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Review: Sydney Culture Walks App

Sam Jonscher sees the city through new lens.

Illustration by Judy Zhu.
Illustration by Judy Zhu.
Illustration by Judy Zhu.

Last month the City of Sydney launched the Sydney Culture Walks App, a compilation of ten virtual walking tours that cover the city’s history and art precincts. It’s easy enough to use; linked with Google maps, the app tracks your progress along the route and, as you pass sites that have been deemed historically worthy, a blurb pops up on your screen to tell you more about them. The tours have most of inner Sydney covered, with The Rocks, Chinatown, Newtown, Glebe, Pyrmont, Oxford Street, Kings Cross and Redfern all included.

Curious to see how City Hall imagines Sydney and its past, I set out on an adventure through Clover Moore’s vision of Sydney.

I started with our colonial past. Following the tour from Custom’s House to Millers Point, the route meanders up Phillip Street, across Bridge Street and then does a loop of the Rocks. “The earliest European Sydneysiders, convicts, soldiers, whalers and traders walked this route,” the app says.

While there is an overbearing focus on architecture and the historic use of buildings that old white men built, the app does make an honest (albeit sanitised) attempt at including parallel histories. I learn that the first Government House in Sydney (now the Museum of Sydney) was where Bennelong, a senior member of the Eora nation who became an interlocutor between Indigenous Australians and the English, was held after being kidnapped near Manly. The app is sure to write some happy endings into history, assuring me that after escaping, Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo often dined with the Governor and “maintained cordial ties”.

Overall though, this tour focuses its attention on colonial Sydney’s booming commercial trade, making only scant mention to any sort of economic disparity. It imagines the area as a collection of government buildings, pubs and churches where the British hung out and made money.

I move next to ‘Hidden: Sydney’s Little Laneways’. It quickly becomes apparent that this walk is trying to cash in on Melbourne by association, and the laneway theme doesn’t translate so well Sydney. Most of the ‘laneways’ were historically loading docks that are now unused and aren’t much to look at.

After getting into the heart of the city centre, this tour does encourage you to reflect on how much the city has changed. The route makes its way from Circular Quay to the MLC Centre, where skyscrapers now dominate an area that was once warehouses and factories. Many stops describe the history of refurbished exterior; Establishment Hotel was a lumberyard and the laneway that is used to access The Ivy was at various times a piano manufacturer, a music school and home to the Australian Liberal Party. This tour concludes at the MLC Centre (formerly the hive of Sydney’s artistic community) and in an uncharacteristic backhander the app describes it as “a cautionary tale against over development and wholesale destruction of the fine grain fabric of the city”.

Next I head to Kings Cross to walk ‘Passion: Sydney’s Wild Side’. From the get go this is a considerably more lively tour – it opens with the story of Juanita Nielsen, a woman who started a radical newspaper, vocally supported Green Bans and then “disappeared… assumed murdered”. Green Bans crop up a number of times on this tour as residents repeatedly protested real estate development and high-rise apartment projects. Here the app comments that “some places were saved and the new development was not as intrusive as had
been planned.”

Championing grassroots protest and the woes of gentrification, this tour is much more interested in class divides. It points to a number of stairs that physically divide wealthy Potts Point from the poorer population of the ‘loo’. The app proudly notes that Wooloomooloo is mentioned in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and that “the name couldn’t be more Australian… derived from the local aboriginal language”. The end of this walk is tales of social non-conformists, community movements and a celebration of a number of buildings that used to be artistic squats.

Next up is ‘Parade: Oxford street’. This tour tells the story of 20th century Oxford Street – a shopping precinct that grew to be Sydney’s gay cultural precinct. Around 1970, drug and prostitution induced “hostility”, according to the app, pushed the gay community from The Cross and to Oxford Street. It points out a number of historic shop fronts famous for innovative drag shows, “back rooms” and the 253 Sauna, which “ironically direct[ed] clients to enter at the rear.” At least the app has a sense of humour.

The tour is proud to promote Sydney’s gay and lesbian community, but it has very little to say about its early treatment as an illicit sub-culture. Only brief mention is made to any sort of police brutality or social stigma, referring to the first Mardi Gras in 1978 as merely “confrontational”. The tour only mentions in passing the police raids on Club 80 that targeted homosexuality.

After a day traipsing around Sydney, I’m left with an image of a city looking for identity in diversity. The app rarely acknowledges the city’s ongoing struggles to embrace difference.

The next day, I do the ‘Barani: Redfern’ tour. It starts at Carriageworks, the old site of Eveleigh Rail Yards and tells the story of how Redfern became the heart of Sydney’s Indigenous community. Most noticeable about this tour is its focus on the present. It emphasises ongoing community projects like the Eora Centre, the Redfern Community Centre and the Aboriginal Housing Company. Whilst the app acknowledges the traditional owners of the land as people of the Eora nation, it fails to deal with the historical or ongoing oppression faced by the community. It imagines them as a thriving minority group, something any brief talk to a local activist will call into question.

Interestingly, the app is ill-suited for tourists — there is too much assumed knowledge. On the app’s website, Clover Moore is even quoted saying “this new app will allow us all to … explore Sydney in a new way”. But what is that new way? One guess would be “multicultural” which seems to be a favourite buzzword for describing our city. Though after walking through these tours, and seeing what they leave out, to what extent is that true and not just aspirational?