Empty places

24 October, 2021

Day 24 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s late Sunday afternoon on an empty university campus.

Lockdown is (mostly) over. Semester 2 is over. There’s nobody here at all. Not even the turtle.

It’s not much of a day for picnics, I admit. It’s also the first weekend that people have been allowed to visit one another at home, so nobody needs to sit around in the cold wind on soggy lawns any more, unless they want to. And will they want to?

A couple of people stroll past, but it’s nothing like it was a couple of weeks ago, with cyclists and joggers and little knots of people eating or playing cards or throwing frisbees.

Theatre steps and stage looking across moat to buildings
View from the cheap seats at the Moat Theatre – that’s my office window, way up top in the background.

I reckon the pandemic has changed our relationship to public spaces. When all you can do is walk up and down or go to the supermarket, when public and community spaces like libraries and pools are closed, when social spaces like sports competitions and choir practice are cancelled, and when cultural spaces like theatres and bookshops and cinemas are shut, where do you go? When you work from home, or can’t work, what even is a workplace?

And what do you miss?

How do we use the spaces we have, the spaces we’ve barely seen, the spaces we’ve discovered? The spaces we’re totally sick of seeing? And what will happen next?

Of course, the way we use places is always changing. This morning I leafed through a book called Lost Melbourne, which is fascinating and full of brilliant photos, but also sad, thinking – especially just now – of all the beautiful old buildings pulled down over the last few years. Last week, they knocked down the old Theosophical Society building in Russell Street, dammit, to build a hotel. I wonder what the Melbourne CBD looks like now: last time I was there, months ago, there were already so many shopfronts plastered with ‘To Lease’ signs and dark, empty restaurants, but also new tower buildings that I swear have popped up while we’ve all been at home.

This is Wurundjeri country and it was never ceded, but has changed beyond recognition. Only a few glimpses of what it once was remain, in Nangak Tamboree and Gresswell Nature Reserve. Once it was once a dairy farm for a hospital and now it’s a university, and has been for fifty years.

Enormous red gum stump
Truly massive and ancient River Red Gum stump by the moat (honestly, it’s as big as a truck)

The Port factory where my grandparents worked is now apartments. The South Melbourne Market, where they took me shopping, pushing a repurposed pram loaded with potatoes and lettuces, has been reinvented as a sophisticated foodie destination. Once, your choice was a bucket of chips or a jam doughnut (an excruciating choice, mind you, normally solved by Pop buying us both while Nan wasn’t looking). I live in the old Olympic Village, which was turned into public housing after the 1956 Games, and now ugly townhouses are popping up everywhere – on the positive side, it’s also a Transition Community.

Lockdown felt like it would never end, but it has. The pandemic changed everything at once and then for months felt like nothing would ever change. And then did that all over again. It’s not surprising none of us remember what day it is any more. In the time since I decided to walk and write in this place each day as part of my daily exercise in deep lockdown, we’ve moved from being restricted to five kilometres from home, to being allowed to exercise pretty much anywhere, and leave home for any reason … or no reason.

Now I think about it, we might even be able to work back on campus by the end of the month. Maybe.

Soon it won’t be empty any more.

Tangled branches against a cloudy sky

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