A bare two centuries old, Sydney has grown into one of the world's great cities, a bustling repository of dreams for its four million inhabitants, whether their aim is to take on global financial markets, dazzle the world's artistic or sporting communitiesor tend the backyard of their quarter-acre suburban block. Allowing for differences in size, Sydney is as exciting as New York, as sophisticated as Paris, as colorful as Hong Kong and as irreverent as '60s London.
This is a city of sometimes incongruous pleasures, an important business center set in what feels like a holiday resortFrankfurt on the Côte d'Azur. The subtropical climate lures office workers to sun themselves in the early evening on the golden chain of Pacific beaches; million-dollar yachts chase rust-stained dinghies between the cream-and-green ferries on the harbor; ships like concrete office blocks glide under the Harbour Bridge to the container wharves, past tourists beaming over the gunwales of replica 18th century sailing vessels. The twin architectural highlights of Bridge and Opera House flank a modern CBD that seems to rebuild itself every few years, while an ocean of agreeable, if bland, suburbs unrolls along the highways that linked the rest of Australia to the nation's gateway port. All around, the beauty of the bush enfolds the city in its embrace.
Pleasures of the flesh are lavishly catered for: Sydney's chefs have evolved a style of cooking that fuses European and Asian cuisines into an exciting Australian idiom. The city is packed with pubs and bars, themselves packed with noisy, friendly crowds, and its nightlife could shock the most jaded roué on the planet.
Such are sydney's obviousperhaps superficialattractions, and they should be more than enough for the Olympic Games juggernaut of athletes, officials, business executives and media that lands in September, and for most of the holidaymakers drawn in its wake. But there is more to Sydney, some of it darker, some of it frivolous, a hint of irresponsibility that suggests its delights are the fruit of serendipity rather than foresight. Too often Sydney's leaders and functionaries have been indolent, self-serving or downright corrupt, but somehow locals remain confident that, in the Australian vernacular, "she'll be right"; things will turn out fine. More often than not, they do. And, the wisdom of their inaction confirmed, Sydneysiders get on with business, head back to the beach or the barbecue. If, as author Donald Horne once famously declared, Australia is the lucky country, Sydney is its happy-go-lucky heart.
To see how that optimism was born, look no further than the harbor. As long ago as 1871, English novelist Anthony Trollope, not usually short of words, found Sydney Harbour "inexpressibly lovely." And to this day, despite some wildly irresponsible development, it is the restless heart of the city, whose inhabitants are drawn instinctively to its foreshore in moments of collective passion, to celebrate, protest or play. Regardless of their background, Sydneysiders are united in love of their harbor: its waters dissolve their separate identities and reflect a common image; it is both solvent and balm, mixing disparate peoples and smoothing over their differences. Its own life grows richer: as industry becomes more environmentally enlightened, the harbor's waters have improved. Above the sharks that cruise its depths, dolphins surf the bow waves of the ferries, and a couple of times a year a migrating whale takes a wrong turn and passes a day or two marveling at the harborside mansions of the eastern suburbs.
Sydneysiders take for granted an intimacy with nature that would astonish most city residents worldwide. Inner-city suburbs echo to the screech of sulfur-crested cockatoos and the laughter of sturdy kookaburras; brilliant rainbow lorikeets hang upside down in fruit trees squabbling over berries. As night falls, mighty Port Jackson fig trees discharge clouds of flying foxes, while possums patrol urban gardens and clatter across the rooftops. Everywhere, in parks, gardens, at the water's edge, the luxuriant subtropical vegetationmosses and ferns, cabbage palms, ash and she-oak, ancient angophora forests and a hundred species of gum treereminds the resident that humans have a tenuous hold on this land.
