It has been a few years since I’ve visited Smithfield. As I travel along Horsley Drive I pass by its landmarks, a Buddhist temple, a front garden planted with tall cacti, and the concrete bunker of the former Smithfield Post Office. I had expected this building to have been demolished by now, but it remains, with a ‘for lease’ sign on its roof, looking as impenetrable as ever under its coat of pale green paint, still broadcasting the postcode and the insignia of Queen Elizabeth from its postal days.
Smithfield is on Cabrogal land, a suburb half residential, half industrial, bisected by the winding path of the Prospect Creek as it flows towards the Georges River. For the most part, the factories are on the north side of the creek, but there’s a smaller area of factories and warehouses on the south side, and it’s into this area I turn into, passing by industrial units with rows of palm trees along the street-front. It is the kind of light industrial street that has places that fix, store or destroy things: building materials warehouses, mechanics, scrap metal yards and wreckers. There’s a generator hire place with a rusty crane on top of a grey shed like a giant metal spider. To one side of the street is a vacant lot, a former market garden now overgrown with high grass and a few remaining panels of colorbond fence beside a stormwater channel choked with rubbish and weeds. Across from it the industrial units continue with a kitchen warehouse and an auto mechanics with a sign for “Smithfield Diff & Gearbox” in jaunty white lettering.
I’m distracted from the mysteries of Diff by the premises next door. Here, instead of another scrapyard or warehouse, is a row of four Dutch canal houses. Painted green with white windows, the facade frames the sign for Holland House, and a mural of a Dutch port with windmills and the nose of a KLM jet painted on it. Had someone asked me to imagine what the most unlikely business to find in the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial area might be, I would be guessing for quite some time before I came up with a Dutch supermarket, cafe and cultural centre.
‘t Winkeltje, The Dutch Shop, has traded here in Smithfield since 1985. At first it sold only imported Dutch furniture, but soon expanded to a supermarket, stocking the herring, cheese and liquorice that is signature Dutch fare. Inside, the warehouse building has been transformed. There’s a tiled floor, a low ceiling crossed with wooden beams, and wood-panelled walls, against which delft tiles and ceramic figurines are displayed. Under the wooden clogs and orange bunting that hang from the ceiling are aisles stocking sweets, packets of chocolate sprinkles, jars of pickles, containers of chocolate milk, boxes of pancake mix: an entire pantry of Dutch groceries.
Behind the shop is the cafe, and I walk through an archway into a room of dark wood and low, golden light. Fringed lampshades hang down over the tables, which have thick, woven coverings and vases of pink artificial tulips decorating them. Around the edges of the room, in cabinets and on shelves, are clusters of objects, pennants from the NSW Holland festival, coffee tins, wooden skates, copper pots, Dutch joke books, more tiles, more clogs.
On the other side of the cafe the shop continues, with racks of Dutch CDs and LPs, then souvenirs and kitchenware, then the oak furniture showroom that started it all. There are loungeroom scenes set up, chairs and tables and cabinets with trinkets and books in them, as if, at night after the shop was shut, families might materialise to inhabit these settings, sitting around the oak tables to read, eat salty liquorice pastilles and drink hot chocolate. I’m particularly entranced by the cardboard television, of the kind produced as props for furniture showrooms. It is obviously fake – it’s even called Imitronics – but I still touch it to check.
Through another doorway is the Dutch Cultural Centre, a room with a library and display cabinets, and a model of Amsterdam on a table in the centre of the room. It is a view along the Singel canal, lined with houses which, when I lean in to look at it closely, I see have been meticulously detailed with shop window displays and patterned curtains in the windows. It had been built by a man who was a butcher by trade, the volunteers at the cultural centre tell me. He’d designed it based on photographs he’d taken of this set of streets in Amsterdam, and constructed it in his garage, where he had displayed the model until he moved into smaller premises, and it came here.
