Sydney’s Sad Malaise

sydneySydney is going through a bad patch. Yes, life can sometimes dish out lows on the other side of enraptured highs. But this time it feels deeper than that. There is this smell of stagnation in the air — like the taps of cultural development have been turned off tight. Like we’ve been asked to stand obediently still and to ignore all of our flow and our undercurrent.

Seventeen years ago, with the spotlights of the world lighting up the iridescence of our city, Sydney beamed with pride and welcomed with a local charm. We danced, sung and strut for all of our Olympics visitors. We celebrated our identity wildly. Here was an emergent and bright young culture that knew how to savour this gift called life. We rolled out onto the world stage with aplomb.

But somehow, since then, we became culturally complacent. We became lazy. Perhaps we just became uptight. Whatsmore, we selected leaders who felt it was a sensible thing to try to tie us down. Leaders who turned off our nightlife and decided to mollycoddle us during the day with all sorts of niggling little rules.

The headwind that our international guests blew into our soaring spinnaker has dissipated without a gasp. Where we were once moving, sailing, running, discovering who we were, it now appears that we’re stuck — stuck in a house with peeling paint. Stuck with our micromanaging parents who insist that we’re only allowed to wear those daggy old jeans that they feel comfortable with us in. Jeans that we grew out of years ago.

And whilst Sydney trudges through all of the regulations and institutions constructed to protect us from ourselves, other Australian cities are boldly taking risks. They’re experimenting with culture and talking about what it means to be a young city in a young country. Our neighbours are growing up around us. Sydney is being culturally leapfrogged.

In Hobart, for example, the MONA has become recognised on that world stage for it’s confidence and its edge. By being brave, this gallery has been a key factor in placing Hobart at the top of many international bucket lists. The Chinese can now fly directly to Tasmania, to its fresh air and fresh perspective, bypassing Sydney completely.

And during the cold southern month of June, the Dark Mofo festival breathes fire and screams sound into Hobart. It not only explores the power of the winter solstice, but also how the seasons influence us. It looks at a primal side of ourselves. It promises dangerous bursts of real fire that can burn you if you get too close. A quirkiness that would never be allowed in Sydney.

Melbourne, too, is streaking ahead. The days of Sydney being the envy of Melbournians are finished. We might have the body, but Melbourne has the class. It is now the dominant capital of the night. With Sydney relinquishing its crown, Melbourne has stepped into the vacuum and emblazoned it.

Last month, Melbourne hosted its fifth consecutive White Night. A festival that ignites at sunset and sprints all the way until dawn. This is a night that allows families, lovers and the elderly to swing dance until sunrise right in the middle of Collins Street. To visit the art galleries, libraries and the grand old buildings of Melbourne after midnight. A festival that harnesses a single snippet of poetry for its entire creative direction:

“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is gone, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

And then there is innovative Adelaide and its Fringe festival, which has humbly matured into the largest outdoor festival in the Southern Hemisphere. A festival that describes itself as “mythical, magical, fantabulous, fantasmagorical, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” A fantastic flurry of words that promises the visitor fun.

Of course, one cannot compare the culture of different cities by simply talking about a handful of mainstream festivals. However, there is something in the ambition of these events: the way they talk; the way they hold themselves; the way they’re curated; the mood that they aspire to spark in their audiences – that you cannot find in Sydney. These are celebrations of life that are inspired by the more raw elements of our humanity. Visceral ingredients that seethe through all of us. Ingredients that Sydney seems to be afraid of, or to suppress underneath it’s polish.

Some say, that out in the ocean lives the bearded old Poseidon — the ancient Greek god of the sea. With his broad shoulders and his trident, he’s been known to chortle while he swims. Sydney owes much to Poseidon, because we are the city of the water. But should old Poseidon one day get cranky, slap the ocean top with his trident and take away our waves, our beaches and our harbour – if we were stripped of our natural beauty – what would Sydney actually have left?

And seventeen years after the Olympics, should our international friends decide to stop on by to breathe in some of the nostalgia of how charming we were, and how this city buzzed – would they even recognise us today? Or would they now be more likely to notice our charismatic neighbours, whistling something interesting in their colourful garden right next door?

