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Among the fibros and McMansions, Blacktown’s diverse voice

Blacktown is a city without a centre, an important voice in the federal election that is actually many. Crikey’s writer-at-large ventured west into the sprawl, where it still feels like the 1970s.

Christ almighty, Blacktown is a dump. Two huge intersecting shopping malls ranged around a car park and a square vacant lot, a couple of brick veneer terraces of shops climbing the hills, and a stupid and artless train station plonked in the middle. There was a town here once, as evidenced by a single red brick church in the middle that has escaped the carnage, now framed between featureless slab-tilt walls. The streets it looked over, the town centre, has long since disappeared beneath the mega-retail carve-up, place giving way to zoning. The American disease, though not as bad, and with one difference: the place is teeming.

Remind yourself to try to notice what you wouldn’t notice. Like how the mix changes as you head on the train out of Central, class first then ethnic, the suits peeling away from the start, then fast, around Strathfield, then a lot of the Anglos start to go, until at Blacktown, it’s not some old Anglo city with a few add-ons any more, it’s a Third World metropolis floated free and come up the river, everyone threading through and between each other, Asians in tan slacks, whites in Lowe’s workwear finest, slender African and Aboriginal kids. Too obvious to mention, too obvious not to mention. The station feeds into the mall, Westpoint, two kids in three jump the barriers. There’s a hinterland with pointless decking and municipal sculpture that someone somewhere at some time must have thought improving but simply adds to the clutter.

It’s lively as hell, it’s a living city, and it’s the gateway to the golden outer west, the half-dozen-or-so seats the election may or may not turn on: Labor ultra-marginals Greenway and Lindsay stretching to the hills, Liberal hold Macquarie out to the Hawkesbury, Reid (Labor), and the Libs’ Macarthur and Bennelong on around a 3% swing — and should Labor slip and fall, Parramatta, at a 4.5% swing, would go too, and the heart of old working-class Sydney would be blue in a vast crescent from the north coast round to Botany Bay.

Blacktown has a workers club of such vast scope and power that its website is simply “workersclub”; it is Sikh central, and Little Manila. Around it constellates the largest Aboriginal population in the country, all but invisible to the media; northwards there’s the Ponds, McMansionburg nestled in its own co-opted ecosystem, and then beyond stretches Jesusland, the hills where, in 1959, Billy Graham came and lay down his cloak for four months, virtually founding a new community. Now Hillsong is there, plain tabernacle welcoming all, and headquarters of a global mega-church, with a lot of supporters and a lot of interests.

It’s the afternoon of the second day of the election when I went up there, and I swore I wouldn’t write about it, couldn’t, the way I would an American city. What is to explain to people about their own country? But then, let’s face it, we don’t all live in one country. Blacktown is Dandenong in a way, but also it isn’t, and it sure as hell isn’t Darlinghurst or Newtown or even Petersham. Sydney sprawls so far, so vast, and in one direction, so that 20 kilometres out, the harbour is mere rumour for hundreds of thousands, nothing to do with them, not where they are. Queensland aside, we’re a continent of city-states with vast hinterlands, joined in federation by an arrangement that sometimes feels like a treaty between principalities, whatever obeisances we may make towards a larger identity.

… it looks like 1978, part of a vast corridor that has been underdeveloped for so long that people have become accustomed to it.”

So if Labor loses here, while it swings back towards them elsewhere, it will be because of Eddie Obeid — and you could throw a brick anywhere west of Broken Hill and never hit anyone who’d heard of him until six months ago. I must have been through Blacktown once or twice, maybe never, why would I? Like most people not from here, Sydney disappears when you can’t feel the breeze any more, the world ends where the fibros start. But somewhere in a room here, some community peak body will decide which way its members will swing their votes, and that may swing the election too. Perhaps that whole business had already yielded its first result, as first Australia and then the world saw Greenway Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz, a Filipino-Australian candidate, melt down — when asked to name any of the six points in the Coalition’s boats plan, which he was clutching to his crisp, white shirt — and flail so badly that he eventually had to be led away gibbering by his minders.

Head office had moved heaven and earth to head off his constituency and gained a charge of racism for their troubles. But Diaz’s support was anchored in Little Manila — OK, that’s about three shops in Blacktown, but sounds cooler, yeah — and he’s gained a big slice of the Christian vote, and was unshakeable. The papers lying in piles unread in the newsagents, swollen with pages of policy minutiae, treated Diaz as if he’d just dropped down from the moon, as if he did not represent an intersection of political and cultural forces. Blacktown, in all its roiling dinge, seemed to suggest otherwise. The city lived outside and beyond the talk about it.

