilson Garden, in which the horticulture and cultural history of 21 types of exotic trees – those that grow in the author’s mountain garden – are outlined.

This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place
This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place just south of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

My postgraduate work on public parks and the symbolism of flora, twenty or so years ago, made me very aware of the historical ambivalence of many non-indigenous Australians to the vegetation of the country they took from the first people. ‘The invaders hated trees’ was WK Hancock’s unequivocal summation. Writing in 1930, he was responding to more than a century of de-afforestation. By then, the Big Scrub, that once covered 75,000 hectares around the northern rivers of NSW, had all but disappeared. Such was its size and so sanguine were newcomers that they estimated the forest would last 600 years. Hancock saw it all as the hollow triumph of the ‘greed’ and ‘ignorance’ of a ‘transplanted’ people. (WK Hancock, Australia, [1930], 1945, pp.30-33)

Of course the ‘transplanted’ did not hate all trees. In time, they actually came to celebrate the endemic flora.  The golden wattle, for instance, would be embraced as a symbol of a nation – albeit a golden-haired, white one. Painter Hans Heysen and photographer Harold Cazneaux both elevated the maligned Eucalypt to the status of icon emblematic of the tenacious pioneer.

And the ‘transplanted’ people brought with them attitudes to trees that were deeply ‘rooted’ (the puns are telling and intentional) in British and wider European culture. They transplanted exotic species out of affection and practical familiarity.

The Elm avenue at Gostwyk station, Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2014

It is interesting to wonder then what prompted the Dangar family, owners of Gostwyck sheep station on the New England plateau, to plant 200 English Elm trees (Ulmus procera) to create a grand avenue that would impress visitors coming to their big home. They were almost certainly aware of the use of Elms on coffins and ships’ hulls. But more so through English verse and painting, the Elm was synonymous with the working countryside – an association that a landed family of ‘improvers’ in ‘New England’ would be keen to promote. The Elms were planted sometime after the family felt it had consolidated its holding in the wake of the 1861 Selection Act which threatened to break up the vast properties taken up by squatters in earlier years. Gostwyck was established in 1836.

Elsewhere on the plateau there are stands of Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) – huge trees at least 100 years old planted obviously as wind-breaks in pastures and around dwellings because their needles so effectively block moving air. These are North American trees but in the England of the late 18th and 19th centuries, conifers were increasingly planted on estates because they could flourish in the thin soil of moors that were being enclosed and thereby acquired by the landed. They were, then, widely known among the newcomers and were as emblematic as the Elm or Oak. In Australia, also, the shape and colouring of the pine was easily distinguished from that of the native flora. I think they must also have served as landmarks for those returning to home after working in the bush or pasture.

A stand of Radiata Pines around a building site, near Gostwyk station, Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

So when I see a stand of Pines, as opposed to a wind-breaking line, I wonder whether they once enclosed a home. Their presence in such formations is so clearly part of a cultural landscape. Like Gostwyck’s avenue of Elms, these Pines are evidence of the shaping intent of newcomers. But where the former speak of the permanence of the occupiers, empty Pine groves indicate their departure. Sometimes those stories can be recovered, often we can only imagine.



Hunting for local history treasures

It is not easy finding good second hand bookshops in regional areas – at least not in my recent experience in NSW. For me an indicator of something special is the range of local history carried – books and monographs that are specific to the area and that one might not find elsewhere.

Armidale and surrounds are an exception; almost certainly because the town has a University of long standing and high repute – the University of New England – and there have long been good researchers and writers in the Armidale and District Historical Society.

There are two good bookshops there. The first, Burnett’s Books, has been in the beautiful little town of Uralla (20 minutes south of Armidale) for at least a decade. That place is worth a visit in its own right because of the new boutique brewery, McCrossins Mill Local Museum and the Uralla Wool Room (the latter is owned by my sister – so I should add a disclaimer).

My nicest find in Burnett’s was a 1960 edition of The Australian Legend signed by the author. Russel Ward, of course, taught at the University of New England and completed that foundational study of Australian identity there in 1957/1958 when it was published. So my volume is not quite a 1st Edition but it’s signature and location give it a very nice provenance and proximity to the author.DSCN5913

Another discovery had both local associations and relevance to the Sydney Harbour history I was writing at the time. That was Nancy Keesing’s Garden Island People in mint condition published by the Wentworth Press in 1975 but signed by the author and dedicated to Russel Ward in 1983.

That trawl also produced Laurence Le Guay’s Sydney Harbour, a photographic work from 1966 (the year I arrived in Sydney Harbour as a boy in a boat!) with a great preface by Kenneth Slessor.

Burnett’s has some gems but don’t go there expecting conversation. Despite my many purchases I rarely get a hello – it is at the ‘Black Books’ end of the spectrum for those familiar with that comedy series.DSCN5914 At the friendly end is Boobooks in Armidale itself. I visited their new premises the other week fired up with a need to find out more about local history because of a couple of drives through the surrounding grazing land that left me breathless with its beauty (see my previous blog-post).

It was a fruitful visit. Sitting on top of a new acquisitions table was RB Walker’s Old New England – a 1st Edition from 1966 by Sydney University Press in mint condition. And a great read.

Down in the local history section was another 1st Edition; this one EJ Banfield’s Last Leaves from Dunk Island. There is very little literature about the Australian coast before the post-war period and the poetry of John Blight and a few others. Robert Drewe and Tim Winton were pioneers of a genre as late as the 1980s.

The temptation to get this volume because of my interest in the coast increased when I saw in a child’s hand the dedication to ‘Daddy’ followed by the names Judith, Bruce and Peter. There, too, was the original Armidale bookseller’s stamp.


The Wrights were a prominent local family. A quick consultation of the online Australian Dictionary of Biography confirmed my hunch that this was Judith Wright’s Christmas present to her father – probably chosen by her and on behalf of her younger brothers. The datDSCN5911e ‘1925’ means the gift was likely prompted by the family’s recent cruise north to SE Asia, taken as a last attempt to improve her mother’s health. Ethel Wright died the following year and the young Judith was devastated. Last Leaves is double the treasure because of its provenance.