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I recently had a holiday break at a favourite coastal place near Jervis Bay. It was one of the spots that got me thinking about the history of our coast a decade or so ago after many stays.

Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

Like most other places within three hours of Sydney, this little town is now well and truly on the holiday map for city folk so, by the time I got around to organising things, it was impossible to rent anything in the streets that I’m familiar with – wide ones with big blocks and old relaxed fibro.

But staying in a different part of town gave me another insight into the place. For the first time I was down on the main entry thoroughfare. My rental was a small bungalow – probably original fibro but reclad out front and so ‘coastified’ within it was a bit like a inhabiting a mini theme park. There were framed surf photographs from the Australia’s ‘longboard days’, not one but two longboards squeezed in as decorations, various bits of ‘word art’ telling me to ‘relax’ and so much artfully arranged driftwood and shell that it was difficult to find a spot for sun cream and keys.

White Australia’s collective love affair with the coast is, I have argued, only a little over a century old. But within that timeframe there are enough generations of accumulated memory to generate an aesthetic of somewhat mawkish nostalgia both generic in its bleached beachiness and specific in its references to the history of Australian surfing.

Judging by the amount of mowing and edging going on around my little shrine to modern coast culture, I guessed this was the centre of the owner-occupied - rather than rented – part of town.

The intensity of the grass trimming was intriguing, even if the noise was incessant. I was immediately reminded of Allan Ashbolt’s pessimistic portrayal of Australian suburban life which appeared in the literary journal Meanjin in 1966, part of a symposium called ‘Godzone’ exploring aspects of ‘God’s own country’ as Australia was sometimes described:

Behold the man - the Australian of today – on Sunday morning in the suburbs, when the high decibel drone of the motor-mower is call the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor mower beside him in the wilderness - what more does he want to sustain him.

Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

Ashbolt was a man of the intellectual left. For him the lawn mower was, in effect, the intrusive machine in the Edenic garden of Australian radicalism. Like the surburbia it helped to maintain, the mower reflected a deadening quest for conformity and respectability that was consuming Australian working ‘men’. It, and the gardens it created, sat counter to the labour movement led reform that had made this country one of the world’s most progressive societies - in class terms at least. The ‘motor-mower’ was a manifestation of false consciousness.

The manicured lawn also annoyed a contemporary of Ashbolt, the architect and social commentator Robin Boyd – but for aesthetic and cultural rather than political reasons. In his classic 1960 jeremiad, Australian Ugliness, Boyd wrote despairingly that ‘progress is measured by the number of acres transformed from the native state of sloppiness [ie natural bush] to the desirable state of clipped artificiality’. Boyd used the term arboraphobia to describe the contemporary attitude to native vegetation echoing, in turn, the blunt observations of historian WK Hancock who in 1930 wrote that white Australians ‘hated trees’.

Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

In recent decades the Australian suburb has been embraced by a less judgmental intelligentsia who see creativity and an authentic democratic culture expressed there. In terms of gardening there could be a degree of nostalgia here too. For the new suburbs of Sydney, at least, pay little heed to the need for private gardens. Bloated houses spread over as much of their respective blocks as planning laws permit. Shrubs are a low maintenance ‘designer’ afterthought. So anyone nurturing or growing anything outdoors must be a good thing. In this context, the well-tended blocks of Ashbolt and Boyd’s suburbia, or indeed present-day south coast settlements, could be examples of ‘creative suburbs’.

I must admit, I felt the power of nostalgia as I sat and watched the passing parade from the front of my little ‘temple’. Not wistful for the trim gardens outside or the surfing past celebrated inside but for the casual freedom of this re-creation of old suburbia. This little town is a place where people ride bikes without helmets and where children roam unsupervised. I suspect my  nostalgia was shared by the parents who bring their offspring here to delight in letting them head off to make their own fun away from scrutiny and electronic devices – just as they did ‘back in the day’. In the context of contemporary life, this old ‘suburbia’ is an added attraction of the modern coast holiday.

Yet the apparent casualness sits at odds with the obsessive pursuit of neatness and all the effort and the noise generated to create it. So while I wince a little at the stridency of Ashbolt and Boyd’s attacks from on high, the starkness of the ‘clipped artificiality’ of these coast gardens is still bewildering.

Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
The threatening 'sloppiness' of the bush. Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

There is a sense of place reflected here. But it seems to be one in which manicured gardens and trim facades are constructed as psychological and perhaps real bulwarks against the surrounding native forest and heath – a buffer of order where all beyond is alien disorder just as Robin Boyd suggested. Stranger still is the prevalence of the cultivated plants that evoke other coasts; Cocos Island Palms, exotic Hibiscus from Hawaii and Pandanus from the north. This is a confounding relationship to place and beauty for it suggests a need to sit apart from one’s habitat rather than within it. There is a need to make this specific place – glorious though it is - conform to some generic postcard version of ‘coastiness’ just as the décor of my holiday house did.

I was awoken on the last day of my break by the high decibel drone of a 'whipper snipper' outside my bedroom window. It was wielded by the owner, clearly offended by a few wisps of grass and oblivious to the possible annoyance his noisy obsession might cause. It was a Sunday morning. Allan Ashbolt would have felt vindicated and I was decidedly not ‘relaxed’.

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I’ve been looking through my mess of newspaper cuttings on the Barangaroo development in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Eight years’ worth, minus a couple of articles that my rabbit chewed during a period of accidental incarceration in the study - he's a survivor. My incomplete archive of newsprint doesn’t quite extend back to the original design competition in 2006 but it gives a pretty good outline of the extraordinary convolutions in this project. If anything gives credence to the clichés about the fundamental connect between Sydney development and big money, Barangaroo is it.

Barangaroo from the water with headland park on the left and construction still underway on towers to the south. The Packer tower will sit between. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015
Barangaroo from the water. The northern end headland park with the doomed port control tower can be seen on the left. Construction is still underway on towers to the south. The much larger Packer tower will sit between - the city's tallest building. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015

Currently billionaire James Packer’s ‘unsolicited proposal’ for a 275 metre tall tower is being considered as Modification No. 8 - or just ‘Mod 8’ as it has become, shorthanded at the end of a growing list of alterations. The City of Sydney’s lengthy submission opposes the proposal in tight clear language that nonetheless conveys a sense of bewilderment at the ongoing ‘planning creep’ which has seen a hotel appear over the water (Mod 4), then disappear, then reappear in a much larger incarnation replete with casino and apartments – all encroaching upon public recreation space in the middle section of the project. Apparently this is part ‘concession’ to public complaints about a hotel built on the harbour and part ‘necessary’ adjustment for financial viability after the extraordinary push of the envelope four modifications earlier.

Packer has long argued that a high end casino is essential if Sydney is to compete for the growing Chinese tourist dollar. And apartments in this tower are estimated to sell for up to $100 million – figures that might also tempt the new Asian oligarchs. Concept drawings show a glass shard that would be at home on the waterfronts of Hong Kong or the Middle East where the display of wealth and power has complete sanction. Packer’s interest is, we are to assume, equal to the national interest.

There has been much talk about transparency throughout the planning of the place, but just how it came to this is still not clear to me.

That is the unfinished story of built Barangaroo which occupies the middle and southern end of the precinct. The tale of the ‘headland park’ to the north, on the other hand, is mostly over - it opened to the public on 24th August this year. But that, too, has been a drama. The original winning entry from a group led by Philip Thalis back in 2006 began with the idea that the existing shoreline, which was then a flat apron of concrete built to accommodate shipping containers in the late 1960s, was to be respected as an erstwhile working waterfront. There was green space, some of it tiered, but this was obviously a modified angular landscape.

The Thalis design was, however, superseded in both its landscaped and built elements in an opaque process that saw buildings get bigger and parkland rearranged, much to the disappointment of many. The Barangaroo Action Group was one manifestation of this discontent. It had formed by 2010 to protest the changes and encourage citizens to help ‘Stop the Plunder of Sydney Harbour’ by telling the Government to retain a plan for the place ‘in keeping with the originally approved concept’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 8-9 May 2010).

It was design enthusiast and former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who did most to alter the angular parkway so as to create a ‘naturalistic’ park. As Chair of the Barangaroo Design Excellence Review Panel that had apparently embraced the Thalis scheme, Keating nonetheless convinced the State Premier Morris Iemma to reinstate the headland that ‘man, through industrialisation, took away’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 9-10 August 2008). That was back in 2008. The new place was dubbed Barangaroo after the strong-willed Aboriginal woman described with rare clarity in colonial accounts; along with her husband Bennelong after whom the point which came to accommodate the Sydney Opera House was named. By intent or otherwise the two places were thereby related as dichotomous points on either side of Circular Quay – man/woman, husband/wife, culture/nature.

