Cracks of the urban landscape

Mirror Sydney, Vanessa Berry, Giramondo

Sydney’s less than perfect layout and topography of hills, valleys and coves lend themselves to a sense that there are discoveries to be made, histories hidden. Vanessa Berry’s book (itself distilled from her fabulous online diary of her perambulations, also entitled Mirror Sydney) builds on this, concentrating on the less touristy parts of Sydney, the parts that aren’t part of our cities’ elite history (government and civic buildings, galleries, grand houses, monuments), the parts that are hidden away, run down, ready to be toppled by the developer’s bulldozer, the wastelands and the superseded. Berry is not just a connoisseur of urban decay, although there is plenty of that here too. Neither is this just an exercise in Gen X, irony-laden nostalgia. She notes that the outdated shops, ugly fountains and the like have a worthy place in our cities, an unfashionable charm, and are as much of interest as more iconic public structures. She is not a crusader, just a chronicler of the out of the way and resonant with childhood memories, and her book, not unlike Delia Falconer’s fabulous history of Sydney, is a personal pry into the cracks of the urban landscape that are often papered over by mainstream society.

The book is illustrated with Berry’s line drawings, both precise and childlike, taking inspiration from the commercial art of mid twentieth century, appropriately, as her perambulations take her to places from the past, but the more recent past, the post-war suburban utopia, the traces of which remain in faded, forgotten signs, shopping strips, redundant infrastructure, recycled fashion.

Berry seeks out the places where consumer society has turned a dark corner. She visits the regular auction of unretrieved lost property from Sydney’s transport system and explores arcades that are more or less abandoned but harbor ultra-niche retailers still hanging on.

As far as the decayed goes, Sydney has its fair share of the abandoned and locked away, which have their own evocative pull. Like New York/Gotham, Sydney has never-completed underground train lines that the Cave Clan now like to frequent, complete with underground lakes where trespassers sail on dinghies, and abandoned platforms (that can be glimpsed briefly as one rides the escalator at one of the underground stations and knows where to look). Bankstown has a war-time underground control bunker, a couple of stories deep, which was burnt out after its decommissioning, but which still sits under residential developments. Then there is the Tank Stream, which Berry sloshes through in tour group gumboots, and a part of which can be glimpsed after a tucked away descent off Martin Place.

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