After the work of two local artists: Georgia Robenstone’s video work Agora, which reflects on public squares in cities, and Neika Lehman’s 2019 speech ‘Invisible Expansions: the Big Hole as Monument’
When I first arrived in Narrm, I was briefly employed to distribute leaflets on the corner of Swanston Street and Collins Street. I did this for four hours each afternoon, five days a week. Having been temporarily homeless, I was relieved to have a job. I had moved into a second-floor bedroom above a hairdresser on University Street called Roberto’s Hairdressing. Me and my housemates would spend our days walking around the northern suburbs, making friends with the street poets and spoken word artists of Lygon Street, picking up trinkets to decorate our loungeroom and taking lattes from the cafes downstairs up to our place to drink. On the rooftop, we would do photoshoots and look over at the La Mama building and the sunset. The loneliness of couch surfing and feeling like I had nowhere to be is something I still remember. I felt safe in our tiny messy castle.
Distributing advertising on the street in the centre of the central business district of Narrm is a game of seeing how well you can attract the attention of people who are trying to walk quickly from one place to the next. You realise fast that those who come through this particular block are determined not to stop, don’t like making eye contact, and are lightly afraid of each other. Your job is to interrupt them and trick them into stopping and talking to you. Failing a real, full-blown conversation, you see how easily you can force them into an agreement: you get a piece of paper into their hands and in exchange, they succeed in getting you to leave them alone. This is mutually beneficial. You get closer to offloading your allocated number of leaflets for the day. They get to avoid prolonged contact with a stranger. My grandparents worried for me when I moved here, told me to be careful out on the city streets. Now, I feel like the threat. A stranger trying to catch people’s attention—someone to be suspicious of.
It was uncomfortable work, but I needed a job. Doing this, I got to know exactly how bad I am at striking up conversations. Every now and again, someone would make things easy for me. An older woman was drawn to me and sat on the bench during my break. She took a leaflet out of my hands, then another for her son. She said she knew she wanted to talk to me as soon as she’d seen me because of my hair, which was dyed purple at the time. No one wears colour here, she said, pointing to the flow of people crossing the road around us. Everyone wears black. Even now, in autumn—even in summer. They all wear black. They’re afraid of colour. Boring!
This is just another day in the city.
Big development projects always have a story. A train tunnel appears to be a rewriting of history. It is a process of layering. Of digging up soil which has already been disturbed, excavated, rethought, restructured. It appears to erase and replace another story. It is an archaeological dig site. It exposes history. You might feel interrupted, displaced. You might feel nausea, fear, uncertainty, or trust. You will travel under the Birrarung—the gathering place of the Kulin nations, of ancestor beings, of animal relations, for millennia. You will trace its lines in your mind. You will re-emerge. You might feel breathless, dazzled.
The hole is managed by Metro Tunnel, as part of the current tunnel expansion of the CBD and broader train networks.
Descend into the hole, and you will discover many things about human history. Pay attention. Don’t ignore the gravity of what’s about to happen, when you get beneath the surface.
I’ve never sat in City Square; I’ve only walked past City Square. Having a city square was avoided by Melbourne’s designers when the grid first emerged in the 1800s. The city’s planners didn’t want us to have a place to meet one another. Governor Bourke discouraged the inclusion of a city square in the grid to deter ‘the spirit of democracy’. But people still gather in public, despite attempts to move them along.
Robert Hoddle made a grid here in an attempt at bringing order to something unruly. The city was ‘civilised’, the rivers brought under heel and replaced by many big holes. The repressed chaos of the subway bubbles up and ends where the daylight hits the steps.
Soon after moving to Narrm, after I’ve finished handing out flyers, I get to know the lonely intersections of Hoddle’s civilised grid as sites of protest and celebration. As a community numbering in thousands, we take up the spaces at the meeting points of Bourke and Russell, Swanston and Flinders. Sovereign First Nations peoples are joined by countless supporters, gathering to celebrate and mourn, to protest wrongful deaths and to remind the anxious grid and the tunnels running below it that we are still here.
Can you find anywhere in city square to sit comfortably? Why/why not?
Could you sit there for a long time? Why/why not? How long could you sit here, before your feet would go numb—before the wind chill would force you to jump up again?
Would you invite a date to join you here? Why/why not?
Would you invite your aunty?
Are you lonely here?
Would you have a nap here? Can you relax? Can you dance? Why/why not?
Do you feel as though you live in a democracy? What are the qualities of it? What does it feel like? Where can you see it—taste it—breathe it?
Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh freelance writer and researcher living in Narrm on the lands of the Kulin nations.
Illustration: Nyein Chan Aung
Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.