Within an hour of the CBD, Sydney is enclosed by virgin bush. Nobody who saw the fires of January 1994 will forget the fierce orange glow of the night sky, all roads out of the city closed where they crossed the blazing forests, houses claimed by flames racing down the fingers of vegetation that probe the city's suburbs. To the west, the national parkland of the Blue Mountains, named for the eucalyptus oils that evaporate from the gum trees and tint the air, is a 10,000-sq.-km wilderness of heavily wooded gullies and forbidding cliffs, home to well over a thousand species of plants. Only six years ago the Wollemi pine was added to the list. These prehistoric trees, previously unknown, were found in one of the region's remote canyons, where they were thought to have grown undisturbed for five million years. To the city's north, the Ku-ring-gai Chase, Marramarra and Brisbane Water national parks preserve the country as it would have appeared to early settlers in all its intimidating vastness; and even closer in, much of the harbor's 250 km of foreshore is blessedly protected, so that at North and Middle Heads, at Bradleys Head, in the valleys of Lane Cove, along the mangrove swamps of the river near Parramatta or in the upper reaches of Middle Harbour, you can fancy yourself back in the time before European settlement.
More moving are the engraved records of that time, when Sydney's original inhabitants fished, hunted and gathered their fruit and witchety grubs. Over 2,000 Aboriginal carvingsof kangaroos, fish, platypus, hunting sceneshave been found in Sydney's sandstone outcrops, mute reminders, some of them 5,000 years old, that progress comes at a price. Modern estimates put as many as 750,000 Aborigines on the Australian continent in 1788; the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, thought some 1,500 lived between Botany Bay to the south and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River to the north. He knew them all as Eora, although they were several distinct tribes: Gayimai, Cadigal, Wangal, Walumeda. Within a year of making contact with the British arrivals, half of them were dead of smallpox.
All cities have their dark side, but few, like Sydney, had their darkest moments at birth. The scenes of debauchery and brutality recorded by most of the early chroniclers of the infant colony would have scandalized the Marquis de Sade; down the years, that tradition has been maintained. The last convicts arrived in New South Wales in 1840, and many were absorbed into gangs, or pushes, of "larrikins"hooligans. The Forty Thieves of the Rocks and the Iron House Mob of Woolloomooloo segued neatly last century into fearsome razor gangs; the North Shore, nowadays so sedate, was terrorized by the Gore Hill Tigers and the Blues Point Mob.
The gangs are less visible now, so visitors enjoying Vietnamese food in Cabramatta may never be aware that Sydney's heroin trade has its capital here; few diners in Chinatown could identify a member of Hong Kong's ruthless triads; unless they're very unluckyor foolishrevelers can blithely blow their spending money in the strip clubs and girlie bars of Kings Cross without encountering the standover men and drug dealers who haunt the shadows.
The slum clearances that restored some order to the dangerous streets of Sydney were the first of many modifications to the city's fabric. Old Sydney was a stone town. The softly glowing Hawkesbury sandstone, seemingly designed on some primeval color wheel to complement the Australian sun, sea and sky, was hewn from quarries in the suburbs of Bondi, Maroubra, Neutral Bay and Pyrmont. It built some of the city's greatest landmarks: the Town Hall, the Queen Victoria Building, St. Mary's and St. Andrew's cathedrals. Granite came from as far away as Scotland, sitting as ballast in passenger and cargo ships; later it was quarried at Goulburn outside Sydney, and on the southern New South Wales coast at Moruya, which provided the stone for the pylons of the Harbour Bridge.
The city center has been so zealously made over by each generation that little remains of the early buildings of Sydney Cove. Traces lingerArgyle Place in Millers Point and Susannah Place in The Rocks date from the early 19th century; further west, toward Parramatta, now the demographic center of Greater Sydney, stand Australia's only 18th century buildings, Elizabeth Farm and Experiment Farm Cottage. It seems miraculous that any of them have survived so many waves of reinvention.
First came the six- and seven-story buildings of the 19th century; then, in the second decade of the 20th, the advent of the lift allowed 13-story blocks. Finally, the repealing of the 150-ft (46-m) height restriction in 1957 saw the fiercest frenzy of redevelopment and the erection of the skyscrapers that now mark the CBD. The Rocks area of Sydney Cove, thronged with tourists buying opals and boomerangs, and an aesthetic and financial delight to the city fathers, was saved from destruction in the early 1970s only through the intervention of the Builders' Labourers Federation and its members' "green ban" refusal to perform demolition work. The old buildings of Woolloomooloo owe their existence to a similar but depressingly raretriumph of the popular will over developers' check books.