Faces on the Street

In our comings and goings on the corner of North Terrace and Pulteney Street, members of Scots Church are witnesses to the changing character of the city. If I remember rightly, from my student years in the early Sixties, there was only one Chinese café in Rundle Street and a few other meetings places for social contact. Beck’s bookshop was around the corner in Pulteney Steet and one popular milk bar was an important destination in which to be seen and to meet up! 

Now as I enter and leave the office I find myself stopping and observing the faces of people who walk past our building; students, shoppers, visitors and workers. City pedestrian traffic can be so impersonal with people caught up with their own thoughts, taking a break from the office, rushing to meet a deadline or texting on their mobiles. 

Urban sociology researchers have produced several ground breaking studies about the importance of street life. One Boston study, Street Corner Society, undertaken in the 1930s, described the daily round of a youth gang and demonstrates how street people work with the flows and rhythms of daily life; isolated individuals sometimes connecting with others, keeping a look out for each another and finding their places of belonging. 

Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is critical of town planning traditions that ignore street life. As an advocate for those who make their daily round and tread the city’s pathways she notes that street watchers have an important role in making a safe city, keeping an eye out for threats and dangers, looking out for the stranger and caring for the neighbourhood. 

Henry Lawson’s poem, Faces in the Street, is both a reflection on his observations of street life and at the same time a call for an equitable society. From his Redfern tenement room in the basement he writes, 

They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street—
Drifting past, drifting past,
To the beat of weary feet—
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street. 

In June, Daniel, one of the Big Issue sellers, produced a poem titled, Knife Edge that is both reminiscent of Lawson’s voice and a prophetic call for the city’s decision makers. The first line catches our attention, “Whatever happened to the city of churches?” and in the following observations he echoes the voice of an Amos or Hosea. “We should be looking after the poor... instead we are looking after the smart, rich and young.” I am challenged by his insights and prompted to ask how his voice is a call to the Uniting Church in the city. We have Daniel’s permission to include the poem in this edition of Talk.  

City street life is about social connectedness. How do we meet the eye and make connections with those who pass by here at Scots? What do people make of us in our comings and goings, when our community life spills over onto the street? What do the flows and movements of our neighbourhood tell us about our call to mission and how is this call informed by what we read from the faces on the street?  Dean

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