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Sydney – left behind by other capitals as we turn off the lights

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Sydney 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 visitors. We celebrated our identity wildly. Here was an emergent and bright young culture that knew how to celebrate this gift called life. We rolled out onto the world stage with aplomb.

But somehow since then, we became culturally complacent or we became lazy, or perhaps we just became uptight.

While Sydney trudges through all of the regulations and institutions constructed to protect us from ourselves – the other cities are boldly taking risks.

Whatsmore, we selected leaders who felt it was a sensible thing to try to tie us down. Leaders who turned off our night and decided to mollycoddle us during the day with all sorts of niggling little rules.

The head wind 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 – the 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.

Let’s snap out of this boring vanilla and learn to express ourselves again.

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 this 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 til 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, fan tabulous, fantasmagorical, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” A fantastic flurry of words that promises the visitor fun.

Of course, one can not 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 can not 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?

We need to fear less and take more risks again. We have to relegate those who try to stifle our personality to the sidelines.

And 17 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 having 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.

Read more by Joseph O’Donoghue here

21 responses to “Sydney – left behind by other capitals as we turn off the lights

  1. I hear it’s because Jamie Packer’s paid off local and state governments so his casinos are the ONLY place to go in Sydney

  2. It’s a good city to be in, I been here for 20 years as I am 20 years old now, pretty young guy but I will like to continue living here as my home with the Australian People. It’s a good place but it’s just the people, you shouldn’t destroy a city with a place like Sydney but only if it’s people have changed to like nor dislike each other growing with technology and their phones. Look up more here, smell the beautiful calm air that it has to offer to us. With that change we be the mature city and the biggest city in Australia again since the Olympics. Just saying Sydney, it’s your choice, I made my choice to be here forever from living to during, Tks.

  3. Plenty of us Sydneysiders get daily cultural stimulation swimming, walking,and gazing at our stunning beaches, harbour,waterways and wilderness spaces that no other Australian and very few world cities have.There are stunning performances all the time from the myriad fishes,birds,and clouds.The other cities have to run while we just need to stay still.

    1. culture
      1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
      “20th century popular culture”
      synonyms: the arts, the humanities; More
      2. the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
      “Afro-Caribbean culture”
      synonyms: civilization, society, way of life, lifestyle; More

  4. There is a certain group who run the place nowadays , they are very reactive to outside influence ,very conservative ,and leaning to the IPA ,productivity commission , developers and also quite religious , so even though the place is on a roll there is little Joy around , Baird was an ex-churchman so he was not really tolerant of the need to allow expression and entertainment to flourish , Offarrel before him was also very dour ,Gladys is yet to show up , so we need the flamboyancy of the Wran years to return or someone like him to get us flying again , Jasmes Packer is not interested in the ordinary Joes , also the venues where bands played are all gone now ,poker machines in pubs ruined that, lets hope a change comes when this current government goes , but there is not a lot of Joy in the Labor side either ? Luke Foley does not exude Joy!!

  5. What a great idea for Sydney! A Poseidon Festival. Never take for granted what you have. It stops you looking for what might be.

  6. I’m one of your overseas visitors. I first went to Australia in my early 20’s in the early 90’s, and for the past ten years I’ve been lucky enough that work takes me to Oz every year. I usually visit Sydney and a few of the other major cities each trip, and I always looked forward to Sydney the most. I usually tried to arrange it so that it’d be my last stop and I’d add some extra days just to hang out. But these days I don’t. Of course it’s still an amazing and fun city – but not like it used to be. Baird & Co have strangled it. The exciting, open, outward-looking, confident, energetic city of relaxed fun I first met has become smaller and more closed. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, it has the feeling now of a petty police state. You can’t do this, you mustn’t do that, go to bed at this time, no your mate will have to order the third beer, show me your ID, look into the camera, no you can’t come in it’s 1:35am…. and here’s your hotel bill equal to the GDP of a small country.
    I still love Sydney – I’ve had some of the best times of my life there – but these days it feels like Melbourne wants me to visit, while Sydney is slightly annoyed that I came. Regretfully, these days I don’t try to arrange my trips so Sydney is the last stop. She’s changed since I first fell in love with her and she’s gotten cranky and I’m constantly walking on eggshells in case I piss her off by doing something wrong. I hope it’s just a midlife crisis and she’ll eventually be back to her old self. I kinda miss her.

