Sydney — a coastal metropolis whose five million residents make it the largest city in Australia — is famous for many things. The glittering harbour, complemented by landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The dozens of sun-bathed beaches peppering the spectacular coastline. Pristine bushland right on the doorstep of the city, and manicured parks in the middle of town. A sophisticated food and drink scene befitting a city of this magnitude. But one thing you might not know about Sydney is the origin of this nickname.
A lot of places around the world have more iconic nicknames than Sydney’s. Other cities enjoy bigger (New York, ‘The Big Apple’; New Orleans, ‘The Big Easy’), spookier (Thessaloniki, ‘The City of Ghosts’), more stirring (Rome, ‘The Eternal City’), quirkier (Bangalore, ‘The Town of Boiled Beans’) and more obvious (Detroit, ‘Motor City’; Chicago ‘The Windy City’) monikers.
Indeed, Sydney is more often called ‘The Harbour City’ — a tag that doesn’t demand a great deal of imagination — than ‘The Emerald City’, a label that’s only bobbed up over the last 30 years and isn’t as flattering as it appears at first glance. So where does it come from?
The nickname stems from a 1987 play of the same name by Australia’s most successful playwright, David Williamson; a satirical portrait of Sydney that’s been described as “part love letter, part hate mail” to the Harbour City. The piece is a razor-sharp satire that skewers the long-held rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, acrimony that stretches back so far that the two cities couldn’t even decide which one deserved to be capital so Australia built a new one from scratch halfway in between.
Williamson himself moved from his native Melbourne to Sydney in 1979, and this loosely autobiographical story follows screenwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate packing up the family to make the same shift, seeking fame and fortune in the optimistic ‘Emerald City’ of the 1980s.
While Kate describes Sydney as “a city without a soul” compared to artful Melbourne, Colin fetes, “images of lushness. Green leaves spilling over sandstone walls, blue water lapping at the sides of ferries. Flame trees, jacaranda, heavy rain bright sun,” as opposed to ‘Bleak City’ down south — “Everything in Melbourne is flat, grey, parched and angular. And everything is controlled and moderate… Sydney has always felt like a city of subtropical abundance.”
Teaming up with a hack writer making big promises in the entertainment industry, Colin is seduced by a hedonistic city obsessed with superficial distractions like harbour views and water frontage, grappling with that age-old dilemma between artistic integrity and commercial success — “Wasn’t there a little grub in my soul hungry for the lionising and celebrity mania that grips the harbour city? Devouring my integrity until I drifted towards the sun.”
Williamson originally titled the play The Floor of Heaven — robbing Sydney of its potential nickname — until the Sydney Company Theatre’s Literary Manager Brett Sheehy suggested Emerald City, referencing that other great land of Oz (the one with wizards and witches rather than world-class beaches). Williamson then added this line of dialogue: “The Emerald city of Oz. Everyone comes here along their yellow brick roads looking for the answers to their problems and all they find are the demons within themselves.”
The play was adapted into a film in 1988 — including a cameo from a 21-year-old Nicole Kidman — and has been revived in several theatres in recent years. As Sydney’s cost of living shoots through the roof, historic public housing is hawked to property developers and gentrification and over-development runs rampant throughout the city, Williamson’s critique of the Emerald City is as resonant as ever.
It’s worth noting that Sydney isn’t the only city to be nicknamed ‘The Emerald City’, although it’s unlikely any of the others owe their moniker to an obscure Wizard of Oz reference in a 30-year-old play. The name is applied to seven US cities — most notably Seattle, whose football fans are dubbed the Emerald City Supporters (ECS) — as well as Toronto in Canada, Esmeraldas in Ecuador and Muntinlupa in the Philippines.