I peer along one of the streets of the model, where there’s a Bloemist, a florist shop, with a window display of tulips, leading onto a bridge over the canal, over which toy cars are travelling. This is where it is, one of the volunteers says, coming up to me with a city map that has the location of the streets traced out over it. They hand me a photocopied brochure, too, with an architectural guide to the houses and this terse description of the model: “As far as the carpentry is concerned: Number of window frames: 1800. Window panes 7126.”
I think about this as I sit at the corner table of Cafe Klein-Mokum, eating poffertjes, listening to the Dutch version of “Love is in the Air” playing over the stereo, feeling transported, if not to Holland itself, at least to a version of it. It was cosy in here: this was the feeling of gezellig, the menu informed me, and that this is the homely atmosphere created by activities such as playing board games and drinking hot chocolate by the fire when it’s cold outside. But I could not stop imagining that, instead of sitting in the cafe I had previously walked through, I had instead shrunk down to miniature size and was sitting inside a cafe in a canal house in the model of Amsterdam, looking out one of the 7126 windows at the carefully constructed city outside.
This block of Canterbury Road, Roselands, is bracketed by fast food restaurants. KFC is at the top, with its smell of hot fat and litter of refresher towelette sachets, its perimeter marked by rows of globular, red-leafed shrubs: chosen no doubt for their conformity to the KFC colour scheme. On the other end of the block is McDonalds, with its stunted palm trees and loitering, drive-thru traffic. On the other side of the road are building supplies warehouses, with a focus on tiles and bathroom fixtures. Faded banners for sales and discounts hang in their windows.
I might not have noticed this block in particular if it wasn’t for the monster. It presides over an abandoned lot beside the McDonalds that has, over its recent history, been a used car lot, then a water tank retailer. Now it is a site awaiting redevelopment. Over years of lying fallow the lot has fallen into disrepair, the weeds growing tall and trash accruing on the cracked concrete.
It is little different to any other vacant lot, except in one detail.
Draped over the corner of the canopy the monster first wore a leering expression, each white tooth clearly defined against the cookie-monster blue of its ragged body. Its appendages trailed down, swaying in the wind as it stared, vacantly, out towards the road. It could have been resting, awaiting reactivation. Or maybe it had it been trapped and vanquished there, its remains left as warnings to other monsters not to try to haunt Canterbury Road.
Now it’s more than a year since I first saw the monster. Over this time it has stayed much the same, weathering storms and sun and days gentle or fierce. The wind brings it to life, but never quite enough to reanimate it. But when I last went past it, I saw the monster had turned away from the street. It had moved towards the edge of the awning, a step closer to its escape, to flying free over Roselands and away.
When the building across from the Crystal Street intersection was torn down, the Boot Palace came back into memory. Tall black letters, carefully painted, announced that this was the Leichhardt Branch of the City Boot Palace.
In the 1890s branches of John Hunter’s City Boot Palace were so widespread that their advertisements needed only to give the address as “stores everywhere”. Travel around Sydney and soon you would come across a Boot Palace, with a window display of shoes and slippers, showcasing the durable and elegant goods to be found within.
For a time in the late 19th century Sydney was well supplied with palaces. You could buy a pair of boots at the City Boot Palace, put them on to walk over to visit the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace, and afterwards take refreshment at the Sydney Coffee Palace. Palaces were not some kind of fairytale dream, they were places of everyday magic that could be browsed or entered.
In 1885 a writer for The Bulletin was so overcome by the “magnificent edifice” of the central City Boot Palace, at the corner of George and Market Streets, that mere words could not do it justice: “as the interior is fitted with carved cedar showcases, wherein the best and handsomest productions in boots and shoes are displayed, the effect can be better imagined that described”. Bulletin readers could give free reign to their wildest footwear dreams, and the palace that housed them.
The Boot Palace is long, long gone, and the building with its sign is now a fabric store and one of Parramatta’s Road plentiful wedding dress shops. But I can readily imagine the smell of leather and fabric that must have greeted shoppers. A clue to the Boot Palace’s atmosphere can be found in the 1911 novel Jonah, by Louis Stone, set in Sydney city and inner suburbs. The main character opens a shoe store, and describes how the shelves were packed from floor to ceiling and how “boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit”.
