material culture, migration and everyday life

Month: October 2019

Contextualising Sydney: 3# The coming of the car and homes for the people

The motor car introduced a level of mobility never before imagined and, in the process, changed the shape and character of Sydney. Housing, work and social life were affected by this transport revolution.

Until car ownership became widespread in the prosperous 1950s, most houses were built within walking distance of a rail or tram line. Public transport was used to go to work, attend church or school, or “go to town” to shop. The car made a new kind of development possible. Suburbs of detached houses, with garages or carports, began to fill the spaces between the main transport lines. The postwar influx of migrants and the “baby boom” fuelled demand. Sydney spread out as town planners answered the demand for a backyard for every family. Only the national parks to the north, south, and west of the city stopped Sydney becoming one of the most sprawling cities in the world.

The car and the truck revolutionized movement within the city. Commerce and industry no longer had to locate near a rail train line, and new suburban worksites provided car parks for their workers. The dominance of central city shopping faded with the rise of new car-based suburban shopping centers as North Ryde (1957), Warringah Mall (1963), Miranda Fair (1964) and Roselands (1965).

Roselands Shopping Centre in 1965. Source: dailytelegraph.

In the 1920s and 30s, most drivers were middle-class makes who could afford a car, or men who had access to a car or a truck for work. When mass car ownership arrived in 1950s, male drivers still predominated, but by the 1970s many women had licenses. Two-car households were common. The number of trips taken by each family quadrupled as cars were used for almost every outgoing.

“Sunday drives”, a family favourite of the 1950s and ’60s, soon lost their novelty. Instead, more and more households escaped the ever-growing city for a weekend away, particularly at the coast, either camping or staying in modest holiday houses. Motels, literally “motor hotels”, spread rapidly across both the rural and urban landscapes. Recreation and the car became inseparable.

As car ownership increased so did traffic congestion.  Transport engineers recommended a series of freeways and ring roads for Sydney, which were often hotly contested, especially by people whose houses and suburbs were likely to be affected by the insatiable demand for new road space. Some freeways were built, some were not, but Sydney drivers persist in their love affair with the car.

Until the 1870s most houses in Sydney had been built in rows of terraces, not unlike the housing in many British cities. by the 1880s, with the arrival of fast public transport in the form of trains and trams, the detached suburban house became the ideal. higher density housing was also in demand, and in the building boom after World War I, blocks of flats, unusually three-storey brick structures, proliferated in the inner east, harbourside and beachside suburbs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s Australia suffered unemployment rates averaging 30 per cent. in some of the inner suburbs of Sydney over 50 per cent of workers were unemployed. overcrowding was rife, and most terrace houses had their balconies filled in to create extra accommodation. Many of the houses did not have adequate cooking and sanitary facilities.

Restrictions on building materials meant that very few houses were built during or immediately after World War II. the labor state government, which had created a housing commission during the war, begun to demolish some of the “slums” of 19th century terrace. in their place they built high-rise and low-rise blocks of flats in the inner city and detached houses in the suburbs for families who could not afford a mortgage.

Terrace houses, Sydney, 1940’s by Frank Hurley. Source: National Library of Australia

Australia had long held out the promise that all its residents, specially incoming migrants, could aspire to live in a home of their own. At the 1947 census, 60 per cent of Sydney householders rented and 40 per cent we’re buying or owned their homes. Twenty years later the proportion of owners and buyers had risen to over two-thirds.

Such a phenomenal rise in home ownership required tens of thousands of houses to be built. most of the new subdivisions, whether in the hinterland of the northern beaches or in the South and West, waited many years for infrastructure and transport services.

With the introduction of the first strata title legislation in Australian in 1961 it became much easier to buy a flat or home unit. blocks of flats fanned out along the major rail and bus routes. over a third of Sydney’s population now live in apartments or other attached dwellings, a much higher proportion then in any other Australian city.

Aspirations for home ownership continue unabated despite Sydney having the most expensive housing in Australia. Because of high prices the proportion of homeowners is now under 70 per cent and gradually failing. Sydney is home for some of Australia’s wealthiest and poorest citizens.

