September 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Sydney’s border insecurity

By Guy Rundle

It’s three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon at the home display centre for The Ponds, western Sydney. The centre, on Ridgeline Drive, marks the very edge of the city, at least until next year, when the kit homes and McMansions, fake Edwardian jostling with a sort of slab modernism, will claim the rolling fields it now looks out on.

The sausage sizzle is all but over, though cappuccino vans cater to the still-arriving couples and young families. The Anglos are dressed down a little, sporting three-day growth and leisure suits, like bogan–hipster hybrids. The Sikhs and Lebanese-Australians are more smartly dressed.

The Ponds has one of the highest median house prices in Australia, and sits in the middle of Greenway, the state’s most marginal electorate, which Labor holds by 0.9%. Whichever way the booths in The Ponds go – a place barely five years old – so will go the nation.

The display centre is a carnival of sorts, a make-believe street party, and almost a suburb in its own right. There are balloons everywhere, a creche, estate agents dashing in and out of Eden Brae Homes, the Mantra package, the Waterfall, and an entryway attended by two girls who might otherwise be draped over speedboats in an exhibition hall.

“I started at 550 for it, and they were at six [hundred thousand] just like that,” a chunky man in wraparound shades says to a near-twin. An Indian couple, loading kids into a people mover, are going over options.

“Did the Allcastle have a secondary dining room?”

“Do we need it?”

Here to meet Al, a friend of a friend, to guide me through, I realise I’ll also need him to get me out of here. But I can’t find him, have no bars on my phone and eventually ask someone.

“Are you sure they mean this display centre?” she says. “Because this is new. Everyone meets at the old display centre. It’s down Riverfront Boulevard.”

A kilometre or two down the road, where the edge of Sydney used to be, the old centre consists of two or three houses, now closed up. Al is nowhere to be seen. Across the road is the creek bed around which the whole ’burb has been oriented, Second Ponds Creek. In the bad old days of suburban development, the creek would have been filled in, planed flat and built over. Now, planners have turned it into a linear park, which opens wide where it meets the boulevard, with cycle paths connecting it to other parks. There are maybe 150 people out here in the winter sun, in family groups, with up to a dozen women in headscarves. I ask the most general of questions – Do you live here? Do you like it here? “Oh, we love it,” says Nazreem, beaming. “My mother and my sister’s family live next door,” says his wife, a little more tersely. Sikh families, upscaling from Blacktown and surrounds, buy two or three lots here to reassemble family networks. Anglos buy solo, their places more homestead-like and entire.

The suburb’s public space seems strangely private, and people demur quietly when asked further questions about their politics. Later, an ALP operative from deep in Blacktown tells me: “Look, the whites vote Liberal, the ethnics vote Labor there, that’s our working assumption. It’s tough making inroads; we just hope to hold on to the votes we’ve got.”

The place seems to have had excised the essential features of politics, or the matters of the polis: history, randomness, class differentiation, production and consumption cheek-by-jowl.

It’s by design, of course. When the postwar suburbs were thrown up quickly, no one really thought much about designed environments or social planning. By the ’60s, the consequences were obvious, and a push for better cities became a big thing – it was part of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign launch speech down the road at Blacktown Civic Centre. Then the “designed collectivism” of socialists like Robert Owen crept into urban development, including in places like The Ponds.

The houses are freestanding, but because they run boundary to boundary, they all but join at the edges, making the streets look like enormous barracks. The big backyard, once the Aussie suburban dream, has been eschewed in favour of floor space and shared parkland. But the latter lacks barbecues, kiosks, cafes, anything that might suggest a bit more luxury, bustle or volupté. Nor is there any place where such things could be built, should people have the will to. You take a walk, throw a ball around, maybe spread a picnic blanket by the water, listen to bird calls, go home. The soft, smooth enviro-design seems aimed at excluding certain possibilities, and, I suspect, will drive people back to an atomised life, to the electric hearth of Foxtel and Xbox, because how many strolls by a landscaped creek can you take before a mega-session of World of Warcraft starts to look like what the brochure calls a “rich social encounter”?

 “Wouldn’t this place be more fun with a few shops?” I almost plead with a middle-aged man wearing a solid crucifix and pushing a stroller. He scrutinises me, smiles and says, “Ah, well. You can’t have everything.”

Instead, atop the ridge along the creek park sits the yet-to-be-opened “The Ponds Community Resources Hub” – a string of words all meaning the same thing. The Hub will synergise with the local community website, a chirpy page offering over-50s socialising, a men’s cycling club and a regular social committee meet. In fact, the social life of The Ponds has been subcontracted to a private company, Connections Community Development. Originally a non-profit network run by former school principal Warren Weir, ConnectionsCD is now hired by mega-developers such as Mirvac and Australand to “develop a rich quality of life in new estates by bringing people together to develop a spirit of community and good neighbour relationships”, as its vision statement puts it. With a rapidly expanding remit into new areas such as Bella Vista Waters, Parkbridge and Waterside, ConnectionsCD now has about 20 staff, and is recruiting more, principally through the “ChristianJobs” website. Community spirit, it would seem, is too important to be left to the community itself.

When I call Weir to ask him how the model works, he baulks at my explanation that I’m writing about politics. “We don’t do politics,” he says.

It’s a response as chill as The Ponds in late afternoon, with the built-to-the-kerb houses enclosing the width of the street in shadow. I grab the last afternoon bus out, the driver double-taking when I flag him down near Second Ponds Bridge. “That’s the first time I’ve picked anyone up from that stop in six months.” Later I call Al. “I didn’t know the showroom had moved,” he says. “We all meet by the showroom.”

“Even though it’s closed?”

“Everyone still calls it that.”

It’s a Ballardian touch, a local culture developing around commercial artefacts. But slim pickings all the same. In the new cities, our social needs are met as a subcontracted function of property development, attendant to its priorities. If anyone has a problem with that, they are yet to bring it up at the social committee, or ask questions at the new display centre.

Guy Rundle
Guy Rundle is the global correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Presidential Election and two Quarterly Essays, ‘The Opportunist’ and ‘Bipolar Nation’.

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