Up until my early teen years, I had been oblivious of the stigma that overshadowed my local community. In the years that followed, the media stocked me with reports, outlining the details of everything crime related in Western Sydney. The local weekly newspaper, the Blacktown Advocate, with front-page crime reports, provided further fuel for the fire that was my loathing of Blacktown. Bad things happened all over Sydney, but the good rarely filtered out to us in the West.
During this time, my entire conception of my local area- a radius of about 5km- was formed through a self-created ‘dodginess scale’, which mapped the various streets, reserves and laneways that I deemed either safe or off limits. The western side of Blacktown Road, where many of my school friends called home, was close to a series of walkways and reserves which cut through to nearby bushland, the scene of the infamous Anita Cobby murder. This dense bushland, which stretched along both sides of the Great Western Highway, ranked highly on my ‘dodginess scale’. Ironically, last summer, this very bushland became the site of Sydney’s newest family tourist attraction- Wet’n’Wild.
These initial naïve fears for my safety ebbed and flowed during my high school years, occasionally resurfacing after watching a sensationalistic news piece, but quickly fading into the background within the space of a few days. As I reached my senior high school years and moved to a school beyond Blacktown, my new-found freedom helped quell my contempt. I began to un-bookmark real estate websites I had frequented in my attempt to convince my parents to move suburbs. I ceased putting my energy into the Blacktown newspaper crime reports. I instead began to experience the suburb for myself as a young adult with a mature state of mind. But I still sought an escape; not out of loathing, but in search of opportunity.
Last year, I set off on my first overseas journey to America’s West Coast with a close friend and fellow Blacktown resident. On the day of our departure, I left Blacktown with an impression of the world formed through a lifelong exposure to American media. I had browsed through towering piles of travel magazines and followed the activities of my favourite American musicians and actors as they boasted about their perfect Californian lifestyles on Twitter and Instagram. When we booked our grand American adventure, these manufactured images danced around in my mind. As I sat in the travel agency, I traced my hand over our scheduled tour route on a ceiling-high world map. I imagined the stark white Hollywood sign nestled snugly in the L.A. hills and the contrast of the red ochre Golden Gate Bridge against the deep blues of the San Francisco Bay.
I wasn’t entirely naïve though; my mother had attempted to prepare me for the scenes I was about to encounter during my travels. Influenced by one too many Louis Theroux or Ross Kemp documentaries on gangland USA, my mother, in the months leading up to my travel, called me into the lounge room on numerous occasions to show me the latest American crime story or underworld exposé. She’d look on at the TV screen, shaking her head in dismay. Apart from the guns, the sights I saw on TV didn’t differ all that much from Blacktown; I believed it couldn’t be much worse than what I’d known for the past 17 years in Western Sydney.
Upon my arrival in Downtown L.A. at the start of my American adventure, I came to observe a new and unfamiliar way of living. There were signs of glamour and ridiculous wealth, everything I had come to expect in the Hollywood city, but there were equally just as many signs of crime and poverty. Dilapidated buildings, urine-coated footpaths and deserted city streets. Even McDonalds employed round-the-clock security. On my first morning in L.A., I sat in a Downtown McDonalds only a few blocks away from the poverty-stricken Skid Row and watched on as scores of homeless men and women filed into the restaurant, using any spare pennies, dimes and quarters to purchase some sort of nourishment. I was confronted and saddened as I bore witness to this average day on the streets, experienced by over half a million Americans.
Three weeks later, I arrived home in Blacktown wearing my Los Angeles sweatshirt. Behind me, I dragged a large suitcase filled with the American-themed merchandise I had collected during my journey. But what I didn’t notice at the time was the additional souvenir I brought home with me- a feeling of gratitude and dare I say it, local pride.
While the Sydney turf wars continue to be fought on the battlefields of suburbia, I still struggle to confess my deeper appreciation of Blacktown, but the horizon has been broadened. Although I surely won’t be adorning myself with an ‘I Heart Blacktown’ t-shirt any time soon, I won’t be burning one in a blazing bonfire either.