The foundation of our everyday happiness, more often than not, can lie in the hands of total strangers. Someone antagonising you on the street can leave such a bad taste in your mouth that it ruins your day. But the power to make or break a moment can similarly come down to an isolated act of extended generosity. In a tight-knit neighbourhood, where care is more actively prioritised, spells of generosity and charitableness keep closerbys reminded of a shared humanity.
When we were growing up, my grandmother used to make a habit of taking my siblings and me on walks around her area in the Adelaide suburbs and making note to introduce us to the people who frequented her neighbourhood, even going so far as to check in on her more elderly friends who lived in the locale. These were the men and women who had been forgotten by family, had outlived many of their close friends, and were living day to day in a quaint and frozen, incidental loneliness. She’d regularly drop in to have tea with elderly men and women on her block, as well as recently settled migrant and refugee families, who didn’t yet have a stable network. It was rare that we would pass someone by on these walks and not acknowledge them, or smile and stop for a talk. I realised it wasn’t something she did for the hell of it, or out of habit, but out of a deep understanding of a holistic and co-operative way of living.
I felt the warmth there, in those tiny exchanges, and the reciprocity. It became a patchwork of tiny stories and neighbourly inclinations that created a steady sense of belonging and understanding amongst a paisley sort of non-suburb that was known for little else outside of residential living. Amongst this blue-collar area, community was a verb; it was tangible, could be described and felt. It wasn’t over-intellectualised in a performance of shared values that fell short in practice – it was ritual. Those values of good faith still carry on with me in my everyday life.
In inner Sydney, where new developments and high-rises shoot up faster than tree saplings, I see and hear of similar microcosms being broken apart due to rising unaffordability, and the lack of time that people have to indulge in seemingly fleeting, but deeply integral, moments of recognition and connection. Something important is being lost. I moved here three years ago, and that time has passed with alarming quickness. But that palpable feeling of disconnection that I sensed as soon as I moved here still rings true: the rush of metropolitan life, generally, limits how people would otherwise appreciate and interact with their neighbours. Even more so, a sickly type of isolation is embedded into the very politics of Sydney architecture.
As a result, people are protective of their space and often suspicious of outsiders. People are cramped together in auspicious looking high-rises, disturbingly typical and askew. Outside of my inner-west bubble, I often talk to friends who have lived in Ashfield for years, a suburb that completely transformed and reshaped within a matter of months. Even on a simply aesthetic level, you can compare the before and after and see two completely different suburbs.
Although I try my best to tread carefully – to support longstanding businesses and little grocers – I’m aware that I can’t change much on an individual level, and it would be tastelessly naive to work with that assumption. I’m also aware that simply by being here, and by being a superficially ‘young’-looking person in a gentrifying suburb, I become a passing object of analysis by culture-vulture real-estate analysts, who are tasked with responding to demographic spread, coming up with the ‘next big thing’ and upping prices at their own discretion based on who lives where and why. Depressingly, I almost don’t really have to do anything but exist to contribute to a maddening and opportunistic cycle.
Advertisers often use the rhetoric of ‘community’ to sell their apartments and to generate interest, and are happy to commodify the concept if it can make a customer feel they have a chance at that rare sense of connection. ‘Join a vibrant social hub’, they say, emblazoning the words on tacky-looking signs, complete with random images of well-groomed, aged, white people laughing together and often holding – say – a persimmon or a neatly polished apple, linking arms with their freakishly identical looking partners. But it’s a specious kind of promise, and one which clearly cannot exist in these thirty story buildings devoid of any sort of organic meeting place.
I feel suffocated even walking past them, and cannot imagine that many who live there actually communicate with their neighbours on a weekly or monthly – let alone daily – basis. Architecturally, they box people in and sap capital. The friends I know who have lived in similarly constructed apartments mention that a passing word in the elevator is all they could get in with their neighbours. They are aware, more than anyone, that modern design is often pointedly sterile. When these buildings are created and the project is done and dusted, developers have quickly moved onto their next project.
I speak to my friend Harry, who has been visiting Ashfield for years: ‘Around here there are shop owners I call tito (uncle), and there are people I’ve only ever exchanged friendly glances with over time. But then I look at what’s new – the cafes, the apartments where the fruit shop used to be. I wonder whether these familiar faces will have any use of these. Will they be able to afford to live in those apartments? Will they even be able to afford those designer beetroot lattes?’
I understand that developers are about money, but they should also have a responsibility to the pre-existing community. They are given license to pass through and take what they need without concern for people who are deeply entrenched in that space. They need to be pressured by councils and held accountable to show that they are actively enriching suburbs for everyone there, not just those who can afford keycards to luxury suites and saunas. Toothlessly using Aboriginal words to ‘honour’ the grounds you’re building on (think of the way Barangaroo has been typecast and dehistoricised for similar reasons) doesn’t mean much if you lock out low-income earning Aboriginal people, and people of colour and working-class people, from new services.
Real communities are not always glossy or containable within the tromp l’olei of advertising photos. Real communities need resources that are accessible to everyone. Libraries, open spaces, affordable food and rent. This is not too much to ask. This the bare minimum for what it takes to create healthy dynamics among people of different ages, abilities, incomes and backgrounds.