In 2004 Gordon Waitt published the essay “Pyrmont-Ultimo: The Newest Chic Quarter of Sydney”, in City of quarters: urban villages in the contemporary city, by David Bell, Mark Jayne (Ashgate, 2004).
Now, we’ve done our fair share of reading urban geography, particularly urban geography critiques with a Marxist flavour, so this stuff is pretty familiar. But we admit - it is a disconcerting feeling reading academic language about your own locale. In fact, we found Waitt’s article to be quite reductive and simplistic in its view of the transformations to these suburbs over the past decade or so. He seems to muddle the “symptoms” with the causes.
In “Pyrmont-Ultimo: The Newest Chic Quarter of Sydney”, Waitt makes almost no distinction between Pyrmont and Ultimo at all, which is quite problematic. True, some of his statements are apt for the very expensive parts of Pyrmont, and his general claims about gentrification and its effects are straightforward, but there seems to be something flippant about the article; he has an unwillingness to accept a “grey area” in the way suburbs evolve. Here are a few lines from his chapter, to give you an idea:
“Pyrmont-Ultimo is one of the latest locations of Sydney’s inner-city urban renaissance following policies that embrace the ‘New Right’ political ideology emphasizing urban consolidation and ‘village lifestyles’ and an economic climate encouraging the rapid expansion of the creative industries sector.”
Since when was “urban consolidation”, “village lifestyles” and “creative industries” an idea exclusively claimed by the New Right? Last we checked, urban consolidation was being touted as an environmentally responsible answer to urban sprawl (when it’s done right, that is). And although upmarket “village lifestyles” like those found in Balmain and Paddington are deeply problematic, there is nothing inherently right wing about “villages” or even, for that matter, “lifestyles”, whatever the hell that means. No comment on the “creative industries” mention, except to say we’re not sure why an economic environment that fosters creative industries is such a bad thing.
Sure: semi-gated communities, a lack of government housing, developer monopolies & resultant high rent - yes, these are (regressive) political issues at stake in Pyrmont & Ultimo - but why pick on the creatives and the village vibe? It just doesn’t make sense. Waitt says:
“Pyrmont-Ultimo’s cafe culture also plays a role in the process of exclusion. Pyrmont-Ultimo’s ‘quality’ cafes are designed not only to facilitate economic value being attached to and extracted from commodities, but also because acts of consumption establish locations that help construct subjectivities and power relations.”
“Union Street cafes increasingly rely upon performances of waiting staff to provide the cultural capital being sold to its clients.”
As you can see, Waitt also picks on cafes, and he emphasises the desire to turn everything into SoHo - particularly turning Pyrmont-Ultimo into Soho (which, let’s be honest, is never going to happen). Waitt’s cafe issue is a problematic one for us, because we can see his point. We are the very thing he is complaining about: young, affluent, single, white, white-collar, apartment-dwelling. And yes, we drink coffee. We bet Waitt is also young(ish), affluent, white, and white-collar too.
To some extent, he’s right: the appearance of trendy cafes in hitherto unfashionable / undeveloped / diverse neighbourhoods can often indicate an emerging inner-city elite: an abundant growth in the number of snooty white people, higher rents and higher property prices, and resultant social exclusion. But frankly, the provision of a decent latte does not automatically result in the demise of a suburb.
Moreover, Waitt has clearly never had a coffee in Ultimo, because we can assure you it is by no means the “chic” coffee mecca he complains of. Pyrmont, maybe, but even that is a bit of a stretch. Also - Waitt seems to barely acknowledge the current diversity of Ultimo, which makes us wonder if he has ever taken a walk in Bulwara Rd or Jones Street. We have a sense that the Chinese community of Sydney would most definitely describe Ultimo as having a community.
Waitt does provide an interesting quote - allegedly from an interview with a housing commission resident and long-standing Pyrmont-Ultimo resident:
“It was a nice suburb … that sense of it being a village, that’s gone.”
Waitt seems to connect this decay of the “old village” with the emergence of cafe culture, chic subjectivities and white-collar professionals. No doubt this has something to do with it, but we would venture to suggest that there are far bigger physical issues that radically transformed Pyrmont-Ultimo in the past few decades. Those are:
- The building of the Western Distributor, effectively sawing Ultimo in half and filling it with concrete.
- Cars, and the increasing number of them: Harris, Wattle, William Henry, and Broadway carry an enormous amount of traffic and lead to many parts of Ultimo being very unfriendly places to spend time in.
- Meriton (and other residential property development companies). This pattern might be changing - but many of the Ultimo apartment complexes built in the 90s and early 2000s were pretty clearly built without an architect on board, in any real sense. So the style of building that started shooting up in this area is crass, heavy, illogical and without much thought for genuine human usage, and certainly little consideration of site. (There are of course exceptions, nowadays.) To be fair, Waitt does pick on Meriton and Lend Lease.
- Education - not that we have anything against education! But the growth of UTS and TAFE as institutions certainly leads to an increased number of young, relatively affluent students looking for accommodation within walking distance of their educational institution. We don’t have any problems with walking distance - beats having a university campus a long way out, where almost everyone drives to get there.
NB: We apologise if this post was a bit hard on Waitt. He’s written some very interesting stuff on Sydney in relation to gender, sexuality and tourism. We do agree with the basic essence of his point, as stated in his conclusion. We just feel he’s got the symptoms wrong, even if the disease is right:
“As Sydney’s newest urban chic quarter, Pyrmont-Ultimo exemplifies the social realities of entrepreneurial urban planning policies that prioritises the interest of capital above social justice, wealth creation above redistribution and place image above substance … Government funding for inner city revitalisation has only exacerbated social divisions within Sydney.”
What do you think?