Life and work in the city and suburbs adds up to lots of Australian stories: Honest History miscellany

The Australian story has always had a gumleaves and distance tone to it even though most of us for most of our history have lived in cities. Yet our cities have grown so big and spread so far – as Tim Colebatch documents – that the daily commute for some of us takes on epic proportions; we might be better off trekking in from the paddocks than from distant suburbs. At least with a paddock you can keep a cow for milking.

showimageAdelaide suburbs, 1991 (NAA A6135, 11711146)

Graeme Davison has just written City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia and has put a long extract from it in Inside Story. He seems to ring the knell for those farflung suburbs. Perhaps the treks to Craigieburn and Minto, Yanchep and Boronia Heights are becoming as passé as they are lengthy.

The most desirable ways of living in Sydney and Melbourne are increasingly dense, urban and cosmopolitan rather than sparse, monocultural and suburban. The suburban fringe has become the refuge of the new poor rather than the new rich. It residents must endure not only the disadvantages of inferior public transport and services, but also the disdain of the inner-city intelligentsia.

Last week also, Gideon Haigh, Honest History distinguished supporter, fresh from winning an award for true crime fiction and having just published a book on Victor Trumper, wrote a long piece for Guardian Australia on Melbourne’s first really tall building, once called ICI, now Orica. (A weak pun would call Haigh’s piece a ‘tall story’ or a story about lots of storeys.) People who grew up in the Melbourne of the late 1950s will recall their sense of wonder at how that stodgy and cautious city could have produced such a marvel of architecture. Something of this feeling comes out in Haigh’s piece. But how far we’ve come since, as Haigh spells out in his concluding paragraph:

What once seemed to dwarf human scale today seems tactfully restrained – refraining from gobbling its whole block, making good on the ground its imposition on the sky. And what once was a vision of Melbourne’s future now offers a powerful sense of communion with the architectural and social past.

Coming back to earth to look further at the literature, we note that Graeme Davison previously wrote The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, The Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the Time (essential when running for the train for that long commute), and Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities (but for how long will that be?) Previously in the Guardian‘s cities series, Paul Daley (another Honest History distinguished supporter) wrote about how the Griffins’ vision for Canberra rather went off the rails (Freudian slip as Canberra a century on awaits light rail). Then, on the Australian Independent Media Network, Kay Rollison remembered another urban planning prophet, Hugh Stretton.

On the photographic side, there are John Donegan’s digital montages of seven Australian cities then and now and John Masanauskas’ collection of photos of the slums of Melbourne from the 1930s to the 1980s.  There are no pictures but plenty of maps in this presentation of where the immigrants who live in our cities and towns were born. If you still prefer the bush, even without pictures, there is Don Watson’s book of that name. You can almost smell the gumleaves – and the cows.

showimage-2Camping, Warrnambool, Vic., 1917 (NAA A1500, 11973941)

Cows and gumleaves might well have been in the vicinity also when Australians camped, a phenomenon Bill Garner addresses in Born in a Tent: How Camping Makes Us Australian. The last word, though, goes to the aforementioned Hugh Stretton, who passed judgement on Australian suburbs – the place the commuters are trying to get back to and the campers (and the inner-city intelligentsia) get away from  – in his 1970 book Ideas for Australian Cities: ‘So – to sum up – you don’t have to be a mindless conformist to choose suburban life. Most of the best poets and painters and inventors and protesters choose it too.’

Update 30 September 2016: Neil Coffee, Emma Baker and Jarrod Lange map Australia’s urban sprawl over recent decades (The Conversation).

Update 4 November 2016: James Lesh in The Conversation on trendies and cities.

Update 1 August 2017: two articles in The Conversation, both on the links between urban living and stress: Linley Lutton (1 August 2017) on the disappearance of urban backyards; Jason Byrne (1 August 2017) on the need for more research on cities-health links.

David Stephens

11 September 2016 updated

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