It is going to be an uncomfortable meeting. The aluminum-lined tin roof of the old scout hut has Christmas lights still hanging from the beams but no ceiling fans. In the slowly increasing heat, city council employees stand around fanning themselves with official paperwork, sweat running into the collars of their creased jackets.
A gathering of various ages and nationalities, husbands, wives, old friends milling about, young children already fidgeting, and teenagers comparing notes about being awake so early on a Saturday. And me, taking notes for a writing class.
My brief: Go to an unusual place and observe people and surroundings then write about it.
I tread the worn linoleum flooring, past bare walls, seeking a vacant chair. Instead being lured by chilled water jugs, beaded with droplets. The moisture runs onto trestle tables covered with plastic cloths and neatly stacked glassware. On a corner table, ignored, a tea urn, china cups and sugar. “Too hot for a cuppa,” hisses a woman “but a biscuit would be nice.” No such luck, it looks like it will be all business.
I chose this council meeting, billed as a Community Centre Public Consultation, hoping for a good cross-section of individuals. The focus is an old disused council depot just up the street from the scout hall which is ripe for redevelopment. Possibly a venue for arts and crafts, retired folk or out-of-work men with carpentry skills. Doesn’t sound too threatening but you never know with hot tempers and hotter weather.
There are not enough white plastic chairs so a frantic search gets underway to find more seats for late arrivals. By now, attendance hovers around 45 humidity-affected people. Craggy old veterans, highly-perfumed women, groups in casual shirts and shorts, retired types perhaps looking forward to the proposed construction. One woman commands attention with a loud voice, passionate about protecting her home from noise and extra traffic. A male voice tells her “It hasn’t started yet so shut up.”
Registration sheets are handed around and duly completed, information leaflets handed out, a welcome speech, introductions all round and the meeting starts. The Councillor and various council departments take turns talking about the proposed community centre site and how it will benefit the general public. A white board and black pens are used to draw proposed plans, stressing that existing trees will remain and more planted.
I put my reading glasses on as a slide presentation illuminates but some gruff local residents butt in with irrelevant queries. A young, flushed council assistant is hassled by senior homeowners out to protect their land values, citing added burdens on the already strained infrastructure. “Traffic is bad enough now, this street can’t cope with extra cars.” And “If an event was on, numbers would treble and we couldn’t get out of our driveways!” There is a smattering of applause and a red-faced toddler starts to cry.
The Councillor is getting agitated, stern faced and unhappy about these interruptions to her pet project. She rises, retorts in a firm, concise manner “Questions and answers will be held at the end of this session. Please refrain from interrupting” then she sits down and furiously scribbles a note.
Feeling overheated and drowsy as the meeting drags on, I’m shaken from my lethargy by an unusual break in the proceedings. Oh dear. A plus-size young lady on a wobbly plastic chair is starting to slip. Slowly, her chair sinks as the legs buckle and she gracefully slides to the floor. Plop! The Council officials gasp as one. Embarrassed, she rolls over and stands up. Everyone is fussing, offering her sympathy and cold water. The weakened chair is quickly replaced and a sturdier one supplied.
More words, blurring in, old ground is covered then comes audience input time. An outpouring of emotion from local residents, more fervent than factual, practical comments are overruled by zealous objections. Limp council staff organise the tables and chairs into groups and hand out sheets of butcher’s paper and pens for the audience to scrawl down comments about traffic, parking issues and the type of structure they would like to see near their homes. I don’t attempt a drawing, unlike the person next to me who is lavishly embellishing a castle-like structure. Hardly acceptable but she is about six years old. My hand melts the thin paper and the felt-tip pen smudges as I write a couple of comments.
The Councillor stands, looking strained, and addresses the gathering with a formal thank-you. Her politeness is wasted. It’s time to go and already people are moving towards the rear doors. Outside the air is heavy with the smell of eucalyptus. I fold my notes, not looking forward to my hot car and a long drive home.
AFTERWORD: Jump ahead in time, eight years to be precise, and the derelict sheds are revitalised and re-purposed into a community centre, a thriving hub for group activities. Men’s Shed displays are held yearly, artisans can be commissioned for special projects. The perceived threat to peace and tranquility did not materialise due to sensible planning and a carpark. Feathers were hardly ruffled … unlike the storm brewing over old homes being demolished and their sites redeveloped for high density box-like dwellings. Now that really will affect their suburban infrastructure …
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward