Seeking Sydney From the Ground Up: Foundations and Horizons in Sydney’s Historiography

Grace Karskens


It was an essay by geographers Robyn Dowling and Kathy Mee on Western Sydney public housing estates in the 1950s and 1960s which prompted me to write that we need histories ‘from the ground up’. Dowling and Mee compared longstanding stereotypes of Western Sydney and public housing estates with real demographic profiles and the lived experiences of suburban people, stories that ‘highlight the social promise and ordinariness embedded in the building of estates’. Here was recognizable, human Sydney, full of ‘people doing things’, recovered from the condescension of almost everybody. In this article I want to first explore what ‘from the ground up’ has meant in my own work, and look at its implications for urban history more generally. Then I will trace some key movements and breakthroughs in Sydney’s urban historiography over the past half century, noting particularly what happens when close-grained research is fused with larger conceptual and theoretical approaches and models. My own approach to urban history ‘from the ground up’ is urban ethnographic history. The aim is Annales-inspired histoire total, for I seek to ‘see things whole, to integrate the economic, the social, the political and the cultural into a “total” history’. The Annales emphasis on space, and the perception, co-existence and interaction of different historical timescales, have of course been germane to the emergence of urban history since the 1960s, while cross-disciplinary exchange and thinking (something in which we bowerbird historians excel!) also lies at the heart of urban studies.


Sydney; local history; urban history; cities; historiography

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