Sydney’s Other Tower

The Port Operations tower keeps watch over Sydney Harbour from the furthest point of a remote loop of streets in Millers Point. Whenever I travel over the harbour bridge I look for its severe, concrete presence, imagining it like a relative at a family gathering who says nothing but sees everything.

Follow the tower’s concrete stem to the ground and there is Millers Point, a suburb which exists in a bubble of past time. The furthest most people venture into it is Observatory Hill, a place to have picnics under the fig trees and to look out towards the harbour bridge and Luna Park on the opposite shore. The view steals people’s attention away from the place in which they stand.

I approach Millers Point from Wynyard station, walking out from the high rise-lined streets and crossing underneath the vast concrete sweep of the western distributor. Unseen traffic roars overhead on its approach to the Harbour Bridge. I walk a few blocks along Hickson road, past the new residential developments with names like “the Bond” until the Port Observation tower appears in the near distance. The new buildings end suddenly at a zigzag cut into a sandstone wall, the steps leading up to High street.

After I climb the steep flight of steps it becomes quiet, as if this part of the city is under a bell jar. The roar of traffic and the sounds of construction has faded away. Writing in the early 1970s, Ruth Park described the mood of this area as “drowsy and nostalgic”, and there is still something of this that lingers. It’s a lands-end feeling, the High street houses are the last before the wasteland of the deserted foreshore and then the harbour.


At the southernmost corner of the High street, at the top of the stairs, is a tiny patch of park, with a bench facing out towards the water. Here a group of hospitality workers sit, smoking and discussing their boss. The Port Operations tower, only a few streets away, watches over them as they grind their cigarettes out and creep back towards the cafe or the hotel they must work in on Kent St. I take their place and sit in their smoky wake, watching the High street residents bringing in their recycling bins and sitting on their porches, soaking in the light. It must be a special thing to live in this row of old houses with tin roofs and white wooden balconies, high up on the ridge above the foreshore, at the city’s very edge.

This long row of High St houses were once owned by the Maritime Services Board and were home to the men who worked on the wharves and their families. In the 1980s the Department of Housing took over, a move which ruptured the community and left residents feeling vulnerable. The area’s early 20th century character, preserved by being public housing, plus the harbour views, peaceful now the container wharves are gone, now make Millers Point prime real estate. Recently a number of the larger Millers Point public housing properties were sold off, after leases negotiated by boarding house landladies in the 1980s expired. Uncertainty over the future of public housing here makes the drowsy quiet of the afternoon seem ominous, as if these are its last quiet moments. Change is inevitable: the area below High Street, once the wharves, is awaiting redevelopment into Barangaroo.

One house near the corner is draped in Canterbury Bulldogs paraphernalia, blue and white scarves, flags, posters, cards. This shrine has, at its centre, a real live bulldog, wearing a blue harness to match the rest of the display. The dog lies snoozing in the afternoon sun, half opening its eyes when I walk past. A piece of cardboard is cable tied to the fence, with a warning written in blue texta: BEWARE OF THE DOG. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. WOOF WOOF WOOF.

Further down the street is another message, written on the glass panel of the door in permanent marker: “Do not knock  after 8pm or before 11am. Sleeping hours due to health.” On the porch of another house is a bird cage with two rainbow lorikeets inside, and a bird feeder weighed down with pigeons, which scatter when I approach. On the windowsill of one house is a row of clear crystals, cut into giant gemstones, on another, a Spiderman figurine guards a small potplant. Every house has a detail like this, a clue to the person who lives inside.

Behind the High St terrace houses is a deserted laneway with maidenhair ferns growing from the walls and asthma weed sprouting from the cracks. It is so perfectly cool and still here that it feels like I’ve slipped into a fissure and I am hiding inside the city’s subconscious. To one side is the back of the High street houses with back gates and downpipes, and the other is a sandstone wall, stained with slow channels of water. Very faintly I can hear the sound of a television from inside one of the houses, but otherwise, nothing. It’s an invisible, backstage feeling.

At the end of High street, a block closer to the Port Operations tower, there’s another sliver of park. The park has two big fig trees and a sign describing how “whole streets” disappeared when the cliff between High Street and Hickson road was cut down. There are plenty of ghost streets in this part of Sydney, erased in both the redevelopment of the wharves and with the building of the Harbour Bridge.

It is a sunny day and feels like the first day of spring, although it is still late August. A man and his daughter excitedly plot their afternoon, tearing the wrappers from their ice creams as they cross over the Munn street bridge and pass the Palisade Hotel. The Palisade is a grand structure, a tall brick sentry for the farthest corner of Millers Point, though with its boarded up windows and fading signs, it too seems like a ghost. I walk up past it and turn right onto Merriman street, following the curve of the road. It’s a shock to see the tower at the end of the street, having only ever seen it from a distance. It rises up from the cliff on a smooth concrete stem, capped with a strip of windows around the top, from where hidden controllers watch the harbour. Across from the tower is a row of pastel painted houses with chimneys, wooden shutters, and iron lace balconies, they look small and delicate by comparison.