Quite possibly I was a little grumpy. I’d flown back in barely 48 hours earlier via Doha and Kuala Lumpar, 21st-century cities reaching towards the sky, albeit on the back of, erm, slave labour. Then there was Sydney Airport, and while I loathe airportage as much as anyone, there’s nowhere else that captures the essence of a state so perfectly. At SYD, that involved choosing between equally overpriced and variably ineffective mobile broadband options, a terminal shuttle bus that charges five bucks a ticket for a SHUTTLE BUS BETWEEN TERMINALS and that does not stop at terminal three, because Qantas won’t let it. Indeed, there was no signage for terminal three at all, and it could only be accessed via a winding trail through the long-stay car park.

What sort of airport hides a whole terminal? The same one, run by a vast financial conglomerate, that charges for terminal transfer. The same type of conglomerate that bilks for broadband access the standard of a coat-hanger aerial. It’s the baseline condition of Australia today, so vast and expansive that one only notices it at the borders — that the place is run for an interlocking set of major media, comms, mining, etc, corps, that they see the country’s citizenship as a customer base, that they set the rules, and a fair bit of that is to do with why the country has become a sinkhole for disguised inflation, and the graveyard of real productive and social development.

That probably gave Blacktown a slightly jaundiced cast. Because, really, this is a city of half-a-million people, disguised within the wider mesh of Sydney. It should have skyscrapers, plazas, focused design, be at the centre of areas of whole new industries and synergies. And yet it looks like 1978, part of a vast corridor that has been underdeveloped for so long that people have become accustomed to it. And it was only that afternoon, with the interest rate cut, that talk came round to the what we had actually been doing for the last decade or so. In the mediasphere at least.

What they think beyond Blacktown, among the fibros and McMansions, the hills and ponds, is something we’ll find out.

* Photograph of Blacktown by Laura Appleyard.

20
  • 1
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Gary, thank you for your insightful report from a voter who lives next door to the Blacktown. You missed the other part of Mr Diaz’s incompetant reply to the reporter, and that was the comment about the LNP’s environmental plan, I laughed and laughed at such an incompetant bogan and learned it concerns “planting real tree’s” as against plastic tree’s?
    Full marks to Channel 10 reporter for hammering home his questions (for once).
    And this idiot is representing his community in the parliament…god help us all, and the planet!

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Ah welcome back Guy. Please don’t be shy about describing outer Oz suburbs in that special way, that you did so well in America.
    It really *is* refreshing to see them through new eyes.
    I’m looking forward to your adventures a lot more than the dreaded MSM muck that passes for commentary.

  • 3
    Peter Cook
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Pro Tip: There is an underground travelator that takes you between T2 and T3. Both T2 and T3 share a railway station, so just follow the signs to the station, then ignore the station entrance, and continue on towards the other terminal.

  • 4
    Blobert
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Mr.Rundle, wonderful stuff. To think our “town planners” have aimed so low to the American templated urban blights, with the coup de grace delivered by traffic engineers. Surely the World Court beckons these so called professional for crimes against humanity.

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    The papers lying in piles ….” - that would be the Tele-trash?

  • 6
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Oh FFS. You come here for 40 minutes and hang out in a square of streets around the train station/shopping mall and you think you know Blacktown? And could you have chosen any more prejudicial and unrepresentative a photograph? Bugger off. (And that ‘red church’ was in fact the original school house, and far from ‘3 shops’, Blacktown is home to the biggest population of Filipino Australians in the country. A bit of research wouldn’t go astray.)

  • 7
    ross rutherford
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Grat article, hated it yet loved it all at once.

  • 8
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    @ Misrule. You object to the depiction of Blacktown as a community abandoned to 1978 infrastructure by governments of all stripes ? What buildings, projects or community resources do you say makes Guy’s picture wrong ?

  • 9
    Peter Snashall
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    This is a great article & the comments are just as interesting. I agree that some research
    would add depth to the provocative impressions. So I did my own research and “Little Manila”
    seems to consist of around 30,000 Filipinos ? Blacktown really seems to between
    everything and the center of nothing.

  • 10
    Andrew Andrews
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Guy, that single piece was worth the price of a year’s subscription.
    I’d like to say keep it up, but I won’t worry too much if you don’t. It was the strongest piece of writing I have seen in Australian media for years.
    As if you didn’t already know that… but, my congratulations just the same.