Until next time,


Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney 

A city of remembrance

In Memories of a Nation, the author Neil MacGregor argues that “German history is a composite of different, sometimes conflicting, local narratives”. He goes on to give the example of Frederick the Great of Prussia – the kingdom of which Berlin was the capital from 1701 until the unification in 1871 -, whose war and territorial gains were often won at the expenses of other German states. He goes on to say that if Frederick the Great could be considered something of a national hero in Berlin, in Dresden he would be considered a villain for having destroyed and captured the city during the Seven Years War.

In contemporary History, conflicting narratives become very local to Berlin. In the III Reich, the city became capital and headquarters of the Nazi Regime. Hitler had plans to completely demolish and rebuild the city, transforming it in the megalomaniacal capital of the Nazi Empire after the intended victory in WWII. However, much of the city ended up destroyed, not by Nazi bulldozers, but by Allied heavy bombing. By the end of the war, an estimated forty per cent of the population of Berlin had been forced by persecution or deprivation to resettle elsewhere; many thousands were forcefully deported and killed by Germany under the Nazi regime.

Today, silent reminders of the devastating consequences of war can be seen everywhere in Berlin. I am not speaking about the dozens of erected memorials, but of the buildings that were intentionally left destroyed by the war, like Kaiser Wilhelm Church or other public interventions which were made more recently like the thousands of Stumbling Stones spread across the city’s pavements.

The Stumbling Stones are brass stones engraved with the name and the fate of individual victims of Nazi Germany, placed in the pavement in front of their residence. This ongoing project by a German conceptual artist has been adopted by several cities in Germany and other countries in central Europe, albeit not without controversy: some argue that it is disrespectful to place the small memorials under our feet and doubt the stumble effect, questioning how many people stop to consider and pay respect to individual victims; others argue that it brings closure and power to the survivors and communities involved in the process and that the passer-by shoes have a polishing effect on the copper giving it shine throughout the years.

Five Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) outside one apartment building in the district of Mitte.
The former Anhalter Station bunker now houses the Berlin Story Museum.

From war to division

In 1945, Berlin became spoils of war and was divided between the winning Allies. The city became permanently occupied by the Soviets in the East, and by the English, French, and American in the West. With the advent of the cold war, the division of the city became not just ideological but physical as well, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Neighbours, friends and families remained separated for almost 30 years by a 100 metres ‘death strip’.

The fall of the wall in 1989 became a symbol of the triumph of western freedom over eastern totalitarianism. In the nineties, parts of East Berlin were seen as uncharted territory by Western squatters and vanguard artistic movements. However, for Eastern Berliners, the fall of the wall meant mass unemployment, salary inequality and overall discrimination by the wining West.

Today, squatters are in the forefront of protest against capitalism and sky-rocketing property prices; and the founders of the Love Parade – a techno event born from the pacifist motto “peace, joy and pancakes”, which stood for disarmament, happiness and end of hunger – have dissociated themselves from it, disillusioned with the commercialization of the event.

When I visited the Berlin Story Museum, I was very unimpressed by the building: a concrete dilapidated square which was built as to be an air-raid shelter during WWII. Over the entrance to the bunker-turned-museum, there is an even less attractive graffito, translating “those who build bunkers, throw bombs”, very likely done during the eighties when the area, in the district of Kreuzberg, stood on the west margin of the Wall and was home to Turkish and Kurdish exiles, Punk and Hip-hop communities. These more politically aware and subversive communities  are in the genesis of the bohemian spirit of today’s Kreuzberg.

The 1940s bunker and the 1980s graffito have thus been preserved throughout the decades as a testimony of History. I see the ensemble today as the perfect expression of the paradoxes of war and division in Berlin. Whether due to their size, location or because they seem to be displaced or dissonant from the surroundings, these kind of monuments  – the Bunker as well as the Stumbling Stones – confront even the most distracted passer-by, away from the frenzy of the touristification of History.

As Neil MacGregor puts it, in Berlin as in Germany, monuments don’t have the purpose of celebrating national victories but are “uncomfortable reminders of failure and guilt [which] proclaim a moral message: that the past offers lessons which must be used to shape the future”.

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