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the parts that are hidden away, run down, ready to be toppled by the developer’s bulldozer, the wastelands and the superseded.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 She notes that the outdated shops, ugly fountains and the like have a worthy place in our cities, an unfashionable charm, and are as much of interest as more iconic public structures.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.

A regulated zone

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, David Sornig, Scribe.

Dudley Flats was a Depression-era shanty town in West Melbourne, on the site of today’s vast container terminal. Originally a bountiful wetland, as the city grew it became a marginal area of reviled swamp and a tip, a place for the city to turn its back on, but a ‘vortex’ that sucked in the jobless and homeless. It would perhaps be forgotten without the efforts of historian David Sornig.

Like London’s Iain Sinclair, and with similar literary flair, Sornig has an interest in the liminal spaces not listed in tourism brochures, and in Dudley Flats he finds an unsettling, slippery space that he likens to the ‘Zone’ in the centre of Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous 1979 film Stalker. Even today, Sornig notes, the area under the Bolte Bridge, which cyclists speed through on their way to work, is a strangely empty space, frequented only by the marginalised.

The container port is listed in the Melways as a ‘Regulated Zone’. While trying to get a sense of where exactly things occurred, Sornig and friends attempt a walk through the port area, a big no no for a maritime border and terrorism obsessed government. As it has been for decades, the area is out of sight of the general public, but under the careful watch of authorities.

Sornig tells the story of the area’s mid-century residents through three characters, notorious in their own ways, who were victims of xenophobia, racism and the cruel Kafka-esque tendencies of politicians and planners, and whose lives Sornig pieces together from scraps of newspapers and government statistics. He worries about the adequacy of his reporting, and finds the need to imagine scenes and motivations – in evocative prose, mind you. He admits a difficulty in holding his images together, because, in contrast to the solid monuments of the rich and powerful that dot the city, remembrance of the Dudley Flats residents sinks into the mud, or is paved over by industry. So it goes in history, but a strength of recent psychogeographical history is to find interest and worth in the topics traditionally not prioritised in the writing of history.

In the portrayals of Dudley Flats he does uncover, Sornig finds contradictions and ambivalence. The area was often ignored, but not always. The police kept watch, newspapers occasionally flared up with sensational news of deaths and there were intermittent efforts to clean it up by those both genuinely compassionate and those with an eye on the political.  But there were mixed reports of squalor and dignity. The area was described as grossly unsanitary, but also as neat and tidy. The residents were described as industrious and free, and at other times as freeloaders and criminals. They were teetotallers and drunks, violent and polite. They should be left alone and moved on.

These conflicted attitudes remain in our own times. Sornig mentions the homeless at Flinders Street Station who, otherwise ignored, became too prominent for Melbourne’s civic leaders. But Sornig helps us see the marginalised as people, not just problems.