Another feature of Jonah’s fictional shoe store was a four metre long silver shoe that hung above the entrance, gleaming in the sun, the “hugest thing within sight”. For a time its present day equivalent was the oversized Blundstone on top of the sign for Hylands Shoe city on Victoria Road in Rozelle. But Hylands closed, and while the sports physiotherapy place that replaced it kept the boot up for a while, it was eventually taken down. Now the city’s big boot is the oversized Dr Martens painted on the wall at the top of the escalators to Kings Cross station, outside Raben Footwear.
In the 1990s, for a certain type of rebellious teenager eager to assert their identity, Raben was the place to buy boots. It’s still something of a punk shoe store, with its cluttered displays of cherry red Docs, platform Converse sneakers, and every possible available colour of canvas shoe.
As for suburban shoe stores, most have long gone the way of other independent retailers, closing down as the proprietors age or the competition from chain stores became too great. Dicksons in Rockdale is one of these, recently closing after 55 years.
There is still Forbes in Hornsby, however, which has been around since 1940. Inside its shoeboxes stack up to the ceiling, and ladders are propped up against the shelves for staff to scamper up and down as they fetch pairs for customers to try on.
If shoe stores are mostly homogenous these days, shoe repair shops still retain their idiosyncracies. Many have persisted, unchanged, for decades. The best known of Sydney’s shoe repair stores is Roger Shoe Repair in Redfern. Roger is a kind of rock star of the city’s cobblers, known equally for his conversation as his skills in shoe repair.
Every one of these old shoe repair stores has a distinct character, like the Bankstown shop that is as small as a ticket booth.
Con’s Shoe Repair at Hurlstone Park has shoe lasts stacked up to the ceiling, and polystyrene crate of basil plants out the front (click on the link to go inside the store via the magic of Google – see if you can spot Con’s white cat). In Fairfield, Rapid Shoe Repair celebrates the amicable rivalry between shoes and keys (keys mentioned 10 times on the exterior, shoes 7).
Despite the skill of these craftsmen, there is one Sydney shoe that is beyond repair, so much so I was surprised to find it still in place. It has been almost five years since I visited it. At first, as I drove slowly along Hollywood Drive, I thought it gone, but then it appeared through a clearing in the trees, a little worse for wear but as dreamlike as ever.
And, elsewhere, if you look closely there are still palaces to be found, here and there.
In the 1980s a number of board games were produced in the “This is Your Town” series. The streets and businesses of the Sydney suburban centres of Liverpool and Parramatta became a game board, over which players travelled by the roll of a dice. But rather than the Mayfair and Piccadilly of Monopoly, the Liverpool Game included such destinations as the Jolly Frog Dry Cleaners, Funtasia toy shop, and Olga’s and Trendy beauty salon.
Unfolding the Liverpool Game board from the box it forms a solid, green rectangle, as if Liverpool is a large park with occasional Letraset trees and the featured local businesses. To the far left of the board is a big question mark, intended for the pile of “surprise cards” that send you to the post office to pick up a parcel, or to the photo shop to pick up your framed enlargement.
It is utterly unlikely that any of the businesses featured in the game are still there in Liverpool today. The game was produced in 1983, and the hair salons, restaurants and photo processing stores are among the more ephemeral of businesses. But I couldn’t ignore the question mark. I photocopied the game board into a pocket sized version and set out for Liverpool.
Just outside Liverpool train station a large blackboard is propped up against the fence of the adjacent parking lot. At the top is stencilled “My Wish for Liverpool is” and below a mess of chalk inscriptions, from earnest wishes for better schools and cheaper train fares, requests for more love in the community and “no creeps”. More vulgar wishes are half-obscured, rubbed out by a censoring hand, although “Fuck Tony Abbott” is clearly visible in the top right corner.