Keating continued to guide the park design despite resigning from the Review Panel in May 2011, furious at criticisms about process and scale from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whom he dismissed as the representative of ‘sandal-wearing muesli-chewing bike-riding pedestrians’ – self-evidently the most undeserving of constituencies (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2011). Upon the opening of the park in 2015, Keating argued that the resulting park would not have been possible within the confines of the planning process. It took his vision and ‘horsepower’. For that single-mindedness the Herald dubbed him ‘The lord of Barangaroo’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 22-23 August 2015).

Mr Keating is renowned for bold, and sometimes bizarre, hyperbole (by definition pedestrians don’t ride bikes). At the opening of the park in August this year he reportedly claimed that the newly landscaped space would Sydney's best example of a harbour headland 'before European settlement’ (Sun Herald, 23 August 2015). Allowing for the gradual growth of the trees and shrubs at Barangaroo – it is currently quite a stark park - that is an extraordinary prophecy. Barangaroo will never match the thick Angophora forests of Bradleys Head and Berry Island (now joined to the mainland to create a headland). Even Balls Head, the oldest plantings on which only date back to the 1930s, is more indicative of the pre-colonial foreshore. Though the jury seems to be out on the extent of Aboriginal burning - 'firestick farming' - around the Harbour, controlled burning at Balls Head and on Berry Island has approximated any pre-European landscape subjected to such a regime.

The Reserve is, in fact, a highly structured landscape. It is obviously terraced and the foreshore is lined with square cut blocks of sandstone, albeit stone obtained from the site. The waterline of the Point does now resemble the earliest charted foreshore but it is much less steep and the trees, a mix of eucalypts and figs, are not representative of the range or density of the original growth. To have replicated that would, of course, have compromised the all-important views. And then there is the curious inclusion of a formal grove of deciduous exotics near Hickson Road – what I took to be London Plane trees but which may be some of the North American Honey Locusts that have raised eyebrows among the horticultural community, not least because the plant is classified here as a weed.

The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

For a man who emerged from the political labour movement in Australia, Paul Keating has a curious dislike of industrial heritage. Had the site of Barangaroo retained a vestige of the early colonial Georgian architecture he admires, Keating’s desire for a natural headland might have been curbed. But the structures of the early 20th century have no place in his aesthetic view. Indeed, years ago Keating argued for the demolition of the Woolloomooloo finger wharf – something many regard as a beautiful combination of graceful form and function. As it is, the finger wharves of East Darling Harbour  - today's Barangaroo - were demolished for the concrete container wharf of the early 1970s. The Maritime Services Board tower which sits atop the new park is all that is left of that era and, therefore, is slated for demolition – a particularly egregious eyesore in Keating’s estimation.

When the tower goes Sydney Harbour will have lost yet another skyline element of its industrial/commercial heritage – one to follow the erstwhile hammer head crane at Garden Island. While there was probably no way to adapt that structure for other uses, the tower is reusable as a viewing platform – one with a far more organic connection to place than the truly ugly faux spinnaker lookout built on the waterfront at Portsmouth. It is contemporary with the Opera House and represents the last incarnation of an historic working harbour, just as the gleaming shells on Bennelong Point symbolise a post-industrial waterway.

The area adjoining Barangaroo is already being emptied of its working class constituents as the government-owned terraced housing, originally built to accommodate waterside workers, is sold off.

Of course the view from Barangaroo headland is wonderful – and free. However,  the social context of the park is shifting. It certainly won't be the next hipster mecca implied by Mr Keating's characterisation of Clover and her muesli munching, pedal pushing constituents. Time may prove me wrong but my suspicion is that it will be less a people’s park for the residents of a multi-layered city than a tourist resort and a running track for the bankers who will have bought the nearby terraces as boltholes.

And when the two billion dollar tower is built on its southern edge, the park will also be the forecourt to another man’s vision, 'horsepower' and willingness to defy planning process. Packer's tower, rather than the 'naturalistic' headland, will be the obvious counterpoint to the Opera House on Bennelong Point: the latter a symbol of cultural aspiration, the former a temple to avarice both realised and hopeless. Australians are, we have just been told, the biggest gamblers in the world. The $20 minimum bet will still see a great many coming to try their luck at Barangaroo. What a profound statement.

The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will on the other side of the water. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will loom up from the other side of the little cove. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

The view from Sydney's tallest building (the antennae of Centrepoint Tower is slightly taller) will be so much better than from the headland or even the old maritime tower but I doubt if the occupants will care much about the intricacies of park design or heritage. Then James Packer will be the real Lord of Barangaroo.

 

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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’.

http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337

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