Victoria St has long been one of Sydney’s most prized locations, described by the National Trust in the 1970s as the ‘Montmartre of Sydney’.
It was also the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia (Ashton 1993: 104). In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows of houses here through his company Victoria Point Pty Ltd, with plans to demolish the terrace houses and build a number of office and apartment towers. Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.
 This is the way Wendy Bacon described Sydney in her speech outside 115 Victoria St in 1974, featured in my Victoria St soundwalk.
 Accounts of what happened on Victoria St that day are available through a number of web resources, and are documented by Pat Fiske in Woolloomooloo (1979). References include Milliss (1974); Milliss and Brennan (1974); Rees (2004); Squatspace (2004); Burgmann and Burgmann (1993). The transcript of an interview with Mundey reflecting on the importance of the Green Bans to the development of Australian cities is available from the ABC at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/talkingheads/txt/s2649576.htm
Publishing street level film archives online can lead to some interesting results.
While the Powerhouse Museum have been exploring new uses of high-res images published from the Tyrrell Collection, I’ve also spotted a recent montage by Dan Hill which uses some of the film footage published through Sidetracks on Architect.
Peering into the flow of pedestrians and trams on George St in 1906 not only provides insight into Sydney city life before cars, but also illuminates future planning possibilities.
Apparently it’s not very easy to be offered access to the ABC’s TV and Radio archives. This strikes me as slightly odd – with the broadcaster so happy to lecture the Australian public that it’s ‘Our ABC’, and, increasingly ‘the town square’ of Australian media life, it would seem to me that a system enabling Australians to access recordings of their histories might not be such a bad idea.
Governments speak of the increasing importance of digital literacy to Australians well-being; this line of thinking would seem to suggest that digital literacy as it applies to our stories and histories might be supported by a more open ABC archive publishing program. After all, we are talking about television and radio programming funded by Australian taxpayers.
My way in to the ABC collection began with a proposal to explore how ABC archives might be used to experiment with emerging interface conventions on Google Maps.
I originally approached the ABC back in late 2007 in order simply to research their collection for my PhD research – along the lines of what I’d undertaken with the Jaywalking Sydney Fellowship. In a nutshell, I wanted to know what kinds of ambient/location-based audio recordings were held in the ABC’s archives. The ABC has been there to record just about every event and happening in Sydney throughout its 75+ year lifetime; I was interested to research its audio archive to find out what treasures could be dug up from their darkened rooms and liberated into the Sydney sunshine.
Turned out, however, that the ABC’s Innovation unit had a particular interest in the whole geo-spatial area this year, and so decided they wanted ‘Jaywalking’ to be run in-house. That meant they were willing to support a development of a mobile application for Sidetracks. My role in the project was in the end one of a freelance content producer working with an internal team of producers and developers within ABC Innovation.
The Powerhouse Museum’s Seb Chan conducted an interview with me exploring some of the ideas and aspirations of Sydney Sidetracks. Excerpts of the interview are pasted below.
Q: Sidetracks (re)tells some great stories of our city. How did you choose which stories to tell?
Sarah Barns: I was pretty motivated in my selection by finding archival material that had been recorded on location. The original focus for my research was on ambient audio recordings, and embedding them in whatever ways possible (whether thatâ??s mobile, ipod, hypertag, short-wave radio or whatever..!) to enable the listener to tune in to the sounds of another era while looking at a contemporary environment. Obviously thereâ??s a lot of historical tours and commentary and podtours and the like coming out now, and my interest has been to try to decipher what can be made of actuality audio recordings for such purposes. While additional formats were later included in Sidetracks, I remained pretty focused on material that could be uncovered in a very site-specific way.
I also have quite an interest in â??lost placesâ??, whether demolished buildings or radically transformed environments, and using archives to excavate an area – an archeology of recorded action, rather than surviving artefact – which obviously becomes more potent the more a place has changed. So a lot of the stories are based on those two premises – ambience and disappearance.
I love this quote from Alec Morgan (Hunt Angels, et al) when he says
â??It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the cultural essence of Sydney lies embedded in its architecture. Itâ??s structures, buildings and monuments. I find this method of interpreting the past, this reliance on concrete and real estate, a faulty and unsound foundation upon which to build an understanding of the forces that shape the distinctiveness of the cityâ?¦I sense that there is another city lying undiscovered beneath these bloated, familiar carcasses and that cultural interpretation by architecture is too impoverished to satisfy a secret desire to connect to something of Sydneyâ??s past that is more elusive, more sensual, than a pile of bricks and mortar.â? Alec Morgan (2004)
Itâ??s a quote that marks out the imaginative potentiality of the â??invisibleâ?? terrain.
