Clover Moore is a woman of enormous vision. Sure, that vision may occasionally verge on the twee, such as when she dubbed Sydney a “City of Villages”. Sydneysiders would rather think of themselves as a city among villages, such as, Melbourne and Brisbane. And, her advocacy of sensible drinking laws was a triumph. But now, following in the Gucci loafer-steps of Paul Keating, she’s targeted our city’s most magnificent artery, the Cahill Expressway. And, even if I need to chain myself to its drab concrete exterior to prevent it, I say that this latest scheme of our Lord Mayor shall not be borne.
So-called aesthetes have long argued that the Cahill Expressway ruins the view of Circular Quay from the city. Perhaps for some. But what about motorists? No road in Australia, and perhaps even the world, offers a better view. Even the Harbour Bridge can’t hold a candle to it, both because you can’t actually see the water from the bridge deck and because its view includes the Cahill Expressway. But for those all-too-brief seconds atop the Cahill, a magnificent vista opens out to you, and it’s one that’s enjoyed by 47,000 cars a day. I can’t believe more drivers, overwhelmed by the natural beauty of our harbour, swerve wildly into each other.
When I first learned to drive there was no road I enjoyed more than the Cahill’s corkscrewing tunnel cut into the rock. It’s a rite of passage for every new driver, and I can’t abide the suggestion of replacing it with a more sensible road that doesn’t require all of those terrifying lane-changes or frustratingly slow peak-hour merging.
Sure, when newcomers to Sydney wander down towards the Harbour, expecting to be dazzled by the Opera House and Bridge, they are instead confronted by a hideous cement monolith. But are we to have no sense of the dramatic? The Cahill serves as a kind of curtain for the beauty behind it. After passing underneath its shabby colonnade, the impact of the Quay confronts you all at once. It’s an exhilarating experience. And, like a grub that magically evolves into a butterfly, the very ugliness of the Cahill only highlights the beauty of the harbour, once you eventually get to see it.
Demolishing the Cahill Expressway won’t just destroy a roadway. Oh, no. It’ll destroy an entire ecosystem built into the plaza beneath. Without the Cahill, there would be no Rossini, the only restaurant in Sydney where you have to serve yourself your meal and still tip waiters for service. But the loss of Rossini, as much as it would break my heart, pales in comparison to the real victim of Clover Moore’s dastardly scheme – City Extra. Without that Circular Quay institution, where would students go after their Year 12 Formals? I’ve spent many an evening there examining their enormous bread rolls for signs of steroid abuse and wondering why they haven’t changed their décor or menu since at least 1982.
City Extra is a place that looms large in the personal histories of many Sydneysiders. Sure, it’s usually associated with drunken mistakes, but there’s a certain romance in that. So many of the old places where people used to behave badly have been lost forever. The old Bourbon & Beefsteak had genuine atmosphere, and was immortalised by Ricky Ponting’s fight with the bouncer. Its replacement is prettier, but sterile. We are in danger of ripping out Sydney’s soul and replacing it with blonde wood and white leather banquettes.
There are some aspects of Clover’s plan that I applaud. Building over the train tracks at Central is a great idea, and no-one will mourn the Entertainment Centre. But there has to be a place in Sydney for ugliness. Even the Mandarin Club on Goulburn St, which has long been my favourite tacky late night watering-hole, is soon to relocate to shiny new premises that won’t have anything like the charm of the bizarre mezzanine that’s only ever empty or full of families tunelessly singing Canto-pop.
Admittedly, few people will grieve over the Cahill Expressway. Even the family of the late J. J. Cahill will probably be relieved that he’ll no longer associated with an eyesore. But I will mourn the destruction of the places I knew growing up, as hideous as they undoubtedly were. The sites of awkward teenage fumblings, and first dates gone by. Destroy them, and they’ll only be replaced by the likes of East Circular Quay, which for all its chicness has about as much soul as Chatswood Chase, or a member of the Iemma Government.
So remodel Sydney by all means, Lord Mayor Moore, but tread softly, because you tread on all of our memories. Oh, and by the way – flattening most of Darling Harbour? Awesome idea, and do let me know if you need help swinging the wrecking ball.