I was about to page for Sam at reception, when he rode around the corner on his bike.
He wore jeans and a tan polo shirt. He looked very casual, for a mayor.
Some background: Sam is from the Greens. His “claim to fame” is that when elected mayor of Marrickville, he traded in his right to a fancy car for a bicycle. Thus, one of my whimsical dreams for Bilateral Petersham was to go cycling with the mayor himself. And now, by golly, here we were! Strapping on our helmets, limbering up, posing for a photo before setting off to ride the boundaries.
We coasted down Fisher Street and turned left. I pointed out my house as we continued along Audley towards the southern border. At the bottom of the hill, where Audley meets Macrae, there is an empty lot with a metal fence around it. We stopped our bikes and looked into the yard. I was hoping Sam might be able to tell me what it was, but he didn’t know. There’s no signage, but it doesn’t look like an domestic block of land. “Maybe something to do with the water board?” he suggested.
To the right, at the end of Macrae, is a big apartment complex. Apparently it used to be an old hospital. In order to continue, I said, we would have to backtrack, and circumnavigate via Addison Road. “No,” replied Sam. “We should be able to cut right through the middle of the complex.” Apparently, when the owner’s development application was passed, the council stipulated it should stay open, to avoid becoming a “gated community”. We tried each gate, one after another. Locked up tight, the lot of them.
“Very interesting,” he said. “You see, it’s good to go cycling around like this. I should be taking notes!”
Sam and I meandered up John Street and around Newington Road, following the south-eastern border. We rode along pretty slowly, side by side, chatting as we went. “So, what about this giving-up-the-car business?” I asked. I thought it sounded like a pretty good schtick. Sam said there had been significant opposition to the idea within council.
“Preposterous! The mayor on a bike? Huffing and puffing along? Showing up red-faced and sweaty to official ribbon-cuttings and hand-shakings? In lycra? His hair all mussed up, a crease in his forehead where the edge of the helmet cuts in? Slurping Powerade from a plastic squirty bottle instead of clinking champagne with the dignitaries? Suit trousers shredded when they get caught in the chain? Grease on his fingers from a minor repair job en route? Impossible!”
Surely this half-baked bicycle idea made a mockery of the role of mayor, not to mention of the whole Marrickville municipality!
But of course, that’s just pushing the argument too far. For your information: when Sam needs to meet-n-greet, he takes a cab. Easy. Most of the time he rides, or else takes public transport. And this is important – by doing this he can see for himself the dire state of the bus system – he can see where so-called “bike lanes” disappear into a row of parked cars. He’s not insulated from it all inside an upholstered bubble, merely responding to the pleas of cycling anarchists and transport activists. Because, he’s one of them himself. The irony of the council’s vehicle system is that the more prestigious your position in the hierarchy, the more gas-guzzling the car you are allocated. Sam traded in a Holden Statesman V8 for his nifty blue Schwinn mountain bike…
We reached Maundrell Park. Sam proudly pointed out the sandstone sign at the gates on Hopetoun Street: South Kingston Park, 1925. We sat down for a cup of tea. I’d packed lemon and ginger in a thermos, some little orange tea cups, and a paper bag of organic grapes from Georgie’s fruit business. The grapes were good. Across the way, some men lay motionless in the sun. A couple of mothers were having a late picnic with their eight year old daughters. As we watched, one of them trundled across the park. The daughter squatted down behind a tree and peed while mum watched. “Ah, this is good!” said Sam. “It’s interesting to see how people really use the park.” Some time back, the council had removed the public toilets. There’s a perception that toilets are expensive to maintain, not to mention the hazards of vandalism and other “unmentionable” uses.
We set off again, teetering along the edge of the train line until we got to Crystal Street. Sam pointed out the Odyssey JeansTown billboards on the brick walls as we passed over the tracks. The council has been trying to get rid of these for ages. But the walls, and the land, all belong to RailCorp. I was a bit confused. What’s wrong with billboards? I asked. Ah, they’re just ugly, he said.
On York Crescent, I showed him the triangular yard which divides Petersham from Stanmore. According to the old map Chrys photocopied for me, this unusual slice looks like a remnant from the old Annandale Estate, owned by the Johnston family. We stopped in the middle of the cul-de-sac, pondering the map. A teenage girl in school uniform approached. “Are you lost?” she asked. “No”, I said. “We’re just riding the boundaries between Petersham and Stanmore.” She gave us a funny look. “O-oo…..kay…” she replied, as she walked away down the path towards Stanmore station, with a long and significant pause between her “O” and her “K”. The mayor called after her: “Hey! We’re not that weird, you know!”
