The biggest seismic events to hit Sydney – that aren’t Covid

Nikki Webster flying through the air at the year 2000 Sydney Olympics. File photo.

As Covid-19 brings upheaval to life in Sydney, the Sentinel examines previous existential changes to hit the Emerald City. By Richie Black.

Along with many other cities in this time of pandemic, the very essence of Sydney is currently being reordered. 

The way we work, for example, has fundamentally changed: we’re regularly doing so at home in our PJs, we’re not sardined on peak hour trains anymore, the suits have thinned out at Ryan’s Bar – and so on. There’s a definite sense of existential angst on the breeze. 

But don’t panic … this isn’t the first time we’ve experienced incredible change – for both good and bad. And the Sentinel is here to put it into a little bit of context. 

The Sydney Olympics

It’s easy to forget in the lead up to 2000, collectively, we were in a bit of a low-key funk. 

Nationally, we’d accidentally voted for John Howard for a second term. Culturally, the stench of post-grunge permeated the airwaves via the then still pervasive Triple M. 

Meanwhile, our public transport system was functioning with all the verve of a geriatric mule. As the Olympics hove into view, the scepticism was pronounced. The popular consensus was that the city – let alone CityRail – wouldn’t be up to it.  

But then something happened – and pretty much from the moment we saw Nikki Webster launched on wires into the air at the opening ceremony, we embraced the occasion. 

By the time Cathy Freeman won the 400-metre final, we were actually thoroughly enjoying ourselves – and, what’s more, we didn’t freak out about it. 

The trains worked … then Juan Antonio Samaranch told us we held the best Olympics ever – and, imbued with a sense of largesse, all seemed right with the world, at least in Sydney. 

Of course, we were kidding ourselves, as 9/11 proved. Still, it was good while it lasted. 

US television network NBC introduces viewers to the year 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Video: Chris D’Agostino/NBC Universal/YouTube.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge

Completed in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, the construction itself of the bridge had an important impact: creating and providing a huge volume of jobs for the unemployed – hence its nickname of the day, ‘the iron lung’.

Over the long term, it helped open up the northern side of the harbour, enabling the city to expand to verdant pastures – like, um, Artarmon. 

Thus we can credit the bridge for the firmament of the North Shore, and the ongoing legacy of establishments like the Chatswood RSL, some really great Indian restaurants in the Crows Nest area and, of course, the Orchard Hotel

As an unfortunate by-product, it also ensured the legacy of the Greengate Hotel – but then, as they say, every rose has its thorn.

A 1933 documentary on the construction and opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Video: NFSA Films/YouTube.

Lockout Laws

Before Covid, Sydney’s nightlife was already feeling the pinch – as a result of NSW Government’s February 2014 legislation – which had the intention of reducing alcohol-fuelled violence. 

In case you’ve forgotten, the law required 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at bars, pubs and clubs in the Sydney CBD entertainment precinct.

It’s one of the most intrinsically existential dilemmas Sydney has faced – and a serious one, too. Safety versus commerce – with alcohol as the lurking thematic. 

Meanwhile, the great unwashed (including me) took their drinking home in solitary. Safer and definitely more economical – but not so good for small business owners. A lot of the more intense restrictions were scrapped on January 14th this year, but the effects were profound: a 2019 NSW parliamentary inquiry found that about 270 venues were forced to shut down. 

And the fact that the demon drink is the root course of a lot of these issues was highlighted when one of the lockout laws’ chief instigators, former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, had to resign over a bottle of Grange.

Former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell leaves an ICAC hearing in 2014. Photo: ABC News.

Medium-density housing

A seismic change which is still underway – naturally having its most devastating impact on the North Shore. 

As of 2020, a once urban paradise is set for its final metamorphosis into an Eastern European-like hell-scape – well, if the warnings of local action group like Save Our Suburbs come true. 

The scourge of development has already transformed a suburb like Lindfield into something of a hub – admittedly a bit like reviving a corpse, then slapping some foundation on it. And, yes, I am qualified to rag on it: I grew up there, I know. 

Lindfield Village, an apartment complex in Lindfield, under construction. Photo: Aqualand Australia/Facebook.

Justin Hemmes is born

Not an earth shattering event in and of itself – and yet, the Sentinel expects the psychic shock was felt amidst the pub zeitgeist. 

A few decades later, his rapacious Merivale hospitality company owns at least 70 venues across Sydney – in doing so normalising the ‘gastro-pub’ and sending the price of a pub schnitzel sky-rocketing by as much as 10 bucks. The socio-political ramifications will be felt for generations.

Justin Hemmes. Photo: The Urban Developer.

The Western Suburbs Are discovered

Until perhaps the late nineties, when Homebush staked its claim as the sporting capital of the universe, few people realised anything existed beyond, maybe, Croydon … least of all the state government. 

Nevertheless, someone from Macquarie Street must’ve passed out drunk on an express service and woken up at Seven Hills – and suddenly there was a sense of new horizons. This place was actually pretty great, diverse, dynamic – and didn’t have a Greengate Hotel in sight. 

A video tour of the western Sydney suburbs of Canterbury, Lakemba and Bankstown. Video: Pavement Pounder/YouTube.

Sydney is invaded

Back in the day, the locals were hunting, fishing and camping in tranquility. Under expert management, the ecology was doing great and, what’s more, the Daily Telegraph hadn’t been invented yet. 

Everything was fine, until in 1788, a bunch of pale-faces horned in on the scene. 

Now, in 2020, as Sydney collectively screams headlong into an uncertain future – compelled to rethink the infrastructure of our lives – we can at least take solace that we have some choice in the matter.

Captain James Cook claiming possession of the Australian continent in 1770 on behalf of the British Crown at Kurnell, now a suburb of Sydney.. Image: Samuel Calvert/National Library of Australia.

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