From Merriman street, the city buildings are invisible. They are obscured by the lie of the land and the row of houses, as if Millers Point has broken away and formed its own island. At the very end of the street are two worker’s cottages, and across from them is the entrance to the tower, a white hatch crawling with ivy, locked behind a high wire fence. A concrete slab with tarnished metal letters labels the tower as the Port Operations and Communication Centre, property of the Maritime Services Board of NSW.  It was built in 1973, just prior to the construction of Sydney Tower (which I will insist on calling Centrepoint until the end of my days) and on close inspection, both towers have a similarly tiled appearance. This is an alternate universe version of Centrepoint, a 70s office block kind of tower. Inside I imagine men with sideburns and skivvies, sipping instant coffee from Maritime Services Board mugs as they peer through telescopes and talk on clunky olive green phones with curly cords. In this world, the houses across the street are inhabited by the grandchildren of wharfies, who have inherited tales of protests and accidents, and whose dreams are full of ships.

Dalgety’s Wool store, where the Port Observation Tower is now. Photo from State Records NSW.

The Port Operations Tower was built on the site of what was once Dalgety’s Wool Store, a huge warehouse that stored bales of wool before it was sent down to the ships at the wharves below. The busy days of the port are long gone, all that remains is a long stretch of tarmac with building materials piled here and there. I look down over it from the top of the cliff, trying to imagine it in both the past and the future. With the Barangaroo development this area will be converted to a park, the shoreline reconstructed to its 1836 shape. In the 360 degree walk-through interactive simulation of the park online, the Port Operation tower remains, rising from the trees. Many of the traces of the area’s history as a wharf, however, will disappear.

For now there is a weird silence in the wharf area below, which could be secrets or could be emptiness. The tower, too, has a great feeling of secrecy about it; I look up and try to glimpse someone inside, but the windows give nothing away. At the base of the tower is a playground. A pirate ship is half submerged in the foam ground covering that’s laid down to cushion falls and shock the unsuspecting pedestrian who walks across it. Some people are at the picnic area alongside the tower. A man, wearing an apron patterned with flowers, is cooking kebabs on a barbecue, while a woman sits at the table, staring out into the harbour, talking to him. Scraps of their conversation float over to me, but it is in Japanese and I cannot understand it. They look as comfortable as if they are in their own kitchen, even though the tower is only metres away, overshadowing them.

In one of the cars parked along Merriman St is another couple, who stare at me with a look of interruption as I walk past them. This could well be one of those places where people park their cars for romantic interludes. It has the requisite feeling of desertion about it: dead end streets above cliffs are always popular for this sort of thing.

Beyond the picnic area and the playground is a park with steps that lead down to the streets below. I walk a little way along a laneway so damp the sun must never reach it, a street mentioned in Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney: “In Roden’s Lane, I once found a blacksmith’s shop which occupied a cave in the sandstone, two walls being sootstained cliff. A smith was working there, making handforged firedogs and brackets and domestic ironware.” It seemed entirely possible that he might still be there, for the only details giving away the present were a couple of behemoth televisions dumped on the skinny footpath. In what might have been the blacksmith’s cave is now a garden of moss, ferns and succulents. A broken ceramic gnome lay reconstructed in the damp soil, its smile half missing and eyes lopsided.

Returning to the sunlight, I make my way down to the gates of the wharf area, which are open from sunrise to sunset to allow people to walk along the harbour’s edge. Most of the area has been fenced off, leaving a strip of land around the edge as a thoroughfare. What looked to be the foundations of a sandstone pyramid is stacked up in a pile, inaccessible behind a fence. The only remaining building is a little brick hut, further surrounded by fences, and I wonder what holy grail might be hidden inside.

Few people are walking the harbour’s edge, some German tourists, the occasional cyclist. One man rides his bike in circles, around and around, and I like to think this is just for the pleasure of it until I see he is talking on his phone. He is riding a fixie and talking about real estate, as if he has come to life from the Barangaroo interactive simulation.

The tarmac underfoot is deeply scored with lines and pock-marks, with a crisp blue marathon line painted across it. Bins and signs have been installed, but these details are tiny against the abandoned feeling of the whole place. From here, the Port Operations tower looms on the cliff above, and looks to be at the prow of the city, leading it onwards towards the water. With the park redevelopment, the land below the cliff will be filled in to create a natural slope of land leading down to the harbour, and this wall which has soaked up a hundred years of afternoon sun will be buried.

This sandstone cliff traces the point, then continues along Hickson Road. In 2009, this stretch of Hickson Road was officially renamed its Depression-era nickname, the Hungry Mile. This was one of the names suggested for the entire foreshore redevelopment, of which Barangaroo was chosen, in commemoration of the Cammeragal woman who was Bennelong’s wife. Now her name is shorthand for “spectacular waterfront precinct”.

The Hungry Mile wall is Sydney’s greatest wall, a long, curved stretch which at times can be ghostly, with not another person in sight and few cars parked in the many spaces. Constructed during the wharf redevelopment period in the early 20th century, at points the wall seems to have entombed the structures that it replaced. There are weird clues: a staircase to nowhere, a bunker set into the wall, blotches where graffiti has been chipped away, and abstract intersections of concrete and sandstone.

I walk back along the base of the wall, absorbing the last moments of Millers Point quiet before returning to the present day city. Whatever calm might exist in Millers Point today is only temporary, as soon it will undergo another great change. It will be drawn back into the city, and into the present.

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Radio National documentary about Millers Point.

While I was researching this story I found this image of how the Rocks would have looked if the proposed redevelopment in the 1960s had gone ahead. Thanks Green Bans for saving Sydney from that.