Community spaces

We arrived in the next suburb just after the appointed time after parking the car in the main street and walking through a children’s playground, past a mother who was clearly desperate to be out of the house and taking advantage of the last light to let her young children run free on the play equipment before the chill of the early winter evening took hold. We walked along the path towards a gate which had been left ajar with a big cheery handmade sign reading, ‘Music Concert’. Beyond the gate we could see the old bowling green, a great expanse of green space up against an encroaching and overhanging suburbia, where the new developments that overlooked the children’s playground that backed on to the Bowling Green could be seen. Housing, both old and new, like the population of people that dwelled within could be seen nestled up against each other pointing to the density of the area with its mix of double-fronted Federation housing, stylish period semi-detached dwellings, newer houses in the style of a questionable desired modernity and the now more common low rise that was slightly more affordable for this inner circle part of the city, still less than ten kilometres from the GPO as people used to say.

We walked along the path abutted on one side by the old Bowling Green and on the other by the low building that had hosted a thousand darts games, singles winners in the bowling events as well as doubles for both darts and bowls and all that went with the comradery of playing in these friendly events. Inside we found that the timber champions boards and darts cabinet still carried the names of that year’s winners, emblazoned in gold lettering, at least for the years 1969 – 1975. Seems like no one was interested in the darts and bowls winners after that.

As we walked along the side of the building we came to a small set of steps that took us inside. At the top of the stairs a young girl smiled and gave us a program for the afternoon’s event, listing all the names of the performers for the afternoon. We thanked her and walked in, musing that she was a friend or family member of the young music teacher who’s students were performing for us this afternoon to give them experience and exposure to the vagaries and loyalties of audiences, most of whom consisted of their devoted parents and siblings.

The performers disappeared to the little room that could be accessed from the side of the stage, a backroom for the musicians yet still clearly visible to the audience. Here the performers for the afternoon could practice and ready themselves in ‘their space’, even though the intimacy of this space was broken by its visual proximity to the audience outside. This didn’t matter at all. We could hear and see them as they took out their instruments and checked their  sound, offering up a beautiful, warm, audible richness in contrast to the visually stark surroundings of the bowlo.

The bowlo is what this place is affectionately called. Like many other bowlo’s it has a lot in common with the spaces in which people congregate within their local community. It shares characteristics with the pub because it serves alcohol and sells cigarettes; it shares a commonality with the large RSL up the road because it has rules and membership and offers gambling products and the highs and lows of gambling experiences; it shares something with the old community or town hall, mostly evident in smaller townships, not suburban Sydney as the city gobbles up these spaces demanded by communities for hosting and enjoying shared experiences. Many kinds of meetings and community events were held in these spaces and the event today shared a history with this too. It even shared a history with the music teacher and her home, because past concerts were hosted in her front room, with seating in rows, tables outside laden with ‘bring a plate’ offerings and groups of people brought together for a common purpose to create and share in a community event.

We went to take our seats, noticing that the front two rows were vacant, mistakenly believing that this was evidence of the reticence that folk have to taking up seats too close to the front of an event, much like the empty space around the lecturer at the front of an auditorium. “You can’t sit there, they’ve been reserved for the performers” said a woman sitting in the third row. I recognised her as one of the mothers from the local school. After the concert we had a long talk about music, practice, performance and its importance, the calls upon women’s time at home on Saturday’s and how she wanted to return to work, but wasn’t confident about taking up her former occupation in high finance and was thinking now that she might as well be paid for what she does do now for free, which is working as a teacher’s aide. Her children are the opposite sex to my children, so as is the way of these things, we don’t get to get together very much at all. I always get a sense of yearning though, something that rises from within me and that I sense from mums like her that it would be good to have more opportunities to socialise, to talk, to drink, to share stories and perhaps intertwine our lives a little bit more.

We walked around the front and down the side and took up seats behind a couple we recognised from primary school. Our children had clamped eyes on each other in kindergarten and decided that they were going to be firm friends and could hardly be separated the whole year. Of course it only lasted a year and then the differences set in, and then it all fell apart. Still, we knew about maintaining our social graces and said “hello” and sat behind them. We moved along a few seats though so that our family could sit together and commenced the ritual that all modern people swear allegiance to in the ‘in between times’ and all pulled out devices: two phones and an IPod touch and consumed ourselves and our time with the apps on the devices as we ‘checked things’ waiting for the performance to start.

As I looked around I marvelled at how things used to be, at how architects and builders used to know exactly what people needed when they wanted to gather together in a space. I mentally decided that I had to find out what it cost to rent or hire this space, as with life in any city, spaces are hard to come by. “It’s a bit daggy” commented my partner, “and a bit sad”. But while I acknowledge this, I was surprised that someone with historical sensibilities would run a place like this down when it was clear that it had served communities in many ways over the years and continued to do so. These exact places are threatened in modernity, threatened by developers, by public authorities who seek to claim and exploit them and not necessarily for the benefit of the community in which they exist. Spaces like these are rezoned by councils, who promise that the community needs will still be met but that development offers the promise of something more, something less tangible and less ordinary than the taken-for-granted services and spaces offered by the old bowlo.

