What better way to become acquainted with my new position at the University of Sydney than to familiarise myself with some of the radical past of the city itself? With that aim in mind I recently picked up a copy, from the independent bookshop Gleebooks, of Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill’s excellent text Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes. The book is a fantastic read, jam-packed with details on the radical past of Sydney that digs behind the postcard social imagination of the present. In so doing it is an essential resource that helps to understand spaces of radical struggle from the founding of the city onwards and its peripheral places in the working-class suburbs, bohemian neighbourhoods, public spaces, and street protests that have challenged ruling power. Even more so, this book on the spatial struggles of radical Sydney is a fine localist counterpart to endeavours, such as David Harvey’s in Rebel Cities, that more broadly attempt to trace the spatial organisation and contestation of cityscapes. How does Radical Sydney address claims about the ‘right to the city’ in shaping power over the processes of urbanisation and how our cities are made and remade in a radical way?

In overview, Radical Sydney discovers and recovers what Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill explicitly recognise as the ‘spatial resources’ of radicalism in Sydney. This refers to the meeting halls, offices and cafés, theatres and pubs, printeries and bookshops that have assisted and defined the emergence of the organised labour movement, indigenous struggle, feminist organising, radical left formation, Communist protagonism, and wider student and social movement resistance of the New Left in Sydney. It is a vital supplement to Radical Melbourne: A Secret History by Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow and Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier’s edited Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History.

The nous for honing in on the architecture of places and the history of public spaces, from the iconic Domain—some 34 hectares of open space adjoining the Royal Botanic Gardens—to the dissenting suburbs of Darlington, Redfern, Paddington, Kings Cross and Glebe enables Irving and Cahill to deliver on revealing the past and present of radical Sydney. By extension, their objective speaks to what Walter Benjamin recognised as the need ‘to make the continuum of history explode’ by breaking the procession of the victors of history, embodied by their triumphal monuments of historical consciousness, and to re-establish the redemptive dimensions of social struggle that may speak to the present.

The book offers a series of fascinating vignettes tracing the spatially class divided history and present of the city of Sydney. As Irving and Cahill state:

Our rulers, having decided that Sydney must be one of the “global” cities of finance capitalism, encourage the spread of concrete and glass but ignore its consequences for the city’s heritage. In the pubs and halls, shops, factories and houses . . . are vital traces of its radical past; they should be marked and examined. Their disappearance is a significant loss for the city’s heritage.

TownHallOne of those vignettes covers the history of the Main Hall of the Sydney Town Hall in which two stain glass windows are present, commissioned for the Centenary of New South Wales in 1888. One depicts Captain Cook flanked by two of his commands, the Endeavour and the Discovery. The other depicts New South Wales as a young woman that is more a geopolitical statement about ‘Australia’ as a significant presence in the Pacific Region, soon carved up by Britain, France and Germany. Both windows are creations of the French artist Lucien Henry, who lived and worked in Sydney between 1879 and 1891, following his own turbulent history of radicalism in the Paris Commune. Captured by nationalist forces in 1872, he was condemned to death but had his sentence commuted to a life on New Caledonia, a French penal colony in the South Pacific. When a general amnesty was granted to the communards in 1879, the majority returned to France but Henry headed for Sydney with the Australian colonies thus becoming part of the world of exiled communards. To cite the authors of Radical Sydney, Henry ‘sought to create a “national” art that both expressed and would help shape a unique Australian experience, one that was not dependent on an imperial past, and that was at once national and cosmopolitan’.

Hungrey MileAnother vignette is the focus on ‘The Hungry Mile’: the name maritime workers gave to the mile of wharves that stretched along Hickson Road and between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, which was a location for bitter industrial and political struggles. In its heyday it was a political and industrial site, the engine room of the wealth created by shipping and stevedoring facilities for the state of New South Wales and Australia. Today ‘The Hungry Mile’ is a mix of hotels, casinos, restaurants, arts venues, training spaces and residential development. In 2006 the New South Wales government invited nominations for the renaming of 22 hectares of defunct maritime industrial land, which included the Hungry Mile, resulting in the name Barangaroo, referring to a prominent indigenous woman from Sydney’s colonial history. Reference to ‘the Hungry Mile’ as the official place name for the section of Hickson Road between Munn Street overbridge and the Napoleon Street intersection, close to 600 metres, was retained. Although not a mile, this is still a reminder of Sydney’s maritime and political past amidst the rush to commercially and controversially redevelop Barangaroo, which was recently plagued by fire.

DomainMeanwhile, in the time my reading of Radical Sydney was completed, another plan has been announced. Now the Domain, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, is set for a $130 million redevelopment to convert botany into hot property, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, including a boutique hotel, railway train station, ferry wharf, and outdoor entertainment facilities. Former prime minister Paul Keating has called for heeding the call of nature by railing against the proposed development of the ‘sacred site’ of the Domain and the Botanic Gardens. Less prosaically he has labelled one of the functionaries of the redevelopment plan as ‘just another property tart’.

Although not quite on the level of the protests surrounding proposals to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, latest developments on the Domain or at Barangaroo, formerly ‘the Hungry Mile’, remind us that the struggles over the right to the city in Sydney are very much about today’s lived space. Reading Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill’s Radical Sydney will be indispensable in learning from the spatial resources of the past and moving from, organising in, and dominating place to commanding space in the present.

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