I consult my photocopied game board. There are a few paths I could choose and I select Scott Street. The first business on the map, the Balkan Travel Service, is now an adult shop. Nearby Lilleyman’s Florist, which reminded us on its “surprise card” that “Flowers add a little sunshine to our lives”, has had its multicoloured sign obscured by subsequent tenants. There are signs for a pentacostal church and the “Fiji Curry Hut” although the shop is vacant when I peer through the window. After a few more streets of faithfully following the locations it is clear that this obscured Florist sign is one of the few remaining traces of the Liverpool Game businesses. Apart from the historic buidings, a persistent tobacconist on Macquarie Street, and the relocated but still jovial Jolly Frog dry cleaners on Memorial Drive, everything else has disappeared.
The game changes. I stop looking for traces and observe the Liverpool that surrounds me. The streets are still lined with small shops, sari shops and Indian grocery stores. The memorial fruit market has bright painted signs with names printed beside giant apples and pears, “joe”, “nancy”, perhaps the people who worked at the store at the time of painting. At the end of the road is the Westfield shopping centre, which has grown since the 1980s to gobble up a number of the streets from the Liverpool Game. I walk around its perimeter, alongside the windowless beige wall with occasional exits to the carpark, which I peek into nervously, as cars appear suddenly, as if spat out from the building’s interior.
Behind the Westfield is one of Liverpool’s heritage sites. They are easy to spot as all of them – the old court house, Saint Lukes Church – are resolutely fenced off from the street and its wanderers. This one is a cemetery, where gravestones poke out of the soil in crooked rows. They look stark without flowers or memorials, the graves so old that there must be few people left to visit them. While there are people around, most of them moving back and forth between the shopping centre entrance, this is a lonely stretch of road. The ramparts of the Westfield are on one side and the rows of gravestones on the other. At the corner is the Lifeline op shop. Among a row of potplants at the entrance one is labelled the “Trinidad Scorpion – the world’s hottest chilli”, though the pot contains an agapanthus. The equivalent, perhaps, of buying a Prince record from an op shop and finding a Herb Alpert one inside.
On the other side of the Westfield a half-hidden old milestone is a reminder of Sydney, 20 miles away. A neat arrow, carved into the sandstone, politely points north. The milestone is among the shrubs in a strip of ornamental planting outside the Spectrum Way, a row of shops the includes among its tenants the “Cinema 5D”. Behind this unassuming shopfront are multidimensional experiences in zombieland, post apocalyptic cities and other extraordinary scenarios.
I stick with the real world and head up towards the pedestrian mall. At one end there are groups of men playing chess, clustered around tables with black and white chequered squares inlaid into them. Another group of onlookers surrounds the players at the giant chess board as one of them strides forward to claim his opponent’s pawn. It’s a serious pursuit and the clustered observers notice little but the arrangements of the black and white figures and the movements of the players.
Beside the chess players is a patch of lawn which is covered by a flock of corellas, the cheeky white cockatoos with pink eyes like they’ve stayed up too late the night before. They are waddling over the grass, digging holes in it with their beaks. The lawn is pock-marked with holes and still the corellas continue to dig, as if after buried treasure. The air smells of damp soil and people passing by watch the birds’ rampage over the lawn, but no one chases them away.
Like other suburban centres and indeed much of Sydney once you get to thinking about it, Liverpool attracts plenty of plans and discussions for how it can be revitalised. The town centre has, according to one city councillor, a “decidedly Soviet appearance”. It does indeed have its fair share of concrete and monuments, if that is what the councillor is referring to. There is, for example, a large, steampunk effigy of Lachlan Macquarie, poised on the edge of the shopping district. The police station also has a certain stern quality about it.
Of all places in Liverpool, Bigge Park has the highest concentration of monuments. Trees planted in commemoration, memorial rocks, and at the park’s centre a clock tower erected by Rotary in the 1950s. If you were floating above Liverpool you would notice that the clock and the path around it is designed to form the shape of the Rotary wheel logo.
Another monument, although unintended as such, is the pylons which span the Georges River. They curve across the water, next to the weir where the water spills down over the constructed ledge. Alongside the train line the river is like a deep breath, a break from the outer suburban landscape of factories and houses. Beside it the grass is worn down with desire paths, but there are few people walking on this weekday afternoon.
