This week, New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver is visiting Sydney, Australia for City Talks on Greening Global Cities, an urban planning conference. The city is the largest and most populated on the continent-country, built on a series of peninsulas facing the Parramatta River. At the head of each bay or cove separating the peninsulas were creeks, many of which have been lost to urbanization and only recently reemerging in the public imagination.
One such example is Tank Stream, which drained into Sydney Cove, not far from city’s iconic bridge and opera house.
History of the Stream
The metropolis had its beginning in January 1788 when the first shipment of nearly 850 British convicts landed at Botany Bay in search of a fresh water source. Not finding one, Captain Arthur Phillip then traveled to the next nearest cove, where they found Tank Stream and the settlement of Sydney began.
The stream originated in a marsh bound approximately by the present-day Elizabeth, Market, Pitt and Park Streets. That marsh is today the Sydney Tower, the country’s version of a tower-on-a-stick resembling the CN Tower of Toronto, Seattle’s Space Needle and my city’s New York State Pavilion. Beneath the observation tower/antenna, it has offices and a shopping center. Pitt Street serves as a pedestrian mall in this dense commercial district. Them all has a ditch down its middle that drains into the Tank Stream sewer and marked as such.
The stream flowed east along today’s Pitt Street today’s Sydney Cove. Following a drought n 1790, the settlers built tanks to hold its water near today’s intersection of Pitt with Bond and Spring Streets. As with Manhattan’s Spring Street, the one in Sydney has a name relating to a hidden waterway.
This triangular intersection presently hosts a Brancusi-like Dobell Memorial Sculpture by Bert Hubelman, installed in 2000. By the 1810s, the expanding city had polluted its first source of water and its tanks were abandoned by 1826. So by the time that John Skinner Prout had painted his Tank Stream in 1842, the creek was an outdoor sewer. It was filled entirely in the 1860s.
Looking for Tank Stream
Following its burial, the stream functioned as a sewer until a larger sewer was built in the 1930s to serve the city’s central business district. The tunnel that is today’s Tank Stream collects very little water, coming mostly from the streets above when it rains.
When it comes to tourism, Sydney is one for the adventurous traveler, famous for its climbing tour of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so it makes sense that the city also has tours of Tank Stream. Organized by Sydney Living Museums, the $35 tour is limited to 60 participants and given only twice a year. Those who take the tour hear the stories of convicts who built the sewer and see bricks with the years inscribed on them.
On the Surface
For those who did not make the lottery for the tour, there are markers installed on the sidewalks and in building lobbies that indicate the course of Tank Stream.
As with New York, there is a watering hole named after the stream, the Tank Stream Bar on an alley called Tank Stream Way. As with New York’s Financial District which has a Bridge Street, Sydney’s Central Business District also has a Bridge Street.
It once spanned across Tank Stream. On either side of the buried stream bed, there is a slope, indicating where Bridge Street had its crossing.
The Art of Tank Stream
As some of New York’s hidden streams appear in artworks such as fountains and sidewalk reliefs, Sydney’s hidden creek has the Tank Stream Fountain at the corner of George and Alfred streets, near Sydney Cove. Designed by Stephen Walker, it was installed at Sydney’s Herald Square in 1981 on the 150th anniversary of the Sydney Morning Herald and features sculptures of Australian wildlife along with a plaque carrying a poetic description of the creek’s history.
Facing the fountain is an elevated highway, retail establishments, waterfront park and ferry terminal, a scene resembling Manhattan’s South Street. All in all, Tank Stream is a downtown kind of former waterway, with a history and appearance akin to Manhattan’s Broad Street Canal, Collect Pond and Minetta Creek, and very much visible in the public mind.
A final thought
Having made so many comparisons between Sydney and New York, I can say that if a book were written about the hidden waters of Sydney, there would be plenty of material. Canals, reservoirs, creeks, coves, and lakes; as well as parks, streets and neighborhoods named after lost waterways. According to Wikipedia’s users, quite a huge list. I better get my plane ticket now and begin researching.
“If New York and San Francisco had a child, it would be Sydney” – Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP
In the News:
Next City reports on parks expansion plans in Louisville, Kentucky.
You can follow the latest news from the City Talks in Sydney using the hashtag #SydCityTalks.