After a period of gestation, Sydney Sidetracks has been launched by ABC Innovation in partnership with ABC Local Radio 702 Sydney. You can read more background information about Sydney Sidetracks on this website here.
Here’s some excerpts from the media release of 10 November 2008.
Discover history where it happened with ABC Sydney Sidetracks on your mobile or online at abc.net.au/sidetracks
Uncover Sydneyâ??s hidden past â?? the people, buildings and events that shaped a town â?? by visiting abc.net.au/sidetracks.
Sydney Sidetracks is a new multi-platform, interactive project from ABC Innovation which enables audiences to discover history where it happened on the streets of inner city Sydney. It is a unique service showcasing a rich range of historic audio, film, text and images all accessible via an interactive map, which can be seen on a mobile phone while out and about or online at abc.net.au/sidetracks.
Sydney Sidetracks uses new technology to explore some of Sydneyâ??s oldest inner city suburbs; Circular Quay and The Rocks, Kings Cross, Paddington, Pyrmont, Redfern, Surry Hills, Sydney CBD and South and East Sydney.
“This is the first offering of its kind in this country. By combining the resources of Australia’s oldest broadcaster with the incredible collections of other great cultural institutions it starts to build an interactive social history of Australia’s oldest city”, says Sarah Barns, concept developer, researcher and content producer on Sidetracks.
While the NFSA has some interesting film footage of these moments, the sound quality is poor. It’s also owned by Cinesound and so re-publishing has some rights limitations. But more importantly, the commentary provided in this piece by Duckmanton to his radio listeners is fascinating, full of great little details about the man on Pitt St directing traffic (he wasn’t, that day), the effigy of Hitler being hung from a building in Martin Place (which one?), the ladies dancing in the street (“fine-looking ladies, too”) and bringing to our attention the sounds of the mosquito flying overhead. It really is like being there, listening in. Thanks very much to John Spence for locating this special recording for me.
Radio may not have been new in 1948, but a recording of then Prime Minister Robert Menzies being heckled by communists at the Sydney Stadium is one of the oldest radio recordings I could locate in the ABC Archives. You can hear it in the audio ‘Old Tin Shed’ that features as part of the Sydney Stadium selection. Also worth a mention here is a link to 1908 footage of boxing legend Jack Johnson training for his fight against Canadian Tommy Burns, in which he became Heavyweight Champion of the World – the first African American to win that title.
GEORGE ST 1906
Nothing can really top the footage held in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive taken from the front of a tram travelling down George St in 1906. It gives you an incredibly detailed view of the streetscape of the day, what the city streets were like before cars and before skyscrapers – the Queen Victoria Building is a huge behemoth in the distance. Thanks to the National Film and Sound Archives Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research for assistance with this piece.
The image of the AMP building down at Circular Quay is striking in the way it shows how out of scale, how guargantuan these artefacts would have been at the time of the first skyscrapers.
DOCUMENTARY HIGHLIGHT: LIVING ON THE FRINGE
Another highlight is the footage from Living on the Fringe, an ABC documentary from 1965 that investigates life on the slum fringes of inner city Sydney, which at the time included places like Redfern, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst. Directed by Italian filmmaker Gian Carlo Manara. In evidence is not only the massive changes experienced to the social demographics of Sydney’s inner city, but also how styles of social commentary have changed as well. Its coverage of the indigenous populations of Redfern was too outrageous to include, I was sure it would provoke too many painful memories of what it would have liked living in the incredibly racist society that Australia was at that time.
A narration from the owner of one of the first Italian restaurants in Sydney at 181 Palmer St, East Sydney
Life ‘in the midst of darkness’ around Surry Hills, outside St. Francis church on Albion St
There’s a lot of footage from ABC TV’s vault. The highlights are all from the long-running ABC documentary series This Day Tonight. A highlight is a TDT special on Sydney’s underground gambling scene as it was in 1973. There’s a nice illustrative recreation of the scenes in one of the clubs, and some funny footage of long-haired Stuart Littlemoore and Mike Carlton atop the ABC studios on William St, trying to catch some action at the notorious Forbes Club opposite them (when there wasn’t any…). Also worth viewing is the whole commentary on Juanita Nielsen’s disappearance, including a TDT feature from 1976, one year after her disappearance.