The weir was first built in the 1830s by convict labour but the pylons beside it are a more recent addition, and once supported a railway bridge. They are grand in the way of abandoned infrastructure, left there for the pleasure of their geometry in this ragtag scene. They’re part of a complex landscape, at turns natural and ruined, constructed and contested. It’s peaceful to look out over the river, but it’s also a view of factories and the motorway, the trash snagged around the base of the pylons and the spraypainted tag – CRIMS – across the concrete. Like so many Sydney places, Liverpool is a mixture of preservation and obliteration, of residual remains and repurposings, and construction sites starting again.
In the Liverpool Game one of the destination cards is for the technical college, now the TAFE. The college, the card says, will assist you to continue your education “to make your life more meaningful and interesting”. This seems to me the true aim of the game for the visitor, thirty years on with a photocopied map in her pocket. To be alert to the meaningful and interesting places, and in doing so make another Liverpool Game, one that shifts and changes as the place itself does. To complete the game is to observe Liverpool’s details and tensions and dig down a little, like the cheeky corellas, and think what might be hidden there.
I created this map for the Suburban Noir exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which was curated by Peter Doyle and based on postwar crime scene photographs from the Sydney suburbs. The crime scene photos were a mixture of street scenes and domestic interiors, roads through raw, new suburbs, houses with floral carpet and wooden furniture and everyday objects elevated into the status of evidence: an aluminium kettle or a Diana Pottery (made in Marrickville) mixing bowl in a kitchen; a box of Federal (made in Alexandria) matches on a sideboard, television sets with their sturdy wooden cabinets on jaunty legs that often turn up in photos of stolen goods.
The photos were from suburbs all over Sydney, but I chose Bankstown as a focus. In the postwar years Bankstown grew as a residential area and streets of fibro houses were constructed as well as attendant suburban amusements: Bankstown Square shopping centre, bowling clubs and orchid clubs, the drive-in cinema at Bass Hill. Bankstown’s previous incarnation as the site of Sydney’s World War 2 military operations was still apparent in the airport and the Bankstown bunker, both of which remain to this day. The map is of objects and places, traces that exist in the archives and still, here and there, in the Bankstown streets where the fibro houses still stand, in between their oversized brick replacements.
Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Bankstown grew from 42 000 to 146 000. Correspondingly there was a boom in house construction, and the suburban streets of Bankstown took shape. Neat, white fibro cottages, row after row of them, were constructed on bald blocks of land.
Fibro was a cheap building material, easy to work with. It was flexible too. Plans were easily adaptable, and owners often had input into the design or built the homes themselves. For many of the residents of the new fibro houses, this was the first home they had owned and symbolised their new, safe suburban life.
Since then fibro houses, like members of a vast family, have gone on to many fates. Some are still as neat as the day they were built, their pale walls bright in the sunlight, a perfect stretch of lawn at the front. Others are surrounded by dismantled cars, the garden grown unruly. Many have been demolished and McMansions built in their place, houses on steroids which fill up blocks of land entirely.
Post-war fibro houses are part of a past world of Holdens, typewriters, and polite advertisements for new household appliances. The houses exist as backgrounds in small, yellowed photographs trapped in albums or rediscovered as long forgotten bookmarks. Such photos are of strangers but recognisable nonetheless: families standing in formation on the front lawn beside newly planted trees. The suburbs look hot and raw, at the edges of the city as it pushed outwards.
Nowadays the trees have grown tall around the fibro houses. Cacti and conifers reach the roof, like pets grown into monsters. The streets have lost the uniform appearance of cottage after cottage, although there is regularity in the variety of architectural styles. Fibro. 70s brick two-storey with steeply pitched roof. McMansion. Every house has something to distinguish it from its neighbour, no matter how tiny a detail it might be.
