Letter from Sydney: Post-APEC Ruminations

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An APEC relic, July 12 2011. Photo © Alan Miller 2011.

An APEC relic, July 12 2011. Photo © Alan Miller 2011.

As you may or may not have heard, last week was a strange one here in Sydney. The arrival of twenty world leaders and George Bush’s mountain bike warranted the erection of a five kilometre fence around certain grade A, mostly waterfront, parts of the central business district. There was debate and consternation, protest and, unexpectedly, pro-Bush counterprotest. While Bush rode his bike on my local trails, the leaders of countries like Chile and South Korea were unable to travel to the suburbs to meet their countrymen and women living in Australia. Then a group of comedians, one dressed as Osama Bin Laden, breached the exclusion zone in a fake Canadian motorcade. Which was funnier, the stunt itself or the pundits who insisted it wasn’t funny?

The Opera House steps were as depopulated as a photo spread in Architectural Record. The presence of police snipers on the roof of the city’s great icon further established the Opera House as not just the squiggle on a million tee shirts, but as the axis mundi of the city. Had you stood on Bennelong Point from 1959 to the present you would have see a great Mayan podium rise in the place of a demolished tram shed. You would have seen the sacking of a Danish architect, the botching of his interior design, several comings and goings of the Queen and many many tourists from Los Angeles and Tokyo. You would have witnessed an Olympic torch relay followed a couple of eventful years later by two guys painting the words “NO WAR” in massive red letters on one of the sails. You would have seen the Danish architect’s son return with new designs by his father. And last week, had you been close enough you would have seen snipers on the roof.
A few weeks before APEC I found myself in a lecture theatre listening to a local architect as he explained his approach to the semester’s design studio. He slid into a familiar, fairly toothless jeremiad — Sydney is not a global city, it may pretend, it may aspire, but if you can’t dance the night away on a Tuesday while trading carbon futures and downloading a full season of Desperate Housewives to your iPhone, then your city is not big time. The refrain was familiar from various moments in every city I have ever lived in. The implication is that there is always an elsewhere that is more cosmopolitan, more lively, more formidable. The goalposts shift and the aspiring global city always needs to lift its game.

If Sydney was a global city last week then who needs it? Edward Hopper never painted a global city, no one ever chased a femme fatale in one, and no global city ever won a world series. Hitting the big time I guess means playing some insipid version of the police state, complete with a fireworks display you’re not meant to look at. The ubiquity of the architect’s muddle headed jeremiad suggests that there are no global cities, not even on Google earth. There is only a vague collective idea of somewhere wealthy and unthreateningly bohemian an amalgamation of used bookstores with brushed aluminium, Guggenheims and sealed glass. There, better than here, is the generic city occasionally glimpsed in the airport lounge or the advertisement for mobile phones and prescription antidepressants. No one has ever been there, though, except me and the good people of Sydney.

The uneasy substructure of the global city was visible during APEC week. The scary part, as is often the case these days, was the blandness of it all. The fence — realised by a Labor state government at the behest of a Liberal prime minister — had no particular ideology. The purchase of our very own shiny water cannon, the snipers on the fifth façade, the five thousand metres of concrete barricade; these were presented as an unequivocally logical response to the demands of our times. There was no process of which they were the result. All these new things simply came into our lives one day.

Instinctively I would like to blame APEC on the vast right wing conspiracy, but it really isn’t that simple. The dispute over APEC and what it did to our city does not really reflect the gulf between the left and the right, or the internationalist and the isolationist. Instead, in the midst of slow but long-awaited political progress both here and overseas, I think last week’s shenanigans gave some indication of what has changed in the past six years, and how deeply.

In the week after APEC, a nationally televised current affairs show took security as its subject. Amidst the familiar analysis from various experts were “man on the street” interviews asking Sydneysiders what they thought of the APEC fence. Bizarrely, unaccountably, astoundingly, some of the interviewees volunteered that the fence made them feel safer. There was also a guy, his tone even and bland, who was so shit scared he hadn’t driven through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel in six years. I have tried to reflect upon the implications of the fence, and on how I felt sharing a city with it, but those people, feelin’ safe, are like some indigestible husk at the heart of the issue, an issue which should break down simply into the usual dispute between the hawks and the doves, the chardonnay sippers and the South Park conservatives, etc, etc.

APEC existed and our government either overreacted or reacted appropriately. Reasonable people may assert that the fence was excessive, that it crossed a line, or conversely that it was a necessary, temporary response to a real threat. However vehemently I may disagree with the latter view, I at least have hope for a society where these two poles mark the spectrum of mainstream opinion. You used to be able to have fun debating old school Republicans who insisted that tax cuts lifted all boats, or that war was good for business. Both sides in that case were at least “reality-based.” The “I feel safer” brigade line up with neoconservatives, intelligent design advocates and the darkest green carbon eco-puritans outside any recognizable spectrum of discourse. They are the inexplicable McMansions on the ragged exurban fringe. How can a human being’s primal desire for safety become so twisted that concrete barricades and snipers trigger feelings of comfort? How can someone be so fearful for six years as to avoid a perfectly convenient piece of trans-harbour infrastructure? There is no way of knowing how many people are like this.

APEC ended on Sunday. The special police powers expired on Wednesday. This may seem a small matter to some but why was this so? From whom should one expect an explaination? Even an imbecilic response would at least be reassurance that discourse still exists. Instead there is silence, or something less articulate than silence, a void which assumes that this kind of nonsense is as natural as sunglasses at the beach. Political correctness 2.0 demands (I mean strongly suggests) that we not press the matter too hard. God created the Grand Canyon 6,000 years ago — how dare you question my belief. It is not too pompous to strongly suggest that the future of democratic government lies in the difference between that Sunday and that Wednesday.

Our rented barricades, like a rented tuxedo, ill befitted exuberant old Sydney. The Monday after APEC I made a point of walking all over the former exclusion zone. It made me feel like an astronaut just returned from The Global City, that great oxymoron in the sky. All I surveyed on the Monday was intensely local — absurdly cantilevered fig trees, jogging office workers, personal trainers and their red faced clients, the green and yellow painted ferries, the tourists in their boiler suits climbing the arch of the Harbour Bridge, the office junior inhaling his meat pie, and our extravagantly pulchritudinous Opera House with its botched interior and indifferent acoustics. La di da, Sydney in spring. But like an intermittent nausea, APEC remained. The fact that it all happened made it more likely to happen again. Or was it all still happening at a lower dosage?

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. If your articles are always this helpful, “I’ll be back.”

  2. If your articles are always this helpful, “I’ll be back.”

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