The real Sydney lies via Cabramatta // 23 November 2010

Sydney. An Olympic city, a world city, a city of cities. Of sorts.

It seems to me, though, that it’s a patchwork city: a cluster of villages delineated, disparate and bordered by roads, fuzzy boundaries and unconscious taboos – and united by a fiercely superficial factor. To wit: Sydney’s neighbourhoods are defined by money. To walk through Sydney means walking through distinctly crafted socio-economic areas, to travel five miles down a Sydney road signals a slide along a scale of poshness. In a country that is proudly class-ignorant, this city seems to pay the dollar a lot of lip service.

Sydney doesn’t stand alone in this regard. But, where London, for example, is home to council blocks flush with million-pound terraced houses (Kate Moss’ pad looks onto a council block near St. John’s Wood, don’t you know), here, the poor live in poor areas and the rich live, well, surrounded by other rich. To be doing well in Sydney means to live in the northern and eastern suburbs. It’s pretty unusual for a monied, successful Sydneysider to live in the western or southern suburbs and it’s more or less unheard of for a struggling single mum to live in certain postcodes. Not here, the multi-million pound Chelsea council houses.

Mosman – with its eye-wateringly expensive eye-lines onto the water – was thirty years or so ago a quiet, uncool, granny patch. Likewise, over in the western suburbs, Ermington, near West Ryde, was once a dead end and is now a sprawling, pram-patrolled families’ happy valley. Tourists visit the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, catch the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and ogle at brown bodies on Bondi. They rarely see ‘the real Sydney’. It was ever thus – in London the constant upcycling of ‘hoods makes for an ever-sprawling push of artists, families, students and everyone else not on tidy salaries away from the central core of the city and it’s not without reason that few tourists who see Buckingham Palace and the Eye can say they have taken the number 38 to Clapton Pond – unlike all of those young and upwardly mobile media types who live there now.

So it’s a shame that Sydney’s Cabramatta, with its 75% South-East Asian population, superb food, headily fragranced fruit markets, tatty made-in-Vietnam-clad shelves and signposts in Quoc Ngu is such a lowly regarded no-go zone to many Sydneysiders – even young artists looking for cheap rent. But where once heroin dealers and shady gangsters loitered on Cabramatta’s street corners, now sit cafes serving iced Vietnamese coffee and custard buns.

The irony isn’t lost on me that to sample the ‘real Sydney’ I landed in a neighbourhood that wouldn’t have felt out of place in downtown Saigon – and that many who would most enjoy the richness of the area’s cultural zest would readily travel to Asian cities from eastern and northern suburbs just a few miles away to sample steaming bowls of noodles, haggle in bric-a-brac markets and treat themselves to a tailored suit. But perhaps it’s the jigsaw-pieced otherness of Cabramatta that makes it – and by the same logic, Mosman – so special to some.

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