Would there be a realisation that perhaps Sydney is just the pretty one, without really have very much to say?

Potential is abundant in Sydney. We have a violent, courageous and impressive history to talk about and share. We have enormous public spaces that lay dormant and are yearning to be activated. We have energy, we have strut. We dance wild and love our music loud. Our mornings seduce and bristle.

But we need to fear less and take more risks again. We have to relegate those who try to stifle our personality to the sidelines. We need to embrace the millions of everyday tales that swim within our city’s perimeter. We need to let back in the primal, the carnal, the raw.

Our city is not skin deep. It is not skin deep because humans are not skin deep. There is a fascinating personality lying just underneath this comfortable polish. So, come on – let’s snap out of this boring vanilla and learn to express ourselves again. To live the way we know we can. For there is so much more to you than this, Sydney.

Joseph O’Donoghue is a freelance writer who is passionate about Australia’s exuberant culture, and it’s burgeoning self-discovery. You can read more of his work here

20 thoughts on “Sydney’s Sad Malaise

  • Lacebug says:

    Coincidentally, just as this story appeared on Quadrant, I was researching other possible cities to move to, having had a gut-full of Sydney’s politically correct elite (try living in the Inner West where the latest banners are proclaiming ‘Burn down the jails’). Then there’s the endless traffic jams, and yes, the rules. Always the rules. Have considered Adelaide. There’s a nice suburb called Unley. Any suggestions from our readers?

    • Rob Brighton says:

      Having resided in Adelaide for a number of years it has much to commend it, low traffic, staggeringly beautiful sunsets over the water (a novelty for a Sydney born lad) to name two things that I grew to love.

      Yes the scolds infest Adelaide, just as they do everywhere else, but for a capital city there is much to recommend it.

      Regrettably the prince of darkness runs the place, dumb politicians are not limited to SA but they do seem to produce more than their fair share.

      The regional areas ranging from the Flinders through to the Eyre peninsular offer staggering scenery, lovely drives and endless wineries that are hard to beat.

      Adelaide has its issues, but those are more than offset, the people are lovely providing you stay away from greenies and other disreputable types.

    • pgang says:

      I spent my childhood in the Adelaide Hills and lived in Adelaide for 10 years as an adult. It changed a lot in that time, not really for the better, and I’ve gone through a long period of disliking the place for its lack of energy and boring geography. However I’m changing my mind these days and starting to look on Adelaide as perhaps our best city. The east coast cities have all lost their mojo, Melbourne most disappointingly of all with nearly all of its character gone. They are all the same, just big metropolises, overcrowded, unimaginatively managed, high-rised, expensive, uber-wanky, little more than a bunch of food outlets. But Adelaide has managed to retain a lot of its old world charm.

      Anyway if you want the best city in Australia, it’s Newcastle/Lake Macquarie. Paradise.

    • pgang says:

      Also, the Unley area is a bit wanky. Try the eastern suburbs.

    • ian.macdougall says:

      Adelaide I recommend. My daughter and her family live there very happily.
      But just because some nitwit has flown a banner saying ‘burn down the jails’ it does not mean that you have to do so.
      It is called diversity of popular opinion. Voltaire would have heartily approved.

  • dsh2@bigpond.com says:

    Oh God, mate. Adelaide is the lefty paradise where rules reign supreme. Also expensive and intermittent electricity. Victoria is close behind and WA has just elected to join the workers’ paradise of lefty rules and orthodoxy. Queensland – well, there may be some hope if Labor gets kicked out. So that leaves Tasmania and who knows how the good citizens of that State will vote at their next election – still it remains your best hope for now.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Where do Sydney folks get the absurd idea that Sydney is the envy of Melbourne?

    • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

      Could it possibly be from the constant defensiveness that simply oozes from Victorians whenever anyone from another state compares cities? Both cities are, for me, horrible places that have deteriorated throughout my longish lifetime into relative hellholes. But when my despair threatens to get the better of me, I dream of a sunny morning ferry ride from Circular Quay to Manly and return. That pleasure on its own, the like of which is available nowhere in Melbourne at any comparable cost, if at all, restores my love for Sydney Harbour and makes the city at least tolerable on the rare occasions that I visit.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Joseph O’Donoghue the “freelance writer who is passionate about Australia’s exuberant culture…” has given us a sample of his work: so much waffle all it needs is a good hefty slosh of maple syrup.
    And did I mention his empty generalisations? Them too.
    “But this time it feels deeper than that. There is this smell of stagnation in the air — like the taps of cultural development have been turned off tight…”
    “…But somehow, since then, we became culturally complacent.”
    Somehow, this whole piece seems and feels … I dunno… like its straight off the top of O’Donoghue’s head. Seems that way; feels that way… I dunno. Like it’s the vibe of the whole thing.
    Yeah. That’s it!
    The vibe.

  • mags of Queensland says:

    I escaped from Sydney 25 years ago and moved to Toowoomba in Queensland.Never regretted it. Every time I go to Sydney to see my grandkids I can’t wait to get home. It gets uglier every time I go there.So many high rise cell blocks, particularly around the harbour area, makes the city look like one big ghetto.And the suburbs are just as bad.Too many people, jammed into a small area. Ugh!Once upon a time the nightlife was great – people didn’t have to get drunk or high to have a good time. Maybe it’s the changing outlook of the people who live there, I don’t know. Bit it isn’t even safe to out at night these days.

    As for Melbourne, It’s even uglier than Sydney. And just as unsafe. Adelaide is just backward. Hobart is lovely – all those heritage buildings,lovingly preserved, are a tourist’s dream.

    • Jody says:

      I have to agree with this. I reside on 1 acre just 80 minutes drive on the M1 from Wahroonga railway station. In fact, the only traffic lights I encounter on that road trip are at the top of the M1 right there at Wahroonga. We park at Hornsby RSL and then get the train into the city for $2.50. I always feel I’ve arrived in Asia; I don’t like it at all. The western suburbs (where I went 4 wks ago to pick up my new car) were horrific. I didn’t recognize anything from my late teens living there. It’s seedy, the league of nations, unfriendly, noisy (everybody is yelling on their phones in 40 different languages). OK if you live by Sydney Harbour and never have to move beyond Edgecliff and the city (which is unbearable, btw).

      You can have Sydney. It’s the pits and my son recently moved to Canberra (not much better) because of the cost of real estate and because “the traffic was doing my head in”.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Brisbane is run by a liberal Lord Mayor.

    The bay isn’t yet crowded.
    If you want noise and crowds and surf then the Gold Coast is 45 mins away.
    North coast beaches are close and magnificent.

    We have theatres and art galleries.

    We have vitality and life even though the labour premier is as confusing as the spelling of her name.

  • en passant says:

    Move to Asia, as I have

    • padraic says:

      I have to say that I could never take this city rivalry seriously. There has always been banter between Sydney and Melbourne. I remember being in a train to Wagga Wagga as a high school air cadet and one of the boys who was from Melbourne originally said “Sydney is such a dump with that big coat-hanger spoiling the harbour view”. One of the Sydney-siders retorted that “at least we had a harbour – not like the Yarra which was too thick to swim in and too thin to plough”. There are plenty more those stories from both all sides, but I think Paul Keating (trigger warning -tongue in cheek) took the cake with “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping.” But jokes aside, the biggest problem is high rise development in what used to be suburban areas, and this affects all cities, even the bush capital. This is beloved of the Greens who think that people will do away with cars and ride bicycles but the reality is that most people want a car and this causes congestion. Where you had 4 family homes for example they are now knocked down and you might have 28 units on the same area. If they all have a car that means that you now have 28 cars (at least) pouring out onto the street where before you had only 4 or say six cars. Not only that, where you had people drying their washing in sunlight (solar power!) on their Hills Hoist you now have energy consuming dryers and air conditioners in 28 units burning up electricity. And there’s more – the earlier four suburban homes had trees and shrubs in their gardens sucking up the dreaded co2 – something that’s completely gone with the 28 unit high rise. Another problem in Sydney is the high level of drug abuse and associated violence in the entertainment areas. You can still have a vibrant night life without people getting killed on the scale that was occurring in Sydney. The trauma specialist from St Vincents, Darlinghurst, was absolutely right in saying “Enough is enough”.

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