During the 1970s, I was young. Unsatisfied with youth alone, I was also smaller than my present dimensions suggest. When one is small, regardless of age, distances seem more vast and common things seem more big. Everyday things: wardrobes, most objects manufactured by Fisher & Paykel, the packaging they are shipped in…just massive.
My uncles Thanassi and Dimitri and a not-yet-abandoned love of team sports taught me much about size, relativity and how we in Melbourne desire to grow our city. The connection between these things may not be obvious, so let these words illustrate life.
Thanassi and his family moved from Richmond to some place called Burwood in 1969. Today, we all know Burwood as a centre of wealth, culture and sophistication – but this was not so in 1969. Around that time, Thanassi’s Burwood was little more than a pastoral area with the occasional red brick dwelling where a tree once stood. The journey from Richmond to Burwood, or ‘The Bush’, as we called it, seemed endless. In fact, it seemed as far as the furthest place on Earth, which at the time was Maroondah Dam. Alas, my parents had a blood bond with Thanassi, so journeys to ‘The Bush’ regularly eventuated, accompanied by much contorting of my small, young face and vomit-laced chants of “no, no, no”.
There was one dangling carrot of inducement, however, my parents quickly learnt to leverage: soccer. For once we arrived at Thanassi’s Burwoodean ranch, just metres from his front door lay tracks of flat, grassy, council maintained land on which we could spend hours running about kicking balls in an organised, competitive, team-based activity. Thanassi’s son Frank was, I was certain, only better at sporting than I due to the unfair advantage proximity to this sport-friendly land gave him.
When Dimitri migrated, he moved to somewhere called Clayton. If Burwood was far, Clayton was just ridiculous. Nobody knew where it was. Relations just assumed you meant Carlton and had some kind of speech impediment, which is exactly what I thought when I first heard my father say the place.
Clayton had so much space surrounding dwellings that not only could we play team-based competitive sports, but we could actually trace out the necessary lines and markings and leave them there until next needed. But this gradually changed. Over time, the size of our bespoke sports fields shrunk, first by the widening of roads, then the building of new roads, then bus stops, schools, more homes, milk bars etc. We managed as best we could, eventually resorting to modifying the rules of the game to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the sporting ‘field’. Then one day, around five years after we first surveyed these distant suburbs, we arrived to discover that our sports ground had been condensed to their inner city equivalent: wickets and goalposts indifferently painted on a brick wall.
As the years passed, this five year cycle repeated itself, each one further removed from the gravitational pull of the Melbourne CBD. We knew each time we walked onto a makeshift football pitch, it wouldn’t last. We knew we were just part of a process – members of a landing party, scouting out the frontiers for future residents and builders of the structures of modernity required to live and prosper.
The Melburnian blind zeal for urban sprawl suggests a deep-set suspicion of floating land. You’d take a quarter acre of farmland and wait the five years for it to become a suburb rather than accept that same space two floors up in a block of flats. The stigma of strata titles is effervescent.
The same five year plan applies today, the difference being that now minimum infrastructure comes first. The roads (usually named after razed natural features), schools, and future ‘sustainable world-class’ man-made lakes all scar the landscape before house plots are staked out and sold off. You buy your chunk of land, tell your friends how to get there (knowing they probably won’t) and eventually a sympathetic city-dwelling friend says “but hey, it’s land, and land is a great investment!” And that’s true.
And as long as it is, the five year Uncle Thanassi cycle will apply to people young, old, small and large until we simply run out of chunks of dirt and paling fences. It’s fascinating to watch, getting to a place where you can stand in a shopping centre carpark and hear the road building crews around the corner; where the paint on the roads is so wet that Google Maps shows your location as a dot in a sea of pristine green.
This is the fringe, the bleeding edge of our sprawling need to stake our claim, on dirt.
For more images of Melbourne’s urban sprawl, please visit these photographers