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First came the six- and seven-story buildings of the 19th century; then, in the second decade of the 20th, the advent of the lift allowed 13-story blocks. Finally, the repealing of the 150-ft (46-m) height restriction in 1957 saw the fiercest frenzy of redevelopment and the erection of the skyscrapers that now mark the CBD. The Rocks area of Sydney Cove, thronged with tourists buying opals and boomerangs, and an aesthetic and financial delight to the city fathers, was saved from destruction in the early 1970s only through the intervention of the Builders' Labourers Federation and its members' "green ban" refusal to perform demolition work. The old buildings of Woolloomooloo owe their existence to a similar --but depressingly rare--triumph of the popular will over developers' check books.
But--serendipity, again--the lack of planning has turned out well enough. Unlike many overplanned cities of recent vintage, Sydney has the narrow, twisting streets and lanes of more ancient towns, thanks to a thousand tiny acts of defiance by individual settlers who refused to adhere to their betters' visions of boulevards and grand public squares. In its variety it is akin to lower Manhattan, before the grid of streets and avenues imposes its discipline on New York. This haphazard layout, frustrating to the uninitiated, compensates by surprising the visitor with architectural objets trouves: a sudden startling view of harbor or Bridge; a tired landmark refreshed by a new and unusual line of sight. Many of the city's less favored buildings conspire to produce this effect: even the much vilified new apartment block at East Circular Quay, known unflatteringly to Sydneysiders as the Toaster, is a setting for the Opera House, integrating the icon into the broader matrix of the city.
Beneath the Toaster, smart new bars have revitalized the social life of the Quay. As many locals as tourists gather here on sunny days, families piling onto ferries, pausing with ice creams to watch the clowns, mime artists and didgeridoo players, walking the rim of Sydney Cove from Campbell's Cove to Bennelong Point, and up into the serenity of the Royal Botanic Gardens. A look at the faces tells you that, like New York, Sydney is one of the world's great melting pots. The 19th century gold rush brought Chinese from Canton; by the turn of the century the city was home to bustling communities of Greeks, Lebanese and Italians. There have been crude attempts to control immigration--until 1958, the so-called "White Australia" policy allowed immigration officers to exclude would-be migrants with a dictation test in Gaelic--but a more enlightened attitude prevails today.
For Australia realizes it is still a nation of migrants. More than a quarter of Sydney's residents were born overseas, half of them in Europe, the remainder primarily in Asia. Luckily, they have been absorbed with little friction. While there is a natural tendency for groups to coalesce around certain areas --Italians in Leichhardt and Five Dock, Chinese in Chinatown or Chatswood, Vietnamese around Cabramatta--these are not so much ghettoes as nations in miniature. It is an Australian commonplace to say that non-Anglo-Celtic migrants have enriched the nation's once-stodgy culture, but the mix of people sampling Portuguese suckling pig in Petersham, Macedonian burek in Rockdale or Korean kimchi in Campsie testify to its truth. And whatever else they brought, migrants have settled in Australia without much metaphorical baggage. The murderous intricacies of Balkan or Middle Eastern politics rarely surface in Fairfield or Lakemba. Like their predecessors, the newcomers have learnt--and taught--tolerance.
Mix this new liberalism with the hedonistic self-indulgence of beach culture, and you have the crowd in Darlinghurst's Taylor Square on a Saturday night in February. Sydney has unbuttoned itself to become one of the gay--and gay-friendly--capitals of the world, with a Mardi Gras festival of such exquisite vulgarity that even robustly heterosexual Sydneysiders feel a stirring of pride as they watch the sparkling floats, each more outrageous than the last, and the gyrating, glistening, gym-honed bodies of the participants. Not everyone's happy with it, of course: a few resolute souls gather to pray for rain on parade night. But for the rest of the city, well, they love a party, and who cares who's throwing it?
But the supreme pagan pleasure of Sydney is sport. It has its cathedrals: the Sydney Cricket Ground, where howling devotees celebrate bleached-blond, zinc-smeared gods; Bondi Beach, where slick surfers slip down the cliff-face of the ocean. A thousand lesser temples abound: cricket pitches, rugby grounds, Aussie Rules ovals, bowling greens (for age is no obstacle to faith), tennis courts. Now, at Homebush Bay, the grandest cathedral of all has been raised, its gleaming curves visible from vantage points all over Sydney. It is Stadium Australia, and followers of the Olympic Games will worship their idols here.
Just as millions of migrants have followed their private dreams to Sydney, in September athletes from all over the world will come in pursuit of their public dreams. For some, there will be triumph; for many more, disappointment. The city, as always, will embrace them, console them, entertain them, infuriate them. Above all, it will astonish them. Neither they, nor Sydney, will be the same again.