decolonising design in the built environment

Urban Exclusion

"I like your tattoo."

How the conversation started.

The BOM have predicted a 30 degree day in Naarm (Kulin country). I'm sweating before 9am and trying to get from one side of town to the other on foot, weaving through colonial streets - Hoddle, you mf.


I get to the tram stop in Bourke Street Mall. I don't know which tram to catch. I look for a spot to sit so I can Google. There's a bench at the tram stop in the shade. Who appears to be a homeless fulla is sitting at one end with his walker, an empty space beside him.

I sit.

I go to fumble through my bag for my phone when he speaks to me.

"I like your tattoo."

Me: Thanks.

He tells me his name. I tell him mine. I ask if he's from Melbourne. He tells me he's been here for 11 years, before that, Brisbane (Jagera/Turrbal country). I tell him I'm not from here. He acknowledges his drinking, to be clear, I guess. I was aware. His honesty and openness humbles me.

I offer him a cigarette, he declines. I light up.

He tells me that he'll tell me a story. I listen.

I don't know this man, and he tells me of a trauma past, putting his life at risk for money. Money for grog. When I think the yarn might be finished - he goes on. Trauma after trauma. He speaks of the river in Brisbane, sets the scene, in his way, a white fulla speaking of Country.

His stories are his own, and not mine to tell.

The way he yarns speaks so closely of the water, the river, Maiwar. I connect with this, and share it with him. There's something about the water - I speak of my Country, of salt water. He connects further. Asks me if I know specific black people - whether his friends, drinking crew, both, I don't know. I remind him that I'm not from here, that I lived here once. He asks if that means I don't know any of the blackfullas who are homeless in Melbourne. I acknowledge - I don't know them.

I light another cigarette. He asks if I want him to buy me a coffee. I say I'm ok, thanks.  

He tells me that sometimes when he drinks he draws the Aboriginal flag in chalk on the footpath. People who walk by erase it, they don't respect it. He asks why this is. He tells me this is Aboriginal land.

He looks at me as he yarns, his eyes dart to my earrings noticeably throughout our conversation.

He shares more stories. Of the grog, of drugs, of fights, of people he knows or has crossed paths with. He tells me more about the blackfullas he knows. Where they're from. Where they've travelled to. I understand that he has understanding.  

He asks for a cigarette. I hand him one with my lighter. He lights up.

In conversation, I've checked out of the city, forgotten the trams. I'm not concerned with where I am, what time it is, where I think I should be going.

I see him move, adjust on the bench. He tells me how uncomfortable these seats are. I tell him that they are designed that way - these benches are designed to be uncomfortable. I start to think about this. He moves again, and I realise that I am also uncomfortable.  Urban exclusion is designed in many shapes, forms and scales.

As we adjust uncomfortably, I look up and see a tram going in the direction I'm headed. I tell him this is my tram. I acknowledge him by name, it was nice to meet you. He says the same. We shake hands,  half hug. Have a good day. You too. He tells me he likes my earrings. I tell him that these are shells from home, that they are special to me. He smiles. I get on the tram.