From the top of the hill on Simmat street there is a view over Bankstown and Punchbowl, trees and red brick roofs. Far off in the distance are the recent high-rise apartment buildings of Wolli Creek and Rockdale, but nothing else breaks the pattern of tiles and treetops. It’s a view of Sydney as suburbs, with the usual bookends of the city and the mountains hidden from view.
The grass at the lookout is strewn the remains of past picnics, wrappers, bottles and McDonalds trash, as well as weirder things like a bottle of nasal spray and a headless my little pony. It’s Monday afternoon and no one is around apart from the occasional car passing by. I set off down the hill in search of the Bankstown Bunker.
During the second world war an airport was built in Bankstown and became a military air base. The hangars were made to look like farmhouses and sheds in order to disguise their true purpose. From above the airport might have been disguised, but everyone in Bankstown knew it was there and why. As well as the aerodrome an underground military operations centre was built in Bankstown and became known as the Bankstown Bunker. It was three storeys deep and a maze of rooms, including a map room with a huge map of Australia and the surrounding South Pacific area. After the war ended the bunker was sealed up until it was rediscovered in the early 1970s. A few years later the bunker was damaged by fire, and in 1975 a housing development was built on the land above it.
It’s not difficult to find the location of the bunker if you know where to look. On the corner of Edgar and Marion streets the clusters of dark brick and wood villas of the housing development are arranged around a central mound, a grassy hill with a few big blocks of sandstone, and it is under here that the bunker remains. Despite the fire the structure is intact, although all the fittings inside were destroyed. The entrances are all sealed these days, although there are rumours of entering it through an air vent in the backyard of one of the villas. It has at times been accessible, as this cave clan photograph reveals. Another tantalising scrap of bunker lore is that a 1986 episode of Burke’s Backyard was partially filmed inside the bunker. Footage of this great moment in television has not yet arisen online.
It’s a strange feeling to walk around on top of the bunker, imagining what must lie beneath my feet. Like the hill on Simmat Street this stretch of grass is deserted and my only company is twists of food wrappers, a pale blue dinner plate, a crushed packet of cigarettes decorated with a gory photo of what might happen to your throat if you smoke them. Underneath the grass and trees and blocks of sandstone is the 5 foot thick concrete shell of the bunker, and the remains of the rooms where men once plotted how Australia would be defended from enemy attack, walls streaked with soot and graffiti.
On the surface the scene is a regular pattern of suburban components, houses, parks, roads, corner stores. At the bottom of the hill is a mixed business with faded ads for newspapers on the awning. The ad in the centre, for the long defunct Daily Mirror, has been painted over white but the name can still be seen faintly. Newspapers, world wars, fibro cottages, they’re of the past but they are still around us.
As anyone travelling out through the suburban sprawl knows, it can take a long time to leave Sydney. Driving south from the city is to watch the suburbs unravel, until the new estates disappear and are replaced by fields. Finally the city is behind you.
In the days before cheap air fares, travellers to Melbourne faced a 12 hour bus or train journey, or a slightly quicker trip down the Hume Highway in a car. Whichever way you chose, you shared the same experience of the suburbs finally dwindling and a sense that you might just make it out of Sydney after all. On the return journey this feeling was reversed: sighting the factories and new estates of the outermost suburbs was the first tentative sign that Sydney lay ahead. Still an hour or more away was the city itself, with the harbour and its centrepiece, the bridge.
If you ever lifted your sleepy head from against the window of the Firefly express bus after it made its first Sydney stop in Liverpool, however, you might have been fooled into thinking the city had been rearranged in your absence. For outside the window and much before schedule was Sydney’s most recognisable landmark.
Possibly the only one of Australia’s “big things” – apart from the Leyland Brothers’ World replica Ayers Rock at Karuah – to actually be smaller than the original, Sydney’s second harbour bridge is like a sapling growing far from the tree it sprung from. The bridge marks the entrance to the Peter Warren automotive empire. Sydney’s longest running auto “mall”, the Peter Warren compound occupies a 22 acre lot across from the Warwick Farm racecourse. Warwick Farm, with its run down motels, Masterton display home village and horse racing track is at the point in suburban sprawl where everything feels expanded. There is enough space to accommodate warehouses and car yards here, although the neverending traffic of the Hume Highway suggests you pass through, rather than stop. Electronic signs flash up offers to entice you off the road:
GOLD MANSION PACKAGE $50 000!
