On the Monorail
The Sydney monorail opened in 1988, as part of the bicentennial remodelling of the city that centred around the new Darling Harbour. At the time I was ten years old and felt excited by the bicentenary, too young to realise it was the anniversary of dispossession. At school we received a commemorative medal with a page for autographs: here I collected the wobbly not-yet-signatures of my ten year old classmates.
Much to my misery at the time, I spent Australia Day in 1988 at home with my grandparents. With the curtains drawn to keep out the summer heat I watched the tall ships on the harbour on the tv in the living room The tv was like a periscope into a bright world much further away than the actual twenty kilometres. It might as well have been another country to me then; it was still some years until I could explore it alone and make my own discoveries.
Among the nationalism of 1998 there was a lot of press about the monorail. Mostly the monorail was celebrated it as a gift to the city, but there was also strong opposition to it and its ugliness. The concrete supports for the monorail track are undeniably ugly, although they have become so much a part of the city that I rarely notice them. Central Sydney has its fair share of ugliness, but all cities need a certain amount of ugliness to truly be cities. In 1985, when the plans for the monorail were being discussed, the then Lord Mayor of Sydney referred to it being an “aesthetic scar”. Yet I could say the same kind of thing (without the tautology) about the new Westfield Sydney. To me it is ugly, and furthermore, once inside it you are in a labyrinth of chain stores with no relationship to Sydney whatsoever, immersed in genericism.
Reading the press coverage of today’s announcement by state premier Barry O’Farrell, objections to the monorail concur that it is outdated, embarrassing and useless, “an analogue mode in a digital world”. The impetus for its removal, if you read more closely and bat away the babble about “global cities”, however seems to be the construction of a new convention centre at Darling Harbour.
Although I eventually wised up to the pomposity of the tall ships and realised that colonialism went hand in hand with racism, the monorail was 1988′s one happy legacy. It was exciting to travel just above street level, on the interesting level of the awnings and the second floor offices. It felt like a secret way to navigate the city, gliding above the people and traffic below. I like the section of the track that crosses the Market and Clarence St intersection, where, no longer tethered to the sides of buildings, I could imagine I was in a craft that had the ability to float above the streets.
This section of the track was also my favourite place to spot the monorail from the street. I’d be waiting to cross from the north end of the Queen Victoria building (its refurbishment another 1980s project), on my way to Waterfront records, say, when I’d hear the whine of the monorail travelling overhead. In that moment I’d remember I lived in a city with a monorail, surely one of the most unusual forms of city transport, and this knowledge would make me feel happy about the differences that distinguished Sydney from other places.
Over the last fifteen years, or in other words my life as an adult, I have sometimes treated myself to a monorail ride when in the city and feeling sad or out of sorts. It made me feel better to sit and watch the streets below, as did the strangeness of travelling around and around in a loop, by myself, until I felt ready to resume my everyday life. The monorail was a holding pattern, in which I circled over the city I have lived in my whole life. My identity is entwined with Sydney, and up here I could see it from a different angle.
In late January, in response to the rumours of the monorail’s removal, my friend Pat and I organised a small but festive monorail party. We brought hats, snacks, balloons, fake drinking coconuts (a coconut always adds to the party mood), and a readiness to travel round and round and round. The monorail was busy: it was a Sunday, and plenty of people shared our carriage. While many of them stared at us and tried to avoid getting in our photos, only one person spoke to us. This man asked what we were doing and seemed satisfied, but a little confused, by the answer.
Like the monorail itself, the party was unusual and therein lay the pleasure of it. And so when the monorail’s demise is cheered with comments about its uselessness and ugliness, I feel sadness for the loss of one of the more eccentric features of my city.
For a comprehensive photo-journey into the monorail experience of the 1990s, see here.
There are a number of news reports from the monorail’s opening in 1988 on Youtube. My favourite is the Channel 10 one. During the footage of the balloon release, you can hear a dog barking.