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Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Taking selfies in Darling Harbour

Being a tourist resort, Darling Harbour probably now has the same role to play in modern Sydney as Manly did for the same city many decades ago. Manly’s proximity to Circular Quay, a short ferry ride distant from the train station there that is on the City Circle Line, which was completed in stages from 1916 to 1956, the year this station was built, made it a favourite destination for families for lunch on the weekend before the ubiquity of the automobile. It has a surf beach for recreational purposes and a mall with plenty of restaurants and hotels where food and drink can be bought for a reasonable price.

These days, families from Sydney’s seemingly endless suburbs are more likely to head to Central Station and walk up to Darling Harbour or else catch the light rail from Central to one of the stations along the border of the U-shaped body of water. A privately-operated ferry even brings people from Circular Quay to the Convention Wharf.

Here, a short walk from Chinatown and its many food and shopping outlets, the roads have been wisely elevated above ground in the imposing form of the Western Distributor, a series of concrete viaducts taking traffic from points to the east including the Harbour Bridge at the north edge of the central business district (CBD) to the Anzac Bridge and then on to the northern and western suburbs.

You amble under the motorway pursued by the rumbling, humming and whooshing of cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses overhead like noises coming from a herd of animals at a zoo roused to activity by the necessities of feeding hour.

Mothers with babies in strollers and with small children running around their heels walk up and down the elegantly-paved foreshore in front of the exhibition and convention centres. Right in the flow of pedestrian traffic sits a shopping centre where dozens of eateries and a food court cater to people enjoying a holiday or in town on business. The building has other conveniences such as toilets and a pharmacy.

Businessmen congregate in its open-air bars in the afternoons when the end of the week looms. Groups of holidaymakers staying at one of the city’s many hotels turn up for a lunch of seafood or steak in the shade of umbrellas placed on the pavement in front of the concessions. Sweating joggers pass by quickly. City rangers walk along slowly in their hi-vis vests and dark shirts. Grandparents bring their grandchildren for a burger and an ice cream as well as a trip to the zoo or the aquarium on the other side of the bay. The Ferris wheel planted beside the water runs all day, every day.

The precinct is also favoured by people wanting to memorialise their adventures with selfies that can be shared among friends on social media. On Pyrmont Bridge tourists are almost commanded to do so since authorities constructed an enormous flagpole on a marine plinth situated smack-bang in the middle of the harbour just north of the bridge. The huge flag waves slowly even in stiff breezes and depending on the season its navy-blue cloth casts a shadow that morphs and shifts its shape weirdly on the bridge’s macadam where people wander past or cycle to and from the city.

Standing on the north half of the bridge just 100 metres east of the Pyrmont Bay Hotel hundreds of tourists take photos of themselves every day against a backdrop featuring the CBD’s impressive skyline. Visitors from the sprawling local suburbs, from other towns and cities in the country, or from overseas, know they are standing in the shadow of a wealthy, thriving place of business, a major global entrepot of the preceding century and arguably the Southern Hemisphere’s premier metropolis.

From this point just west of the city centre, Sydney’s eclectic ranks of multi-storey office blocks give the viewer a set of architectural traces to study that reflect the changing aesthetic priorities of different generations. Directly behind the flag as you stand there on the bridge you are confronted by the sight, lifting imperiously above neighbouring towers in the CBD in the middle distance, of the lofty octagonal spire of the 67-storey MLC Centre, which was completed in 1977.

Seen from without, for example from the deck of the Star casino in Pyrmont, the CBD undoubtedly possesses at least an immodest grandeur if not a dazzling richness. A similarly-heterogeneous collection of nautical vessels at the National Maritime Museum also serves to underscore Sydney’s historical significance, including the James Craig, a restored 19th century barquentine that still operates, and the HMAS Vampire, a decommissioned 20th century naval destroyer.

The other day I had happily consumed a solid lunch of rice with beef vindaloo, mango chicken and matter mushrooms at a north Indian restaurant in Darlinghurst and as I was walking home through Darling Harbour something I saw brought all these ruminations together to form a neat synthetic idea that told me that the city – not Sydney per se but the city as a notion – is the embodiment of modernity today. A group of six or seven ethnic south Asians with rucksacks on their backs stood on the low boardwalk that runs around part of the bay, near its head next to the Grocon building site, taking selfies with the CBD to the northeast in the background.

Intent on what they were doing, each of them with at least one hand raised in the air holding a mobile phone, some of the men moving their position to another one close by that he thought more advantageous for his current purpose, they stood around for many minutes – I had time to walk a good 50 metres glancing back from time to time as I went by – while they talked among themselves and secured the best possible shots with their portable devices so that they would have a visual record to distribute among online connections when they told them where they had been that day.

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