If you're not Australian, you could be forgiven for thinking Sydney is our nations capital. It's not: Canberra won that distinction around the turn of the last century. A city built in the middle of nowhere, because Sydney and Melbourne couldn't settle on which one of them should be king. Melbourne had culture, tradition and a certain beauty on its side. Sydney had force of numbers and a belligerent attitude that runs counter to the spirit of Aussieness.
To a tourist, Sydney seems to be a charming place. So green! So open! The people are so friendly! Granted, it has these things relative to other countries. But in comparison to other capitals within this country, Sydney stands alone.
It's big. It's crowded. It's -dirty-. Crime is high, property prices are gob-smackingly outrageous, and there's a lovely yellow haze of smog constantly inhabiting the horizon.
The main harbour, thought to be so beautiful by some, is a mess of pollution and cargo ships. Botany Bay, where Captain Cook and the First Fleet moored? The watercourse has been permanently altered by two runway extensions sticking out into it like some huge, obscene V-sign being flicked at you.
Kurnell, the site of the first landing on the east coast by Captain Cook? The site of an oil refinery.

The place has become a direct spin-off of any large city in Europe or America(North and South). Cities can only reach a certain size before they become huge and unwieldy things. Unfortunatly, Australia doesn't have the same real-estate limitation as most countries. So Sydney continues to spread north towards Newcastle and south towards Wollongong. My imagination keeps conjuring up images of William Gibson's Sprawl: a huge cityscape that keeps extending, swallowing up smaller population centres as it oozes along the coast.
Sydney also has the distinction of being a very Americanized city: the density of population, its relatively high international profile, and the recent drop of the Australian dollar has seen American film companies flock to these shores. McDonalds, Starbucks and Burger King have become commonplace.
The people of Sydney also have their own mentality at work. Anyone who dare suggests that this is not the promised land is scorned. To them, there is nowhere else worthwhile within Australia. If there was, why are there so many people in Sydney?

Gah. This place drives me nuts. But it's not without its charms. Otherwise, why live here?

Oh yes it is.

But, like many things, it can't be seen for what it is without a sense of history. There are places, like the Eiffel Tower or The Grand Canyon for two examples, that don't require a narrative to be understood. The Eiffel Tower appears immediately as what it is. It looks before-its-time (it was); it looks like it's made of iron (it is); it looks, in fact, like a grand French architectural "folly" (which it certainly is). The Grand Canyon also requires no narrative (although a viewing can be more pleasurable with one) because it's just so breathtakingly huge, and the bands of geological history stand out in such vivid colours even to those ignorant of their meaning.

Cities are sometimes like that, too. Prague springs to mind. Venice. Melbourne. Each making no pretense at being other than, and appearing as, exactly what they are. Sydney is different.

First of all, it was both an entire colony, and also, in the early days, completely a gaol. Most other colonies were, from inception, part of a larger plan. Not Sydney. It was the whole colony. The whole world for its inhabitants, who were prisoners and their guards. That is not to say that prison labourers were imported to work the fields, or some such, as elsewhere. The whole place was in effect a prison without walls. Not because it was set up to test some new theory in corrections, but because in a very real sense no walls were needed. For its early European inhabitants, Australia's wilderness, the bush, was simply non-survivable.

This initial use of the land survives to this day in Sydney's layout, which is completely opaque unless you know why. Why the urban sprawl onto the fertile floodplains to the west? Why the patchy nature of the city's population density? Why the (modern) sterility of the inner port and the steaminess of the outer port (opposite to most port cities)? All those questions have answers, but you need to know your history.

Second, if your view is confined to Sydney's CBD, it does appear to look a little imported, with your Starbucks and your McDonald's in plentiful evidence. But Castle Crag, Randwick, Bondi, or Newtown? Uniquely Sydney, uniquely Australian. And downtown there is also a particular Australian-ness if you simply look up; up beyond the street-level visual pollution of global chain stores. Up to Sydney's uniquely Australian blend of Victoria and Albert architecture and brash, confident, fusion Australian skyscraper design. This isn't Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. It's Sydney, Australia. It could be nowhere else. But again, without knowing why this unique sedimentary built environment exists, it's hard to lift your gaze from the burger joints.

Last, but not least, Sydney is Australia. A multi-cultural melting pot sitting on top of land with enormous significance to Australia's original owners; the definition of Australia. Multicultural means more than this, but the most obvious outworking is that you can get any cuisine in the world here; and even better it will taste pretty close to the original, and in some very well known cases, better. That's Australia, and that's Sydney. To complete the picture, the symbols of Sydney are two out of the four visual images non-Australians have of the country. Australia's symbols are: the Rock; the Coathanger; the sails; and the kangaroo. Symbolic of the four ages of Australia, if you forget your history you forget all this, too.

Not without its faults, the most telling of which are entirely home grown and themselves products of history, the accusation that Sydney's somehow not Australian simply doesn't stick. You may need a history lesson to understand why, but Sydney is, in fact, the most Australian city of them all.

Postscript: It was my intention to leave the reader wanting for more, but a series of messages leads me to spill on two particular issues. 1. The "mirror reverse" of Sydney's port has to do with that great reshaper of cities, epidemic. Namely an outbreak of Bubonic Plague which caused much of the inner port to be levelled in the early 1900s, shifting the centre of gravity. 2. The "four ages" of Australia are pre-human, pre-European, European penal colony, and nation.

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