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Will The City Be Okay?

I used to think Parra was the centre of the universe. The centre and the periphery. On Tuesday afternoons, my best friend Sivashna and I often skipped Year 8 sport and walked to Pendle Hill station. We would buy a cup of hot chips with chicken salt to share and walk to Platform 1, where we took a train east to go to Westfield. It was only in 2002, when I started going to university, that I realised there was a second CBD beyond Parramatta. Until then, in my mind, Parra was the CBD.

Last year, while writing a speech for a high school Multicultural Day, I asked Dad why he chose to settle in Parramatta. He told me that on his commute to UNSW, as he sat on the train from Seven Hills to Central, he noticed trains always stopped here.

Eventually I got a job in Parramatta, working for the Council. When I finished up in 2018, a friend asked for my thoughts about the city. I said I thought that the residents would be okay – people always find a way, but I was less sure about the city. I wondered about the new structures and developments, grand in design but hollow in their presence, the loss of old facades and interstitial spaces. Who was occupying this city? Who was benefitting? Who was losing? Where was the joy and wonder? And finally, would we, Parramatta and its people, be okay?

Day 1 of my residency: The train did not go to Parramatta due to a problem. (Rain is a perennial problem for Sydney Trains.)

My parents migrated to Australia in 1995, when I was 11. Their friend Nina picked us up from the airport and dropped us at Aunty Tessy’s house in Seven Hills. After a month, we moved to 7/7 Grose Street, North Parramatta, a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The apartment looked down onto the street which led away from Parramatta Leagues Club. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of people shouting and laughing. I would get down from the top bunk, carefully draw the curtain aside and peer at the groups. Sometimes there would be a fight.

I remember walking with Mum and our neighbour Aunty Koshila down Church Street, stopping first at David Jones which was closing down a bit more each day before its move to Westfield. We scoured the makeshift steel stands for new bargains, accumulating many packets of blue and white checked pyjama sets by the time the store actually closed down. We then headed for the library and on to Church Street Mall in front of the Town Hall hoping for giveaways of muesli bars, stress balls and Cops are Tops stickers.

When my family arrived in Parramatta the institution I felt most included by was the Catholic Church. Mum joined the choir at St Patricks, taking my sister and I along to weekly rehearsals. We even got free choir robes– Mum, an emerald green cotton with a white frill and us, maroon robes, heavier as if to keep us in line. Dad would read at Mass on Sunday, and sometimes they were rostered to serve morning tea. If they’d had enough money, they would have sent us to the local Catholic school straight away, and not nine months after we arrived, pulling my sister out of the local public school to do so. My parents also joined a ‘Dinner for 8’ church group where four families were grouped together and took turns to host dinners at their homes.

Zuerst kam der Tempel, dann die Stadt. First came the temple, then the city Klaus Schmidt.

Over 27 per cent of people in Parramatta local government area (LGA) nominated their religion as Christian in the 2016 census. Aside from established churches like All Saints and St Patricks there are now also a number of Chinese and Korean churches, particularly in the east and north of the LGA, and many offer services in Mandarin, Korean and Persian. New churches, like Full Life Church which offers a weekly service in Malayalam, occupy less traditional premises such as warehouses or community centres. For if the city cannot provide community, the people provide their own. The church has been built anew.

Just 70 per cent of the City of Parramatta’s residents are Australian citizens, compared to an average 80 per cent citizenship for Greater Sydney. In the suburb of Harris Park adjacent to Parramatta CBD, citizens number just 45 per cent, in the suburb of Parramatta, 53 per cent and in Wentworth Point, 59 per cent. While these residents pay taxes and contribute to and benefit from the city’s services they cannot cast a vote. According to research by Phillip Røde, director of the Cities program at the London School of Economics, citizen participation in decision-making occurs largely through voting at elections – at the rate of 10 times more than any other form of participation.  With such a large proportion of residents unable to participate in this way it is not difficult to understand how residents who are not citizens are disengaged from questions about the future of the city.

Always was, always will be a gathering place – Culture and Our City, A Cultural Plan for Parramatta’s CBD 2017 – 2022

Walking north to Parramatta Station from WestWords, I cut across a park where children were playing. I saw hundreds of Western Sydney Stadium Project update flyers poking out of apartment mailboxes:

The NSW Government is building a new stadium for Western Sydney. It is now over 70 percent complete and on track to be open in 2019. Once built, this exciting stadium is set to revolutionise the spectator experience and inject millions of dollars into the local economy.

Photo: Anjali Roberts

A gathering place for whom, I wondered?

Roads carry people away from Parramatta. The only destination is Westfield. Free parking for three hours. Church Street cleaves the city across the flow of the river. Victoria Road goes north, leaving O’Connell. Phillip tries to lead away, but goes nowhere – the battle of Pemulwuy stops him. Market Street? No, there’s no market here. You have to go up to Westfield. Westfield Street, a diamond mine on top of Argyle Street. 

On Day 2 I saw an old couple on the footpath on Victoria Road, both the same height. Both wore grey beanies, with the apex perched far above their crowns. Her sari was bright orange, with pink flowers and wheels. She looked like an intense sunset. The sari pleats were hiked in front, as she traipsed with her socks and chappals. I wondered if they bought their beanies and chappals together. Her socks must have a toe split, and be a milky beige colour.

