What do Sydney’s lockout laws and ‘Sex and the City’ have in common?
The lockout laws have given Sydney a terrible case of little town blues. Some of us want to make a brand new start, anywhere really: New York, Hong Kong or Berlin if we can; and Brisbane and Melbourne are getting their fair share of cultural refugees. I feel that the debate has been over simplified to one about health and safety versus the right to (excessive) drinking by those arguing for the lockouts. We will see if the Ian Callinan review beginning this month will help broaden the scope of the discussion.
What I realised, from a distance, and perhaps through Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, was that the lockout laws conversation was following a predictable fashion: a fight between economic capital and cultural capital; between the apparatchiks and kleineburger on one side and the hipsters on the other. Using Bourdieu you could say that the city and its nightlife had become a politicised 'field' where we were all fighting for limited resources. The general discussion about late night entertainment in a town is based on various forms of cost versus cultural and economic gain.
For example I recently used London's 24 hour city as a positive example of a no rules town. London's approach was very successful. The diversity of entertainment venues went up and the crime went down. But a professor quickly commented, saying that when this was brought in, in 2005, Tony Blair also funded an additional 36,000 police officers. The message was that we could have whatever night economy we wanted, if we wanted to pay for it and the question was, how much should we pay for such a relatively small percentage of Sydneysiders?
Berlin has 24-hour transport which again is very expensive to subsidise. Amsterdam has a night mayor. Both these cities have many bike lanes that allow late night revellers to cycle home easily. You would need a good actuary to work out if a vital late night economy is worth all the infrastructure and cost but it seems that it might be.
Clearly as Richard Cooke pointed out in The Monthly, the main players are powerful capital interests, the conservative Baby Boomers, pitted against the powerless, but juiced up with cultural capital, millennials. The millennials are throwing everything at it now from protests to gigs, to designed logos (on Facebook and tote bags) and other cultural warfare. But it is hard to see how this will all play out.
Sydney has to decide what level of cosmopolitanism it is after, as a whole. We have to weigh up the pros and cons and the costs and benefits of being the next Hong Kong or New York - even if that were possible to achieve. In the end it occurred to me that Sydney might not want to be totally hip.
Searching for metaphors I realised that Carrie Bradshaw had to make a similar decision, questioning levels of urbanity. Her choice of men was a complex exploration of the positives and negatives of different ways of living in the city. [After a million Sex and the City marathons, too, on Foxtel, I knew that SATC is as well understood and influential to thought as a contemporary Bible.]
In popular culture then, the Sex and the City girls represent the cosmopolitan (from the cocktail to the New York lifestyle). In a perverse twist, towards the end of its run, the writers introduced a character that out-sophisticated Carrie: the artist, Aleksandr Petrovsky aka 'The Russian'. They first meet at a gallery where a performance artist, inspired by Marina Abramović's The House with the Ocean View, is performing silently without food or water.
Carrie jokes that she doesn't think the artist will really perform the thing for 16 days, 24 hours/day and that at 3am she won't be there but actually having a Big Mac up the street. For their first date Petrovsky suggests that they go and check, at 3am, after a midnight Russian supper. Even for Carrie Bradshaw the foreignness of the late date, the strangeness of the food, the jam in the Russian caravan tea, was too much. She is attracted, however, by his bohemian, ultra-chic, otherness. He is a night owl, who lives and works almost solely at night. When Carrie visits his studio, the door opens a sliver uninvitingly, revealing only blinding light behind him.
It is not a surprise to me that the image of the urbane, multilingual, global art star is presented as a light installation artist (the city has always been characterised by artificial lights rather than the wholesome sunlight of the dawn). Her friends hate him. Petrovsky is the foil to Mr Big, who Carrie ends up with in the next few episodes; he is the necessary narrative device to show that Carrie's cosmopolitanism has a limit and that deep down she actually wants someone more wholesome, more American (and who would at least entertain the thought of children, which Petrovsky doesn't want). As an aside for fans, Aidan is the other end of the spectrum, too hippie and not city enough, more of a Byron Bay/Wategos guy.
Sydney has to decide how it will use the vitality and resources it has, to create the city it wants. Maybe we are not completely a global city, a 'Petrovsky'. Maybe we are a 'Mr Big', good looking and quite suave but deep down Episcopalian (what we would call Church of England), a bit day-date and a little white-bread. We are a sunny, healthy, fresh-juice-at-Bondi town, after all.
The whole debate too is centred on the inner city; Double Bay, Coogee, Bondi and Newtown are possible alternatives to the Cross. But what about the blindspot of the Western suburbs, our population centre? How will the West be accommodated in all this? What does Carrie know about that sort of man/city?
Bourdieu sees power as culturally and symbolically created. There is a lot at stake in drawing the lines of the city, its times and uses. There are a lot of set power plays but at the level of the politicised individual (from an MP to the night club user) we are able to wield our political agency in whatever way we can. What sort of city do we want to be and what sort of person are you? How sophisticated and how vampiric?
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