The first of the three sites I’ve chosen for the Micro Galleries Little Literature Nowra project is Egans Lane. Egans lane is essentially two narrow, one way roads that feed the towns’ busiest car park from either end. But it isn’t so much the lane that interests me, it’s the small park at its centre.
It’s impossible to miss Egans Lane park if you’re going about your business in Nowra. It’s located in the heart of the CBD, so most people pass through it at least once on busy shopping days.
Since anyone can remember, it has also been the meeting place for people visiting from outlying Aboriginal communities. They linger there for hours, often drinking and occasionally yelling out to each other but always respectful of passers by. This has historically caused people a great deal of concern. I’ve never really understood why. Sure, it’s not a good look but I’ve never witnessed any violence or verbal abuse, in fact it’s been my personal mission over the years to smile and say hello. In thirty years I’ve not been successful in making eye contact. Not once. It’s as if there is an invisible wall around that patch of grass that divides us. Sadly, first Australians still live in a world where they are made to feel shame on a daily basis. Making eye contact is a difficult thing. But racism is insidious. It can be very subtle and it almost always comes from ignorance.
There is no public transport for people living in the outlying Aboriginal communities. They rely on a dedicated minibus service that brings people to town for the whole day on an occasional basis. The pick up/ drop off point is the supermarket car park. They’re not welcome at the pubs or anywhere else. There are no Koori friendly meeting spaces, so the little park has always been their unofficial meeting place. They don’t take up much space, there’s plenty of room for people to share but if the Kooris are there, non aboriginal people aren’t and vice versa. It’s black or white.
Alcoholism is an epidemic amongst Aboriginal communities everywhere but most people don’t generally give it much thought. Out of sight, out of mind. At Egans lane park however, it is very much ‘in full sight’ and an ongoing social problem for the local council who haven’t helped its cause by letting it deteriorate into a dusty, neglected eyesore.
A few weeks ago as I scurried past the park at peak hour, deep in thought, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a completely redeveloped park. When did that happen?
The worn grass had been replaced with concrete, the trees had been trimmed and seating had been placed around the edges. Brightly coloured geometric shapes break up the vast concrete pad, contrasting nicely with a colourful fence. Locals have renamed it ‘Jellybean park.’ It was lovely. And it was completely empty.
My immediate thought was ‘what a shame’. How odd. It was certainly an improvement aesthetically. Yet, despite the heavy foot traffic and full car park, not a single person inhabited the space. It was as if it had lost its soul.
It reminded me of the massive ‘regeneration project’ in Sydney prior to the 2000 Olympics, where all of Sydney’s public benches were quietly replaced with curved, steel seating that didn’t allow a person to sleep on them, effectively moving all visible signs of homelessness from view. The park had been thoroughly anglicised and cleansed of its social embarrassment. Out of sight, out of mind.
First impressions are usually the most honest and this was mine. I love that council have regenerated the space but I am uncomfortable with its lack of reference to its long history as a meeting place. Or that this space once belonged to others long before us, and still does.
I was curious about the consultation process and did some research. According to the councils consultation report, most of the people consulted were owners of the adjacent shops via written surveys and focus groups. I could find no reference to consultation with those who use the park the most. I wonder if the park had been used by white parents of small children, how different the consultation process might have been?
During the week I was fortunate to hear a speech by the Magistrate of NSW first Koori court Sue Duncombe. She spoke about her experiences with Circle (restorative justice model) courts where Elders are central to the process. In one court session she mentioned that an elder addressed one of the young offenders from the far west who had been living in the city for 8 years. During that time, the young person had managed to accrue a long list of criminal offences. The elder said these words to him:
You need to go back. You need to take off your shoes. And you need to walk on your country.
These eloquent words allude to the massive cultural gap in the way that we regard our sense of place in Australia. Especially in regional areas and especially our shared spaces.
Locative literature is about incorporating people and place into some sort of narrative. In this project, the text is extremely short. I need to take all of this and turn it into some sort of succinct, textual snapshot with brevity and equanimity.