Postcard From An Asphalt Ikea

It is hard to believe smart bohemians of the early twentieth century had a mental image of Australia like the image many of us now have of Sweden or Denmark. In a dog-eat-dog world, this newly federated nation and trade-union stronghold on the other side of Asia somewhere promised to be an ongoing project in social justice. I remember a documentary about Walter and Marion Griffin that told how this romantic image of Australia was what had attracted them to design Canberra and relocate here.

Australia is a big place, though. The description I gave was perfectly true for Newcastle, my home town. At the time of the federation, it grew ferociously as a coal port and steel manufacturing base. My father was a steel worker—faithful to the union. But down here in Tasmania, where I have lived for two and half years now, power still resided with a nineteenth-century aristocracy of farm owners. Their wealth wasn’t built on industrial entrepreneurialism but good old forced labor, as was happening in America in the mid-1800s as well, in that case on the back of slave labor. They even built the same houses. Here is one Rafael and I stopped at during a ride yesterday evening:

You see the different social structures etched on the ground in how the land has been organized and in how Newcastle and Tasmanian cities are governed. What follows is pure speculation, so I welcome your comments if you think I’m drawing too long a bow.

asphalt Ikea

Newcastle, the union stronghold (if not now, then traditionally), has compulsory local elections. It doesn’t matter if you’re disenfranchised, lazy, or worked off your feet. Your outlook will be represented by elected officials on your local council, who you only voted for because of the available candidates you were forced into a school hall to choose from; they didn’t remind you too much of your boss.

Local governments in Tasmania (the aristocratic state) are the result of non-compulsory postal votes. Local governments represent the will of those who dutifully read the candidates’ bios and can be bothered taking their completed forms to their nearest post box.

Newcastle’s socially progressive rules about voting are patently manifest at public events. Fireworks displays, festivals, and open-air concerts are always free entry. If they weren’t, those lazy outliers would punish all incumbents the next time they were dragged from their tellies and made to vote. In Tasmania, such events are invariably fenced and prohibitively costly to enter. Press a Tasmanian for some rationale for the fencing and their own willingness to pay to get onto a street, and they will happily tell you the entry fee is a “bogan tax” designed to exclude those fowl-mouthed working class scum; you know, who harvest their crops.

To my mind, this is reason enough to cut Tasmania out of the Commonwealth. They take $1.50 in commonwealth revenue for every $1 they contribute through taxes and harbor attitudes our unionist ancestors, in mainland industrial cities, would have greeted with Molotov cocktails.

asphalt Ikea

At least the fences that go up around this time of year in Tasmania are only temporary. The socially exclusionary road network is forever. Residential subdivisions are built with no connecting pedestrian laneways, forcing people into cars to make trips that may be a stone’s throw as the crow flies. Footpaths are used as places to park; I don’t occasionally mean; I mean as a matter of course. What you call a footpath, in Tasmania, they call a place to park half your car. If you come here, you must accept it and walk on the carriageway.

I’ve lived in some shit dumps in my time. Take Singapore, where you can’t cross the road in many places, but have to use the underground shopping arcades intensionally designed to make you get lost and buy your next meal in a food court 4 levels under the ground. Or what about New York, where I spent a semester in 2006? Former Mayor Bloomberg speaks as though he invented investment in public space with fancy slogans like “the virtuous cycle. “

When I was there, there was nothing, no bubblers, no public toilets, no cycle tracks. In black neighborhoods, that’s still the case. Wherever you go, one-way streets and laws against cycling on pavements ensure free-riders on bikes spend their lives being hounded by police.

Still, I’ve never lived in such a measly dump as Tasmania. I attribute many of the problems to voluntary local elections, a rule I presume would hark back to squatter times. From my point of view as a cyclist, the standout manifestation of these class-biased elections is a non-permeable urban fabric that punishes those of us who don’t take a car each time we leave home.

asphalt Ikea

It’s really quite annoying. Your kid’s school could be so close that you hear basketballs in the playground, yet getting there with no pedestrian lane means a two or three-kilometer trip. Dutiful citizens, the kind who go to the trouble to vote even though they don’t have to, aren’t often bothered by this. Like good little puppets, they put their kids in their cars and drive them two miles to a school that is so close they can hear the PA.

I studied maps google before I moved here, so I had a clue as to what I was getting myself into. But it is not until you have lived in an asphalt Ikea that you truly understand how habit-forming it is. It forces virtually everyone into the habit of driving. Only 18% of Tasmanian kids aged 12-15 (see page 12) get their required dose of one hour per day of physical activity, a problem that could certainly be helped by stamping out pavement parking and establishing laneway connections.

Let’s just say my time here has helped me internalize some lessons I had previously only known from the textbooks. I’m grateful for that opportunity. It has also given me a new appreciation of my working class, socially flat hometown and how its blue-collar politics is nicely echoed in its built fabric that remains permeable to non-dutiful sods like myself, who prefer walking and cycling.      

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