I’ve been walking across to Newtown every other week for the last year or so. I usually go via Hopper St. There’s a bunch of council housing along Hopper St, as well as a church, a car sales yard, a butchers, a dairy. About a month ago, on approaching Hopper St I saw that several blocks of flats were being demolished. I stood in the early evening light feeling pretty sad at the destruction. It was after five but the bulldozers continued, sending loud thuds out into the surrounding streets. I took a photo.
I don’t really know why the destruction of these Arlington council flats bummed me out so much. But it really did. I thought about all those living in the neighboring council provided housing – how would it be to live in one of them and watch/listen to this happen next door?
I find the indiscriminate nature of demolition difficult; the bulldozers had piled rubble of wall, door, kitchen sink, and window all together to be discarded. It reminded me of when the historic church down the street I grew up on was demolished (it wasn’t sufficiently earthquake safe). Apparently they saved the bricks, because these could be sold, but all of the stain glass windows were crushed.
A few weeks later, with all the Arlington flats flatten and the bulldozers standing aimless in the middle of the blank section, someone put this sign up:
I think maybe it’s meant to be hopeful. But against the backdrop it looks surreal: It is a large picture of happy diverse people standing proudly in front of what looks like reasonable housing; but the picture is nowhere near large enough to cover the empty square of debris behind it, a square enclosed with thick high wire and heavily securitised. It’s a totally imagined picture, a literal façade of what social housing actually looks like. And one can stare right through to the other side and see: there are no houses.
It’s also a piece of signage trying to compete with – or annul – current media attention on the ‘housing crisis’. Trying to show case the council as having a positive role in the situation.
I didn’t find this hopeful, I kept on feeling blue as I walked along Hopper St.
Soon after though, this graffiti appeared:
And also this…
These were the signs that restored my hope.
In urban places, we are surrounded by words – especially the words of advertising. Shop frontage, billboards, traffic signage, street names, bus timetables etc. For me, and most people, these are not words of our own making or that we choose to put up around the place. Regardless, they fill the streets we walk and, in a certain sense, we consume them.
Seldom do we produce the words that speak to us from city walls. We’re passive to it, mostly.
But graffiti changes this passive relation. It’s not the council’s and it’s not commercial: I like to think of it as a way of speaking back to the walls of the city that usually yell so loudly. A small but important sort of agency.
Even if the words are aggressive or strike me as ‘stupid’ I still think there’s something powerful in writing back on the city’s walls. Sometimes aggression is all that holds us back from depression. I think of depression as a sort of withdrawal and emptiness – which if the Arlington flats had been my home, seems a quite reasonable response to their destruction. At the very least, aggression still seeks out a relationship with the world, it’s unlikely to render one passive, like depression’s withdrawal might. For in aggression there is still some hope of maintaining our voice.
The fact people continue to ‘speak’ through graffiti in situations that seem desperate, reminds of David’s psalms in the Bible. In the psalms, David praises God, gets frustrated at God, loves God, hates God, laments and celebrates with God. A friend of mine suggested that the beauty of the psalms is that David keeps on talking, even in his frustration. He is always engaged in life, even if only to voice his deep dissatisfaction with it: ‘you me in lay the dust of death’.
And like the graffiti that graces the empty lot where the Arlington flats once stood, I find that continued engagement hopeful.
So here is some more graffiti from around Newtown and Aro Valley. I’ve tried to find the sneaky stuff rather than the council-sanctioned ‘street-art’ sort.