Image: Susan Papazian’s 100 faces

The Darlinghurst Public History Initiative: Learning about people and place through the lens of intergenerational cycles of change

Co-authors: Nick Davis (PRF Partnership Officer,) Anna Clark(UTS), Gabrielle Kemmis (UTS) and Alana Piper (UTS)

Understanding the history of a place invites us to critically consider what is already publicly known, and ask which stories have not been heard, why, and to what effect. It invites us to be inspired by the actions of those who came before us, consider how we continually care for each other, and reminds us that what we experience today is connected to cycles from the past. It can expose cycles in need of breaking, and bring attention to what has and has not worked in facilitating such disruptions. Critical histories of place are reminders of all that we individually and collectively have achieved, the significance of social change and the beauty of community connection.

The Paul Ramsay Foundation is fortunate to call what is now known as Darlinghurst home, one of the most recent arrivals to this diverse suburb’s multi-layered story. Aboriginal people lived in these hills, traversed the gullies and crossed the multiple waterways for thousands of years before it was surveyed for colonial maps, recorded in municipal archives and seen through property registries. After the British arrival, the area of Darlinghurst became a mixture of local and immigrant, rich and poor, professionals and wharf labourers, shopkeepers and artists, conservatives and radicals.

It is a place, like many, of contradictions.

Darlinghurst gave birth to many institutions where webs of power and cycles of disadvantage played out. The Gaol, now the Australian National Art School, was one of the first institutions of the colonial penal system, and Darlinghurst is still home to one of Sydney’s main courthouses. Roughly at the time Darlinghurst Gaol was repurposed into an educational facility in 1921, the suburb was becoming notorious for its association with criminality and violent gangs. In the early 1800s, the colonial government allocated large land blocks to wealthy senior civil servants along the ridge of Darlinghurst running down to what is now Potts Point. As these blocks were subdivided and denser housing constructed, the socio-economic conditions shifted in the mid to late nineteenth century with greater poverty and disease outbreaks. This lead to the Sisters of Charity establishing the St. Vincent De Paul Hospital there in 1857. In the following century, the hospital and the neighbourhood itself would stand at the centre in support of people during the HIV-AIDS epidemic and the ongoing opioid crisis. These struggles also saw the area emerge as a hub of activism, cooperation and community. Darlo has also become a site of modern history-making, including at the Jewish Museum and Australia Museum, and as of 2016 is home to 11,320 of residents, both short-term but also intergenerational, whose stories have become part of the suburb’s rich historical tapestry.

In 2021, we partnered with the UTS Australian Centre for Public History and their colleagues at The City of Sydney, the State Library of New South Wales, scholars at Macquarie University and Murawin to ask ourselves what the history of 262 Liverpool Street and the wider Darlinghurst neighbourhood could teach us about how generations of individuals and communities have come together in different ways to face and sometimes overcome barriers and hardships. We sought to uncover insights and inspiration related to the Foundation’s core question of how and when the cycles of disadvantage are broken, and how communities have worked together to provide opportunities for children and other groups to thrive.

The initiative supported forums for the Darlinghurst community to create their own history, for visitors to walk or virtually visit the streets with guided points, for community members to join us in person for conversations and reflections, or listen online to short stories about Darlinghurst’s complicated but illuminating past.

There were three main clusters of projects within the initiative, which when taken together, weave multiple stories and themes of people and place.

Listening to Darlinghurst

  • Short audio stories of the voices and vibrant social history produced by Catherine Freyne and UTS Impact Studios. Listen to the people’s stories and sounds of the lost waterways, neighbourhood eccentrics, changing industries, multiple pandemics, housing and pub life of the area.
  • Community histories. These were moments shared by members of different communities living in Darlinghurst, speaking among themselves and with historians about their memories, experiences and connections in Darlinghurst. And many of the themes raised are included in a forthcoming community history of Darlinghurst (to be published by New South Press).
  • A series of oral histories from residents of Darlinghurst which will be available at the State Library of New South Wales. While there has not been a specific collection about Darlinghurst, there are numerous materials across the city and state archives. This project is being facilitated by the State Library of New South Wales Oral History Fellow Sarah Gilbert and will be deposited to the library in 2023.

Streets of Darlinghurst

  • Serenade walking tour by Mark Dunn and in partnership with the City of Sydney is a mobile phone app that provides a digital guide to explore the stories represented on the streets and buildings of Darlinghurst.
  • In person and online interactive visualisation of moments of time on Liverpool Street. Produced in partnership with the State Library of New South Wales and Grumpy Sailor.
  • History of 262 Liverpool is an augmented reality virtual tour, available in summary online and engage in person at Yirranma Place, of four themes of how the site has been used, each with three stories from the pre-colonial, colonial, and contemporary period. Written by UTS Lecturer Dr Alana Piper and PRF's Alex Fischer and produced by Grumpy Sailor.