We progressed into the quiet genteel northern streets of the ‘sham. Sam asked me, “So what should the council be doing better, Lucas?”
Damn. I should have prepared a list of demands. I didn’t really have anything tangible to ask for. (Perhaps we can use the comments section below for that…) I mentioned the arts grants scheme (of which I am a lucky recipient) – and how, in order to get a grant, you have to state how your proposed project will satisfy a whole swathe of “community outcomes and benefits.” And yet, the council doesn’t seem to have the resources to follow up on these in any meaningful way. It seems that there’s a desire for art to have a social “use” but no real system to best assess how this might be put into practice.
In retrospect, I would have liked to have had a conversation with the mayor about the nature of small-scale democracy. About how things shift from individuals with an axe to grind; to small consensus-based action groups; to larger, spokesperson-based forums; and finally to the corporation which is a municipal council. It’s still a mystery to me how it all fits together, and anything ever gets changed.
At the corner of Charles and Robert Streets, there is an old fashioned corner store. Not a corner store “fashioned to be olde.” This one is actually old. In the window is an ad for Dr Pepper cola. It reads, “The doctor is IN”. We stopped our bikes for a moment. I wanted to check something. I asked the proprietor if he sold Dr Pepper. “No,” he said. “We haven’t had Dr Pepper in the store for a long time.” I think I may well be able to tick off another of Vanessa’s “Secrets that may help you.”
We rounded Phillip Street, nearly at Parramatta Road, and stopped in front of the old Petersham Inn. There’s now a very large apartment building hulking over the former pub’s heritage facade. Sam told me he had once played a gig at the Petersham, many years ago. His band was called “Beneath Contempt.”
Sam was running out of time. We had to get him back to the office by half past four. I waved to Chris at the gym as we turned left onto Palace Street. I wanted to stop in at the park on Brighton with the boulder in the middle. Friends of mine who went to school at Fort Street in the mid-nineties tell stories of sneaking into this park to smoke dope. The park has a wooden gate. Dogs were gambolling around inside. Some kids had one of those plastic tennis ball throwing devices, a bit like an artificial arm, so you don’t have to get your hand dirty with the dog’s slobber. I told Sam that the residents of Petersham would very much like an off-leash dog park. At the moment there’s none. And there’s a lot of dogs here, especially on the north side.
The boulder sits in the middle of the park, still proud despite the graffiti. Two huge rocks adjoin to form a kind of seat, which catches the afternoon sun, and is sheltered from public view. “Yep. It certainly looks like the kind of place where you’d come to smoke dope,” I said. “So, didja bring any then?” joked Sam. (At least, I think he was joking…)
Our final stop was the bowling club. I told Sam how there’d been some excitement about the idea of turning the bottom green into a permaculture garden. He didn’t seem 100% convinced by this idea. But whatever the case, he said, it should remain open space. There was a stack of chipboard sheets and old real-estate signs at the driveway to the club. Sam stopped and looked at it. Hmm, he said. That should have been picked up by the council days ago.
Hard rubbish is an interesting Petersham phenomenon. Perhaps I’ll do an unrelenting expose’ in a future post…
Back at the council building, Sam showed me his office. High up in the building, it overlooks the whole suburb. Late afternoon sun juts through tinted windows. On the table is a collection of knick-knacks from Marrickville’s sister cities. Some sort of sceptre from a Spanish mayor, a hard-bound book from a suburb in Taiwan, statuettes from Greece, plaques from Portugal…
Before sending me on my way, Sam took me to the council chambers. “This is where it all happens!” he said. There’s a row of seats fitted out with microphones. At the end of the row is a spot for visiting speakers. Once, Sam said, a guy was presenting his case to council. His time limit ran out and he was asked to step down. But he kept on talking. So they cut his microphone off. At which point, the man reached down into his sports bag and pulled out a megaphone. He was, of course, escorted from the room, ranting all the while into the loud-hailer. He would not be silenced.
[postscript: Marrickville Council is currently reviewing its bike plan. You have a few weeks to have your say… For all the details, visit the cycling in Marrickville page. ]