  • 11
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Misrule

    I didnt choose the photo but it’s not unrepresentative. I said that there was a large Filipino-Australian population and they provided Jaymes Diaz’s base. The ‘three shops’ was a joke about the ‘Little Manila’ thing - the large Filipino-Australian presence isn’t centred in a large, visible and distinct neighbourhood a la Chinatown. It was a joke against false exoticism. I didn’t say I knew Blacktown. But you can see at an instant that the place and people have been ill-served by the last four decades of ‘planning’ at the centre, and left that way for too long - part of the underinvestment in the west, visible in the bricks and mortar.
    Fair enough on the school though.

  • 12
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    But you can see at an instant that the place and people have been ill-served by the last four decades of ‘planning’ at the centre, and left that way for too long - part of the underinvestment in the west, visible in the bricks and mortar.”

    Interesting that this was a major issue that Whitlam identified and which helped him into power.

  • 13
    Scott Grant
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I visit Blacktown from time to time. Sometimes by train and sometimes by car. I think I have been inside the Westfield once and have no desire to repeat the experience. The little row of shops along Main Street has a couple of slightly interesting stores. But mostly Blacktown is a place to go through to get somewhere else.

    I don’t mind the railway and bus station. I am a fan of public transport and not that fussed about architecture, and it is a very good interchange, well serviced. But central Blacktown, in my opinion, has been destroyed by the motor car. Several very busy roads seem to intersect and surround Blacktown. The metaphor I would use is a fortress under siege from traffic. And, yes, there is nothing visually appealing about the place that I can think of.

    My recommendation is to go just a little further west. There is the old showground, that looks like something from a country town. Then there is Doonside, which is still an older style village and is not far from Nurragingy reserve, where a little of the old woodlands has been preserved, with Eastern Creek wandering through its middle. Then there is Rooty Hill. Just stay well away from the RSL and stick to the shopping strip and the suburban streets. Even the notorius Mt Druitt has some pleasant tree-lined streets and is bordered by Ropes Creek. I’ll stop my tour before I end up in Penrith!

  • 14
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Hallelujah, the cavalry has arrived in the form of Rundle. Between First Dog and Rundle there’s a possibility we can make it through this campaign with a thread of sanity remaining.

    Don’t hold back, Guy, tell us what we really look like in 2013. And welcome home (home?).

  • 15
    Graham R
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Ah yes, Australian airports. All owned by voracious corporations. Perth airport is no longer an airport but a carport.

    Look forward to reading you not holding back during this campaign, Guy.

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    throw a brick anywhere west of Broken Hill and never hit anyone…?? Was this a typo - did you mean Blacktown?
    The west, which Whitlam found unsewered and left flushed (as Augustus turned Rome from clay to marble, has been taken for granted for so long by the Sussex St Lubyanka that it ought to secede.
    The gripe about SYD is mild compared to the real gouging that is the raison d’etre of the privatised, overpriced shopping mall with some runways attached masquerading as our premier airport.

  • 17
    burninglog
    Posted Thursday, 8 August 2013 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I was raised in Blacktown. I still have family there & I work in a school in the area. There’s been enormous change in the area. New suburbs have sprung up that are too numerous in number to remember their names. Waves of migrants have settled in the area. Most notable for me are the Fijian Indians that fled from the coups of the late 80’s & George Speight. Recently many Sudanese have settled there. Pacific Islanders too.
    The socio economic & ethnic diversity that exists there is too great to declare it a ‘heartland’ or safe seat anymore.
    If Guy made his way from the station up to the Workers Club, he would’ve passed the Civic Centre. The place where Whitlam launched his campaign in ‘72.

  • 18
    Parker Kevin
    Posted Thursday, 8 August 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I lived in Blacktown for much of the ’60s & ’70s. Blacktown Mall looked pretty much like in the photo accompanying this article even back then. Some things never change.

  • 19
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 8 August 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it’s worth remembering the Whitlamite improvements to the western suburbs … which pretty much stopped as soon as the Libs got back in.
    Labor could romp in if they had some real plans for the western suburbs, rather than fighting the small fight about interest rates, refugees, cost of living and a whole lot of semi-concocted push-button issues. But then, the few of them that came from there left as soon as they could and have no interest in the place, except as a ‘heartland’ of easy (not anymore!) votes.

  • 20
    Gorey
    Posted Saturday, 24 August 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t see any mention of the shuttle bus from the railway station to Westpoint, a distance of 100 metres by foot, four times that by road.

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