Faces of Darlinghurst

  • 100 Faces (and stories) of contemporary Darlinghurst by Susan Papazian.
  • People of Darlinghurst - an interactive portrait gallery, online and at Yirranma Place, that celebrates the people that are Darlinghurst.

With all these threads of the story of a single place shared by so many people, some stories intertwined and some separate, there are five reflections and insights that we walk away with.

1.     Darlo cares, and that helps break cycles

The public histories reflect how a neighbourhood is defined around memories of individual acts and organised efforts to care for one another. The audio stories uncovered personal narratives about how the area has been a place of gathering for the LGBTQIA+ and immigrant communities, a place of social inclusion at times when exclusion existed in many other contexts. Darlinghurst is a site where major caring institutions have their origins, growing out of smaller acts of generosity and non-judgement care, including the work of the Sisters of Charity, now St. Vincent’s hospital. An audio story also shares emergent individual moments of care in the pubs of Darlinghurst, where one another’s instinctual compassion can mean just as much as the institutional forms. To break cycles of disadvantage, Darlinghurst tells us, institutional and individual care must be fostered in concert and in parallel.  See the audio stories and walking tour for more information.

2.     Change happens at different paces, which public history makes visible

Across the initiatives, we have found individual moments, short periods and long decades where community collaboration and activism has changed the area, the city and the country. We know that the arrival of British colonists instantly, and over the decades to follow, aggressively prevented future generations of Aboriginal people the ability to connect with their country, community and culture. We found examples ranging from when a moment of police brutality galvanized a spontaneous demonstration, which is now commemorated each year in the Sydney Mardi Gras Pride. The organisation of sex workers for recognition and rights took decades to shift city and national legal protections and recognition. Changes in local businesses reflect wider economic patterns of a city and country, with the pasta factories on Stanley Street supporting Italian migrant communities shifting to restaurants years later to support an increasingly residential area. Darlinghurst was one of the first neighbourhoods to introduce high-density studios and one-bed room apartments, enabling individuals to live outside of predominantly single-family homes.

3.     Social movements advance through place

Darlinghurst has been home to communities which celebrate diversity and welcome marginalised groups, including migrants and LGBTQIA+ people. On the streets of Darlinghurst, we see the many homes and places of public assembly, moments and movements where the communities have come together to celebrate, to support each other in tough times, and to organise and protest against abuses and systemic forms of social exclusion. Darlo tells stories of the community protesting capital punishments at the doors of the Gaol, advocating for efforts to reform police corruption, of neighbours joining together to resist forced evictions and untenable housing conditions, of community organisations coming together to support people through addiction treatment centres and outreach programs, and workers of all backgrounds standing side-by-side for improved pay and conditions. The thing that many of these communities and individuals have had in common is their shared residency and experience in Darlinghurst.

4.     By making history public, new connections are made

Histories of place can be alive and purposive. Not all history needs to be recorded in archives to be meaningful. At one of our public history events, four different community groups came together to share their stories and memories of living or being part of Darlinghurst’s communities. Some of these, for instance, resulted in new practices at St. Vincent’s hospital and new ideas for how to collectively frame our own narratives. By visiting and telling our collective histories we can unearth points of connection, collaboration and action which may otherwise have been obscured or deferred. Giving voice to community history, and populating our shared history with the voices of community members, enables important connections to be made between the present and the past, and between diverse peoples with different lived experiences.

5.     Public histories are important for place-based initiatives

Appreciating public history is as significant for residents and community members as it is to understand wider social and economic movements.

Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as in other places, wider historical transformations led to unique characteristics and inflections in Darlinghurst. Social classes residing in the neighbourhood grew more diverse, particularly as the 1890s depression gave rise to low-income housing in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood acts as a microcosm of various developments, such as changes in Australia’s history of reproduction and childcare. For instance, a 1905 NSW Royal Commission on the declining birth-rate reflected the misogyny of its time by concluding that the problem of the nation’s shrinking population was largely attributable to irresponsible women seeking abortions because they did not want to be burdened with the duties of motherhood. Darlinghurst, at that time was one of the inner-city suburbs at the centre of the abortion services, however, public histories reveals a more complex picture of families unable to cope with structural economic conditions, single women faced with insidious social stigmas and institutions unwilling to provide support to those who had more children than they could afford. Visiting and understanding these histories lets us critically understand our neighbourhoods, communities and places in the present and future.

As we think about future community-led and place-based funding, the Public History of Darlinghurst Initiative has supported a range of programs that are led by the community and part of the communities deep listening, self-discovering and critical reflection. Building strong local narratives from the accomplishments of the past gives rise to the need to continually challenge which narratives have not been included, or have been intentionally excluded, and how the past is implicated in exclusions in the present. Undertaking acritical history of place makes visible the cyclical patterns of advantage and disadvantage and enables community strengths to build over both the short and long term, evolving our perspective beyond the day-to-day.