The suburbs can sometimes seem like a sleeping giant, curled up around the city. It’s hard to say which is giving and receiving the comfort of this embrace. A body of such proportion and strength that it might strangle that frail centre, so hell bent on walling its boundary by any means possible. The sleep is heavy and hard to stir, yet dreams and nightmares pervade. There’s reasons they are referred to as dormitory suburbs, a narcoleptic morass of wasted potential.
Today’s morning walk has given me pause to consider how suburban systems can be disrupted through simple everyday gestures. I encountered and observed three things today that are small ‘blips’ on the somnolent landscape. I really want to celebrate them.
1. Hole in the Wall
There is a small, probably 50s or 60s, row of shops by the side of Gympie Road. A pair of fashion designers used to have their studio in the attic space there and a Chinese takeaway cafe has operated since I can remember. There’s been a hairdresser there for some years, probably decades, and in the last few weeks, she has refitted the premises to accommodate a ‘drive-in’ coffee shop. She could probably put some small stools there and customers would sit despite proximity to the highway. But this is the only coffee shop on that strip of Gympie Road, on the margins of a cluster of businesses in the precinct. While I predict challenges with parking and traffic, I suspect she’s covered her bases in establishing a business that compliments her hairdresser enterprise. It’s the scale of the business that I find particularly interesting. This is micro; an insert into a pre-existing space that captures unused capacity. Nothing here is wasted.
On most of the streets I walk along, a significant number of front yards are not fenced. Their gardens roll out to landscaped indications of where the property line is drawn, where private property begins. At the front boundary of one of those yards, the owner has installed a small ‘fairy garden’ with bench and water for dogs. It’s one of those things that brings attention to a small fragment that disrupts the continuous seperation of public and private. Here, a portion is shared and anyone is welcome to use it, enjoy it, under the shade of a large street tree. Small children squeal and point as they pass and spot small figurines fixed to the ground – ‘mummy mummy, I saw a fairy’ – and the dogs slurp up the water on hot summer days.
A caravan has been parked on the street for years. A blue cable is woven through the overhanging branches, running between oversized house and caravan. A rubber door mat sits underneath the front steps on the footpath. Without a doubt someone is living here – I spotted them emerging early one morning for the first time last week. My bet is that the local authority doesn’t approve of this kind of thing. There’s spare capacity here too. It’s a quiet street, flat, with wide parking bays. There’s a contrast between the size of the house and the size of the caravan and that draws attention to our seriously skewed ideas about how and where people should live. It seems workable for the caravan to connect into the house like that – for the house, in its magnitude, to be a resource for extended family networks in flexible living arrangements.
And then there are the other disruptions like young people on skateboards, rumbling along empty streets and performing all kinds of acrobatics; children climbing street trees rather than playing on swings; other youngsters improvising a BMX ramp on a land formation. Elsewhere preparations are underway for a garage sale with roughly written posters taped to the telegraph poles, and a personal trainer, working from home, places her A-frame sign at the front gate. These alterations and uses disrupt the systems of how streets, yards and setbacks are laid out; they also disrupt the play of private and public. They do something else. They are small, smart and opportunistic. Despite what we tell ourselves or believe about suburbs, there’s resourcefulness, transgression and creativity here.
Note: Photos to come.