  7. Don’t delude your self. Sydney has always been Tart Town. Showy, cheap and soulless. You’ve convinced yourselves that beach culture makes you special. No, sadly, it doesn’t. It makes you superficially fun. Other cities have always had it over you in terms of proper culture, whether pop or serious. You’ve never had it to lose. Sorry for the reality check.

    1. Like some young blond Bondi ‘hottie’ …revealing ass tatt, more skanky than sexy, self- absorbed, obsessed with selfies, labels and d-grade celebrity.
      Sure…gets attention for a few moment but just dont expect her to have anything to say…

      1. Steven Ellis, just a spontaneous bit of sexism, misogyny and objectification, not to mention outright dirty old man creepiness. You must be quite a character.

  8. I’m usually not a fan of personifying cities, but in this case it felt right. Enjoyable article Joseph.

    I think Melbourne has the right idea by aspiring to be a 24 hour city. Sydney does seem to have settled for just being the pretty one. I think she’s capable of more.

  9. In 2000, Sydney was party capital of Earth.

    In 2017 it is a series of identically dead Westfields linked by excruciatingly static traffic routes; an evicted Rocks population (the only colour left after the Cross was gentrified) replaced by a more Casino-friendly set of absentee landlords in Singapore and their corporate slave tenants; outrageous fares to get a train to the airport; non-existent buses running on a timetable that must apply in Narnia, such is the non-relation it bears to reality in Sydney; non-existent nitelife, and while Victoria bans fracking forever NSW is opening up new coal fields in the food basin and next to the water cachement.

    NSW was founded as an apartheid penal colony and the mentality of predation rather than service continues to this day – the most recent Liberal govts being exemplary of this: O Farrell busted for corruption, Baird his successor never had to run to be appointed but managed to destroy it all. It will never recover. Leave now – flee for your livesssssssssss

    *also, no apostrophe in “its”. His, hers, its.

  10. So your premise is that we are over regulated and there’s not enough going on culturally. I get that.

    But your article doesn’t address a single “nigling little rule” from the daytime. Instead it’s all about

    1) more state government funding for the arts
    2) making alcohol available 24hrs a day again

    For all those bemoaning the effect of the lockout laws: Sydney *had* a really vibrant culture in the 80 and 90s *before* 24 hour alcohol.

    I lived in the middle of kings cross for a decade during 24 hour trading. The driver wasn’t cultural opportunity and events with alcohol in the mix – it was a massive influx of people coming into town from far away simply to get wasted. The culture you’re missing was getting dissolved in booze anyway.

    1. Hey Tim,

      Not once do I mention:

      1) More state government funding for the arts
      2) Making alcohol available 24hrs a day again

      The lockouts are just one factor in the cultural stiflement. 24 hour drinking is not what anyone wants.

      However, more arts funding would be nice!

      Sydneysiders need to take the bull by the horns now. We can’t wait for governments anymore.

  11. “The days of Sydney being the envy of Melbournians are finished.” Dude, they never started. Sydney’s best features are what nature gave it, Melbourne’s are what the people made of it. Sydney has never been the envy, the weather it lives in and the harbour it is situated on maybe, but you need to have built a better city and community to make such a comment. You sound utterly oblivious. But cute.

    1. Dear Left.

      There has always been a healthy rivalry between the two cities. It wasn’t just about the beaches of the weather. Sydney’s nightlife used to mimic the personality of much of it’s locals – hedonistic, energetic and carefree. You were obviously oblivious to that! The moral of the story here is that these wonderful elements of Sydney have fallen away, gone.

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