The chattering classes get their Rocks off
Sydney once violently cleared its working-class district of The Rocks – now it has turned it into a tourist hotspot.
Historically, we paraded society’s defeated enemies through the streets, hoisting their heads on spikes. In these more polished times, society’s defeated villains are turned into tourist attractions.
There is an inner-city precinct in Sydney, Australia, called The Rocks, where 100 years ago the working-class residents were forced from their homes under a trumped-up charge of being a threat to public health. Today, the Sydney authorities are celebrating the defeat by turning the area into a tourist attraction. The brochures laud the ‘Old World charm’ of the buildings that survived the destruction and remember the ‘antics’ of its long-fled inhabitants.
Tourists from the cruise ships moored at the base of the sandstone spur crawl up its small lanes to buy coffee and boomerangs. From the artisans’ markets, they can see the commuter ferries of Circular Quay, bringing office workers in and out of the city. Behind the dock fold the white coifs of Sydney Opera House. This is central Sydney.
Halfway up the slopes, within a youth hostel, the authorities have created a special archeological dig to uncover and display the clothes and eating implements of what their predecessors once called a group of ‘worthless people’. These days, though, the governing class has an acidic way of doubling the indignity on those worthless people: mawkishness. The Port Authority, which took ownership of the land and buildings, now describes the working class they deposed as ‘a strong community [with] a big heart’.
The history of The Rocks, called the ‘Birthplace of Australia’, is an illustration of how the chattering and ruling classes have dehumanised working people both when they despise the lower classes and when they eulogise them.
In 1900, when the authorities decided to clean up the precinct, The Rocks was predominantly working class, serving the port industries: coal carriers, sailors, labourers, tradesmen, dressmakers, housewives, and shopkeepers. The working-class roots were with the original convict settlers of Sydney. Many of the early waves of convicts sent by England to Australia set up house, shop and factory on these slopes, while the wealthy and the civic authorities lived in the east of the settlement.
By the mid-nineteenth century, The Rocks had acquired an unsavoury reputation. Although it was the trading heart of the city, the population of sailors, released convicts, brothels and immigrants meant it was also the centre of disorder. The Rocks was rife with ‘larrikin gangs’, with names like the Straw Hat Push, the Forty Thieves from Surry Hills, and the Gibb Street Mob. They robbed and assaulted police and pedestrians.
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A book published about The Rocks in 1858 was titled The Social Cesspool of Sydney. A year later, the New South Wales state government conducted a ‘Royal Commission into the Conditions of the Working Classes of the [Sydney] Metropolis’. This claimed threats to public health posed by absence of sanitation, contamination of public wells and open drains.
As the turn of the century loomed, there were the all-too-familiar calls for ‘something to be done’ about the precinct. An unholy alliance of social reformers, social conservatives and commercial interests deliberately oversold the unruly, unregulated and unstructured nature of the community.
An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 was the excuse the state government needed. It blamed the plague on the dirt and overcrowding of The Rocks. Yet only three of the 103 plague-related deaths were from the area. The state government passed the Darling Harbour Wharves Resumption Act 1900, placing the entire area under public ownership and control. The authorities declared the area plague-infested; 3,800 houses, buildings and wharves were inspected and hundreds demolished over the next decade. The land and buildings were then resold, mainly for commercial use.
Once decent society wrestles and nudges its untidy parts into subservience, it then absorbs and redefines the shattered culture. Now The Rocks has been rendered safe, Sydney has embraced the working-class community it destroyed.
The authorities have concocted a romanticised resurrection of the history. In their retelling, the long-gone working-class people of The Rocks teach us lessons in the importance of a close community and the purity of poverty. But the area does no such thing. The people there survived by responding to the market – supplying their labour and ingenuity to the burgeoning city. It was thriving, bustling humanity with all its faults, ordinariness and valour. The narrow cobbled lanes and remaining cottages are now heritage walks, framed by fencing, glass covers and information signage. The Rocks’ gangs, open sewers and pubs are now stories to titillate the tourists.
But the chattering and governing classes will always be ill at ease with the real-life working and the poor. Today, the Sydney authorities have turned their dislike to the current generation of working-class people in suburbs like Cronulla, where ‘race riots’ occurred in 2005. There are calls for ‘something to be done’ about binge drinking, drug-taking and violence in the suburb.
Once a working-class community is rendered harmless, their former homes and dens of iniquity become the source for some sort of transferred credibility to the middle class. It’s a bizarre and dishonourable transaction.
There may yet be a time when Cronulla becomes, like the ‘cesspool’ of The Rocks, a ‘mixture of fine restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops and galleries’. But first, the authorities will have to sanitise the district and grind down its uppity residents.
Mark Blackham is a writer, and owner of Blackland PR, in Wellington, New Zealand. His middle-class happiness is made bearable by his working-class upbringing.
Grace Karskens, The Rocks, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, viewed 2 March 2012
The Dirt on the Rocks