In the city

When I left my home town of Mudgee at 19, I had one destination in mind – the city. I maybe should have been a bit more specific, because I ended up living for the next five years in the scenic but unexciting outer southern suburbs of Sydney.

There are a lot of good things about those suburbs, and they definitely still provided plenty of exciting new experiences for a country kid, but still I realised pretty quickly that some of the things I had hoped for in the city experience were not to be found out in the ‘burbs.

So occasionally on days off I would catch the train into the city. I would get off at Town Hall or Central and just walk around – going to independent record or book stores, wandering the streets, taking myself to experience places with famous names like Hyde Park, Kings Cross or Woolloomoolloo. Sometimes I would walk all the way out to Glebe or Newtown, inner city suburbs with beautiful terrace houses and “alternative” styles that were absent from the sterile beachside suburbs.

The problem was that after a few trips I realised that these city adventures mostly would leave me feeling lonely or sad – moreso than if I had stayed at home. It made me reflect that despite the reputation of the suburbs, maybe the city wasn’t automatically a more welcoming or exciting place.

As I got older and thought more about these trips, I’ve come to see that me feeling lonely after a day of wandering around the city was inevitable – there might have been people everywhere, but I didn’t really have interactions with any of them. My relationship with the city was purely as a passive consumer – of products, places and sights.

Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time since then in inner cities around the country and still feel the same way most times. I’ve come to believe that despite all those people, the CBD is the most alienated place you can go. The reason for this I think is that since so few people live there, most people don’t feel especially connected or in control of that space – their connection is usually an economic basis. You go to the CBD to work, to shop, or like I did to consume an experience or culture. The “B” in CBD is the key part – it’s a place for business, and the logic of profit dominates the city and its layout.

For the hundreds or thousands of rough sleepers who do call the city home, it is hardly a place of connection. They are mostly there for proximity to services and people; but live with the constant threat of being moved on, without anywhere to relax or leave their stuff.

After years of occasionally going into the inner cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the feelings conjured up are almost always the same – loneliness, anxiety, disgust at the vast amounts of pointless junk we buy and sell. And yet, I keep going back there.

This is because, as I intuitively understood when I first moved to Sydney as a teenager, the city plays another role besides the centre of business. It also acts as the hub for ideas and knowledge; the place where we meet together to hear and share views of how things are, and how they could be. The place to access and exchange all the accumulated thoughts that we call “culture”.

In philosophy there is this concept of “the city square”, which goes back to ancient Greek times, when cities were still new things and thinkers and theorists would take advantage of the people being in one place to expound their theories. It has come to signify the realm where ideas can be shared.

It’s funny that as our cities continue to sprawl outwards, our realm of ideas and access to culture has actually become more and more centralised. Where once live music could be experienced in a whole network of suburban pubs, these days no matter what the style of music you will probably have to go into an inner city suburb to see it. I’m not an expert on the visual art scene, but I certainly have never seen many galleries in the suburbs. Theoretical ideas like political discussions or demonstrations also happen almost entirely in the inner city.

It’s very hard to see this changing any time soon looking at the trend in (sub)urban development – public space where ideas could be exchanged is sadly lacking. Any kind of chance encounter with a new person or thought is almost impossible, with new suburbs looking like vast swathes of private housing, only occasionally interrupted by private shopping malls and private carparks.

Tragically, while this is the state of new developments out on the fringes, the actual inner city is getting harder and harder to access. Once, inner city housing was cheap, which encouraged artists, activists and students who were interested in continuing the idea of the “city square”. These days though, the price of living in those tiny terrace houses has gone through the roof as a generation of urban professionals have rejected the suburbs and moved back into the city. The result is that people who want to dedicate the time and effort into a realm of ideas are priced out of living in the places where that can be made into a physical reality.

And ideas outside of a production/consumption mainstream are less able to survive in the city too. Art and culture have never been very profitable, but they could carve out a space because people valued that exchange of ideas. Now though, the number of community centres, independent stores, art galleries and live music venues in the city are dwindling, priced out by trendy shops and cafes.

Public space is an endangered species too, taken over by outdoor commercial spaces and policed by security guards armed with council by-laws allowing them to eject anyone doing political protest or anything that might disrupt the shopping experience. In Brisbane, any public gathering of over 50 people is technically meant to apply for a permit, otherwise you can be fined.

Our changing relationship to the city and the way the subsequent gentrification has affected these places is well documented. But it’s also important to consider our relationship to the “city square” – the places (physical and ethereal) where we can exchange different ideas. Do we value ideas outside of dominant paradigms? If we do then how can we ensure there are spaces where these ideas can be developed and shared? I guess in a lot of ways the internet plays that role today, but I think that fundamental to any idea is the ability to put it into practice, which without physical places and relationships seems very difficult to do.

It may be that answers lie not in preserving the city as it once was, but by seeking to create new, decentralised “city squares” in different places, utilising different technologies and creative ways of thinking about space. I wouldn’t especially miss the big buildings, loud traffic and crowded streets of the CBD. But for all of us who feel a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a belief that things could be better, literal and metaphorical city squares are very important.

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