Before and after on Gloucester Street. The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010

As I was wandering around town the other day I went through some back streets in The Rocks.

The Rocks is one of the very first places in Australia where European settlement began. For about 100 years The Rocks was basically a very dangerous open air prison that was almost a no-go zone for the colonial authorities. It was such a notorious place that the government soldiers never went in there alone and always would go in squads when ever they had to extract a miscreant.

Herman Melville in his book “Moby Dick”, basically says that the worst people that the whaling captains distrusted the most, were “Sydney men”, who were thought to be worse than “canallers” (the workers on the Erie Canal) which was saying something back in the 1860s in America.

Gloucester Street in The Rocks was bisected by the Bradfield Highway (the shortest highway in Australia and probably the world) when the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built back in the 1930s.

The mural is an attempt by the city to beautify an act of expedient civil engineering brutalism. It shows a scene from a 1901 photograph taken in the same place, looking in the same direction.

1901 is significant because it was a year after the bubonic plague broke out in Sydney and it was about this time that the government started cleaning up the area by resuming the properties with the intention of demolishing them. The government allowed people, for a very cheap subsidised rent, to live in the old houses until they were going to knock them down.

As with most government projects that get punctuated by a few world wars, progress was exceedingly slow and by the 1970s the area was such a slum that it was all going to be knocked down, but the unions stepped in and banned work in the area to preserve the housing for the poor.

Since The Rocks are a very short walk to the most expensive real estate in Australia there is no way any of the long term residents could afford to buy the houses and the unions weren’t going to let them be knocked down or sold on to the rich.

The solution has been to sell the houses at a very reasonable price to the long term tenants in the hope that they will fix up the old houses. Trouble is that many of the people who live in subsidised housing can’t afford to fix up the dilapidated houses. Slowly but surely, yuppies are weaselling their way into the area and The Rocks has been steadily becoming gentrified since the 1970s, to the point it’s in danger of becoming yet another a “Disneyfied” tourist trap.

A note on the photo.

I took the shot with my 10mm lens, and as such, the tops of the tall buildings almost came to a point so I straightened the verticals (like I would’ve in camera, if I had been using a view camera) in Photoshop and that is why the very top of the buildings are a bit blurry because they have been stretched so much.

5 thoughts on “Before and after on Gloucester Street. The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010”

  1. Well, that is one of the strangest Cityscapes I’ve ever seen! Usually something with a black and white bottom third and full color top third would scream of photoshop and I don’t mean straightening out the buildings either. I didn’t get at first that the whole bottom third was the bridge mural so I had that added disorientation which goes right along with your narrative in perfect way. Can you roam around this neighborhood now without a problem? I don’t see any grafitti on this mural which in NYC would be one huge invitation to a passing street “artist”.

  2. This is a great photo, razzbuffnik — blurry building tops notwithstanding. I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out because my attention was focused on puzzling out the mural/cityscape division at the bottom.
    The gentrification of decayinng inner city neighborhoods like this is tesimony to the desirability of urban living at a human scale — as opposed to the scale of those buildings in the background. the best result that can be hoped for is a neighborhood that accomodates a diversity of socioeconomic and cultural groups, mixed together, not separated out.

  3. Pat

    It came as quite the surprise to me when I turned the corner and looked down the street. I did a double take because it was surreal. I’d say The Rocks are quite safe nowadays, and nothing like the old days. There is a lot of graffiti in Sydney, mostly stupid and artless tagging but I think that this little part of Sydney is just tucked away in an area where there are many people to see it. I certainly didn’t know about it until I came across it.


    You are so right about the desirability of living in places like The Rocks. I’d love to live there. Very close to downtown, the theatres, some of the best restaurants in Australia and fabulous views over Sydney Harbour.

  4. I like the mural done in B&W. I can’t notice the blurry building tops because my eyes, even with glasses, are blurry anyway. Used to hang out around the rocks in my late teen years. “Pancakes on the Rocks” was my favourite Saturday morning breakfast place. Sure beat staying onboard ship & eating Navy food

  5. Tony

    When I was a teenager in high school, I used to work at night as a busboy in the “Old Spaghetti Factory”. I used to love The Rocks back in those days.

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