The timber walls are a pale blue colour, contrasting with the lovely timber champion boards and their gold inked names. The ceiling paint is peeling and the fluorescent lights, while bright and glaring, eventually disappear from consciousness as you become more aware of what is highlighted by them rather than the lights themselves. The room has multipurpose tables along two sides, where one side serves as a repository for the instrument cases and associated paraphernalia that accompany musicianship. Along the opposite wall all the ‘bring a plate’ offerings sit under their shiny alfoil or reflective cling wrap coverings. People are generous, offering chocolate slices with coconut or brightly coloured hundreds and thousands toppings, water crackers and hard cheddars, fruit cheeses or soft camembert, fruit platters with contrasting mandarin segments, strawberries and green seedless grapes, rolls stuffed with chicken, fish and salad that force people to queue again because they’re so moreish, any number of dips and crudités, mini frittatas, an array of juices and water but no one touches the pate sitting out there for too long probably to be safe to eat anymore. Some people just open up a tin of dolmades, but they are appreciated and disappear too, and those donating provided two tins.

As I look around I see the stage on which the children will perform, its small raised and enclosed. Above there are remnants of someone else’s party as brightly coloured streamers, made of crepe paper adorn the top, framing the picture in a medley of mad, slightly torn colour. On the stage itself are music stands purchased from ALDI, instantly recognisable to anyone trying to save a dollar who also purchased them the week they were on sale there. There is a piano, an old brown upright sitting on the left of the stage, but its lonely tonight as there is no accompaniment, no one to set the tone with the smooth sound that piano’s offer. On the wall at the back is the obligatory print, framed and taking centre stage depicting a scene of an Australian outback town, mythic in its representation of both the bush, the town, its isolation and symbolism of the human imprint on the landscape that cities provide at the same time. The hues of brown and ochre are in stark contrast to the shades of blue in the room in which we sit waiting.

We sit musing for a bit longer before the music teacher comes to the front and stands on the floor in front of the stage. By this stage the musicians have taken their seats unbeknownst to all of us with our heads in our laps who will never notice these movements. The children sit, chat with each other as they remake their acquaintances and squirm with their big instruments primed and at the ready for performance. Our hostess, the lovely music teacher with the high regard for our children, warm in her manner, gentle in her teachings, presides over the room and forsakes formalities, ignoring the mandatory welcome about why we’re all here and what we’re looking forward to, instead launching straight into introductions of performer number one who, as the performer to start is one of the youngest in age and experience.

The concert proceeds as children take their spot in the limelight and the instruments play their mournful, rich, mellow sound tortured in part by the learning abilities of those who play the keys. There are surprisingly only a couple of off notes, and only once where parents keen to show their appreciation launched into applause far too soon, actually before the song was completed, accompanied by a rousing “whoop” to boot. We all squirmed in the audience as the concert sounded like a music practice, but with the good grace and expansive love of parents and family applauded at the end like there was no tomorrow to encourage our young and the young of others in their musical endeavours.

The music improves as the young performers extend themselves, both in age and musicianship offering more complex music, more mellow sounds that carry the audience away to another place and time. For a few moments we transcend our dumpy environment as the music carries us away in our minds. The sounds bounce off the fixtures and bodies in the room we inhabit, and as we listen we too as the audience are participants in the creation of the musical experience.

The other people in the club are listening too. It’s unavoidable as the place is so small. It so small that you would use the word ‘intimate’ ironically. Afterwards our hostess thanks us all. She thanks the students for extending themselves, the parents for giving of themselves and presents the students with a gift and certificate to show that she can give back in a memorable way recognising the efforts of her students outside the confines of the monetary and payment regimes that determine relationships between tutors and students. This too is a cultural performance, drawing upon the diversity of cultures represented and the actions of everyone participating in giving of themselves, their talent, their food and offerings, their time and their appreciation.

And this all happens within the confines of the community bowlo. As we consume the food and soft drinks and reacquaint ourselves with parents and families that we haven’t seen for months, I notice that some mothers prefer to lubricate their sociality with a white wine. That would have been my preference too, except for the narrow confines of the stupid diet that I’m strictly adhering to at the moment. If I’d thought for a moment that I could imbibe in a wine, I would have accounted for that though…. And this is something that the space of the bowlo offers too, though not in the same way as the pub or the club up the road; we didn’t really come here to drink.

I try to imagine where this meeting, the afternoon’s concert might have taken place on a cold winter afternoon in lieu of where we were meeting. These halls offer up a space that is significant: it has walls, it has facilities (toilets, a stage), it has tables and chairs and a bar. There is a stage and a backroom, so there is room to stage a performance. It’s small enough to be intimate so that it counts as our space for the afternoon, our event, even if we’re not members here. It’s multipurpose allowing you to imagine creating and/or participating in other community events. It’s cheap to hire, and that is significant. And even though there were no people in the audience unrelated to those performing on stage, I bet that the organisers could have advertised it in the main street and drawn a small crowd in too. We created and were part of a community event. A community event is supported by communities. And that’s who we were.

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