Photo: Anjali Roberts

I remembered walking this stretch of Victoria Road with Dad and my sister on one of our first explorations of Parramatta. We walked down Grose Street to Church Street and then onto Victoria Road for what felt like a long time. We walked and walked. At the end of the walk, well, the walk ended at that point, we entered a small takeaway shop and shared a can of Schweppes mango and passionfruit for $1.20. Then we walked all the way back. It turns out that we covered less than two kilometres.

Now, walking down Ross Street towards Church Street, I turned the corner and passed Deep Slice Pizza shop. There was a sweet scent, like musk, the same as shisha. The door was open, and on it a notice of consent. I am over 18. I consented to the viewing of vaporising products. I walked in and the lad in front of me turned. Grey jersey pants, tight, with red snickers, hair spiky. A young woman stood next to him, wearing the same grey pants. She had white shoes. She leant her dark long hair against him. The salesperson asked him – more clouds or more flavour, which do you want? More clouds he said.

The floor was dark, the cupboard doors were painted black, the walls were black, and apart from some fake plants the shop was bare. There was a water dispenser, more coolth. I tried to decipher what was what – solvent, 10 per cent nicotine, coils, I looked at the board and spotted something that may be of interest to you. Thickly frosted lemon custard cake. The guy behind the counter asked if I wanted to try it. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself so I said no. The Steamery, it was called.

Someone said, and said it very accurately, that what is honored in a country is cultivated there. In Search of a Majority, Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin, 1961 

Day 5, I waited for you to wake on the other side of the world. The thing slowly, painfully, dissolved in front of my eyes, inside my body.

How did the city support love? Were there cushions to cry on? Groves in which to say goodbye? Were there places to sit and wonder?  Or only places of darkness, where the cold seeped in from wind and vapour. Could I find something to heal me? Could the city love me?

There is sex and the city, but where could I find love? I looked for love that day.

Church Street looked like India in some places, like Kolkata even, when the rain mixed with the construction sediment and formed creamy puddles that smelt of wet cement. I sat eating my Loh Mee and watched clusters of children dressed in green and red go by, swinging umbrellas and pink bubble bags.

As I walked through Prince Alfred Park, I looked at the diagonal axes and wondered what great places they led to and away from. This place of my childhood, shaped me and for a brief moment, comforted me. Three small children were playing, a boy held his hands out, like he was collecting rain water, the other two said something, while their parents stood at the intersection of the axes. The axes made you feel like always going. Even the seats were on these pathways, always moving. Aspiring.

Four girls, two brown and two white were practicing a dance in the park. I couldn’t tell if it was a Shakespearean adaptation or a Bollywood number. Maybe a Bollywood adaptation of Shakespeare. The hero pulled back from the other three, shaking her chest, as her heart throbbed and then knelt down.

I stood up after sometime sans any revelations and turned towards the church. I didn’t want to go inside. I walked to the crossing of Victoria Road and Church Street. Ahead I saw a woman wearing a jacket the same canary yellow as mine. I crossed the street and stood a little behind her so as not to disturb her with the bright coincidence of our sartorial choices. She turned slightly, and caught my eye. Then she turned again and said ‘I didn’t see you there. I was about to sing out loud.’ I said, ‘You should sing aloud. What were you singing?’ ‘I was just humming, a World Youth Day song from a long time ago. Tell the world he loves you.’

I did — this morning. I suppose she meant He.

We never spoke of love at home. I don’t remember it anyway. It was always expected, I think, just never spoken of.

I don’t live in or work in Parramatta anymore. But I still wondered about how the city supported people like me, and the migrants of today. I thought about what the city gave me. What I gave it, or what I left behind.

Photo: Anjali Roberts

Things that I took from the city: the experiences of walking, wandering and being ensconced in communities of school and church.

It was not so easy to think of the things I left behind: footsteps, walking, running, voices talking, a watchful eye over Grose Street by moonlight, sitting on benches next to the flower gardens in front of Town Hall, a hello to the man in the low dilapidated sandstone house next door, and his staffy, both wearing sunnies, a glance at the river, songs and dances in the India@Oz show on the bank at Riverside, cups of tea with our neigbhour Gwen, surrounded by tea cosies she had knitted, on woollen cushions that smelled of old, witnessing the drama of an old man being found dead in his bedroom in our apartment block (he had been there for some days at least and no one had noticed until the smell had bothered us and our Filipino neighbours, who both thought it was the others’ cooking), hops and jumps in the driveway, clothes flapping in the wind, long sit ins at Mars Hill café, and over the years, witnessing changes to the city and then shaping changes in the city.

Photo: Anjali Roberts

Epilogue

After I finished working for the Council I was determined to write about what I felt and saw and heard. I started to write, and then left for Rome. I was, as James Baldwin proposed, going on a journey toward something I do not understand which in the going toward, makes me better. I am still in Rome, a migrant again, this time for love, and able to stay with a permesso di soggiorno (permission to stay) which cost my partner and I 50 euro. And the question I began with, of whether the city will be ok, seems quite irrelevant. Mary Beard in SPQR writes of a ‘culminating moment’ in the history of Rome, ‘when the emperor Caracalla took the step of making every single free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the difference between conqueror and conquered and completing a process of expanding the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship that had started almost a thousand years earlier.’ A city that doesn’t fully include all its residents it will remain a city in flux, where few feel they belong and most move elsewhere to be okay.

This essay was funded by a grant from the City of Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and Stories Research Fund. We’re very grateful for this support. 

This essay was developed through an SRB-WestWords residency at the WestWords Centre for Writing in Parramatta.