ALL YOU CAN EAT ALL DAY
The display home village, or steak barn can be seen set back from the road, separated from the highway by the no man’s land of lawn where their flashing signs are moored.
Like the original Harbour Bridge thirty kilometres away, the Warwick Farm version is topped with flags and draped in lights for special occasions. But in a strange inversion the traffic flows not across but underneath it, on a harbour of asphalt. Newer, shinier versions of the cars rushing along the Hume are found on the other side of the bridge, arranged on ramps, bonnets up, salesmen lurking among them.
It is a rainy day when I approach the Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge. It feels wrong to be walking. Eight lanes of cars separate me from the bridge and I watch them stream past, driver after driver clinging onto their steering wheel and squinting into the rain. Then the lights change and a few test drive cars move slowly out from Peter Warren. The drivers pause for me to finish crossing the street and I hurry, feeling vulnerable in the way it is easy to as a pedestrian surrounded on all sides by cars.
At the foot of the bridge I tap a pylon to see what they are made of: bricks that are cold to the touch and, at the top of the structure, covered with a pale green rash of lichen. One pylon has a plaque commemorating the opening of the replica in February 1988, the other a plaque in memory of Peter Warren, the patriarch of the car emporium, who died in 2006.
The idea to have a replica of the harbour bridge at the entrance of his car dealership came to Peter Warren while he was watching the 1987 Manly vs. Canberra NRL grand final at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Before the game, the pre-match entertainment centred around the construction of a replica harbour bridge. Men in bright blue overalls carrying crossbeams raced to construct the bridge, as teenage girls in white bodysuits branded with a purple NSW enthusiastically swung their arms in a dance move that can only be described as the mashed potato. In a orchestrated event worthy of an Olympics opening ceremony in both scope and kitsch, each team in the league was represented on the field with a sign, a flag, and local mascots: Coffs Harbour, for example, had someone dressed as a banana. Behind the horsemen, kids in “I helped make this state great” sweaters, and Julie Anthony singing the national anthem, it was the bridge that caught Warren’s attention. What was going to happen to it after the game? He arranged for it to be relocated to his Warwick Farm car yards for the bicentenary, and it turned out to be so popular and good for business that it became a permanent fixture.
(The bridge first appears at 1:55…)
When the real Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932 it brought great change to the city. Not only were the north and south sides of the city linked, Sydney now had an iconic engineering marvel to solidify its identity. Even now after thousands of crossings I find it impossible not to look out the window when travelling over it by train. I choose the western side of the upper level of the carriage for the least interrupted view. Looking over the harbour below and what seems to be the whole city spread out around it, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder.
Growing up in the northern suburbs, the bridge has been a major part of my life; it separated the quiet, homely north from the exciting city and the great unknown network of suburbs to the south. As a child, I would clutch the 20c coin until it grew hot, waiting to pass it over to my mother when we drove through the toll gates on our way into the city. One exceptional journey occurred in a limousine, which had been hired to convey a group of eight year old girls, of which I was one, to see a production of HMS Pinafore in the city. This strange escapade was the birthday party for one of my classmates. The limousine had travelled from her house in St Ives and as it drove us across the bridge, I poked my head up through the open sunroof and stared up at the beams and crossbeams of the arch above me, my friends screaming at my bravado.
The older I became the more frequent were my journeys across the bridge. Once I was across it I felt invisible to the constraints of life in the north. Had I grown up elsewhere perhaps the bridge might not have had such personal significance. Those growing up in the south of Sydney might go years without travelling across the bridge; some might never travel across it at all. Regardless, it holds a great symbolic power for all Sydney residents. Go to Circular Quay any time and you will see people stopped, staring at it, tourists and locals alike.
The Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge is not so much grand as incongruous, a reminder of the city in a place that feels far away from it. The lawns on either side of it have a springy, manicured feel, the kind of grass that is decorative and only walked on by gardeners. On the side of one of the pylons is a square door, just big enough to climb into. It is locked, so I peer in through a crack to see the space inside it, a chasm damp and green with mould. If Warwick Farm were under siege, I thought, this would be a good place to hide.
The pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which appear such an integral part of the structure, are in fact ornamental. John Bradfield, the engineer responsible for the bridge, thought the arch alone looked too stark, and so the pylons were added for aesthetic reasons, and to convince the public of the bridge’s stability. In the 1930s the south east pylon was opened as a museum, featuring amusements such as a camera obscura, funhouse mirrors, a miniature railway, a “Mother’s Nook” for women to write letters, and a “pashometer” – a machine that rated one’s sex appeal, as well as sightseeing telescopes. After closure during the second world war the pylon museum reopened with even more tourist attractions: a tearoom, the largest existing map of New South Wales, a post office, and a family of white cats that guarded a wishing well at the pylon lookout and had their own merry-go-round.
Today’s pylon display is more museum than amusements gallery, although it displays some of the ephemera from its previous incarnations. One of the hand painted signs must have originally been on the stairs in the post-war pylon museum, its caption “look behind you for the way to the top of the world “.
The bridge was Sydney’s tallest structure until the construction of Australia Square tower in the 1960s, but while it has been superseded in height, climbing it provides a “top of the world” thrill that the sealed environment of an observation deck can’t replicate. Walking under the bridge at the Rocks, hearing the sound of chains above, it is most likely a string of Bridgeclimbers, wearing grey jumpsuits and secured to each other and the railing by a safety chain. Bridgeclimb began as a business in 1998, but before this many people climbed the bridge illegally, so many that in the 1980s there was a guestbook on the summit for people to write messages. Anyone who left a message became a member of the Sydney Harbour Social Climbers Association, a tongue-in-cheek ‘club’ whose code of ethics included such items as “I shall not unplug the beacon at the top of the arch” as well as refraining from vomiting on the traffic below. Climbers were mostly men, some serious explorers and others on drunken adventures. They climbed up through a series of chambers inside the lower archway. Once they reached the summit they had the thrilling experience of looking out across the glittering mantle of electric lights reflected in the night harbour.
The first bridge climbers were the thousands of workers who constructed the bridge in the eight year period from 1925. Working high above the harbour without the safety equipment, the groups of men appear almost casual in photographs, wearing cloth caps and braces. As well as working at a height, many of the construction activities themselves were dangerous, such as working with the rivets. Each rivet was heated until it was white-hot, then tossed to another worker who hammered it in place. Six million rivets hold together the steel arch of the bridge, a structure which now seems so complete it can be difficult to imagine it was constructed by human hands.
The men in blue overalls at the 1987 grand final were paying homage to these workers, as the model bridge itself is a homage to the greater structure. All world landmarks undergo a splintering into millions of representations, captured under snowdomes, , their likeness found on bottle openers, beach towels, and commemorative teacups, or recreated in matchsticks by crafty pensioners. From the 1930s the bridge’s likeness was celebrated in souvenirs and was the focus of sometimes unlikely crafts: in 1933 readers of the Woman’s Weekly could enter their Harbour Bridge themed crocheted tray mats into a competition called “Symphony of Steel”. While the bridge had been constructed by eight years of hard and dangerous labour, the end result was heralded as something more like a symphony than a civic structure, a work of art with great symbolic and emotional power.
Since its faintest beginnings Sydney Harbour Bridge has always existed in multiples. Now suburban harbour bridges are everywhere: on shop signs, in logos and murals, on beach towels hanging up to dry on washing lines. These millions of bridges are tiny hooks that connect the fabric of Sydney together.
At the Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge the rain pours down as I stand watching the cars move through the cycle of traffic lights at the intersection. The rain has turned everything grey and the surface of the road is slick and wet. A few cars turn into Peter Warren and drive in under the bridge, but most continue onwards along the Hume, either drawn towards the city, or escaping from it.