WHEN OLD TECHNOLOGIES WERE NEW…
FIRST TELEVISION BROADCAST
Television was introduced in Australia in 1956, after a 10-year delay during which time Australian policy makers carved out the most appropriate regulatory framework for this new, powerful medium. It just so happened that the first broadcast was beamed from Kellet St, just behind what is now the Coca-Cola building in Kings Cross (I’m told the streetscape was slightly different then to what it is now). Watch the ABC’s first television broadcast here.
Remember when a mobile phone looked like a brick and if you talked into one everyone thought you were a wanker? Catch Michael Jay using one of those bricks to organise his ‘Carnival of the Minds’ rave at the then-abandoned Eveleigh Railyards in 1994.
But it’s not only media technologies that feature. Along with the George St tram footage, there is a wonderful selection of images featuring Sydney’s once-proud tram network, including a painting from the State Library collection of the first night the tram ran. Did you know that Sydney once boasted one of the largest tram networks in the world?
In 1990Margaret Throsby interviewed Sydney’s most notorious gunman Chow Hayes following the release of David Hickie’s biography Chow Hayes: Gunman. Hayes speaks candidly to Throsby about his life of crime as the most feared man in all of Sydney. He must have been pretty old at the time but his mind was still strong – he recounts his first murder on Mary St, Surry Hills in impressive detail.
Juanita Nielsen is also featured here, speaking to the ABC in 1974, one year before her fatal disappearance in 1975. In this interview the wealthy hieress speaks about coming home from London, and her decision to move back to Kings Cross, the place she loved best of all. It was Nielsen’s passion for the Cross that ultimately cost her her life. The whole subject of the controversial Victoria St high-rise development is covered in detail at a number of locations on Victoria St, from Juanita’s house at 202, to Mick Fowler’s flat at 115 and outside the Victoria Heights building as well. Victoria Heights includes a wonderful full-length radio feature from Double J in 1977 produced by David Ives called ‘The Ballad of Victoria St’ (thanks Chris Winter!).
There are a number of features that concentrate on Sydney’s built environment, and controversies surrounding certain developments around Sydney. Not everyone knows how significant Sydney’s BLF Green Bans were to the birth of urban environmental activism globally – people like Paul Ehrlich regarded the movement as a watershed in thinking about cities and their environmental as well as social implications. Along with the whole saga of Victoria St, you can listen in to The Rocks in 1973, when the BLF were holding up $300m of development all around Sydney, and watch footage of Woolloomooloo at the time as well. There’s an audio piece that includes actuality recording of the Hotel Australia being auctioned to the MLC Insurance company for $9.5m in 1968 (thanks to Wendy Borches for this find), as well as Mr LJ Hooker speaking about his development ambitions for the country in 1958. Developer greed is a bit of a theme here, obviously.
Listen here to a selection of audio archives about the Hotel Australia – once fine ‘Hotel of the Commonwealth’.
Some of the ‘Talking buildings’ here are iconic – the Sydney Opera House, for example, which includes video footage of Paul Robeson singing to construction workers at the site of the building in 1960. Other are less well known – 150-152 Elizabeth St is the first building to be heritage-listed for its significance to indigenous Australians as the site of the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning in 1937.
Rock and roll in Paddington in 1958 is pretty funny – this was when police first figured if they took the party to their place they’d save the local milk bar owners a few headaches, leading to the whole blue light disco scene eventually. Midnight Oil playing the Stage Door Tavern in 1979 is also a gem – the ABC’s Double J were there to record the whole show, and not only that but drummer Rob Hirst has also recalled his version of that notorious gig (thanks to Cath Dwyer for that tip).
There are some wonderful, full-length radio documentaries from ABC Radio National’s archives included in the selection. I have edited some of these, basically to provide the opportunity for users to listen to excerpts on location, via the mobile application or downloaded directly to the ipod. Needless to say the full features are well worth a listen, and here’s your chance to dowload them too, if you missed it the first time aroud…
Of course, it’s not as though I haven’t trawled through a tonne of material to locate the many gems that feature on the site. I think it’s all pretty cool, really.
Contacts, comments, criticisms, suggestions, more stories…
Do contact the ABC with any comments or suggestions you have about the site and any of its material. And if you’ve got something you think you (or your grandparents!) can add – head straight to the Your Stories section.