VelodromePosted: May 21, 2012
Ducking through a hole in the saggy wire fence to get inside the grounds of the velodrome I felt I was entering somewhere I belonged. A childhood feeling of secret significance was reactivated, when simple places had the potential to be magical and my own mythology took over from the real world. The velodrome could be anything I wanted it to be. I imagined putting images of it on postcards and sending them to strangers and I dreamed of the picnics and parties I could one day have there. Lying in bed at night over the other side of Parramatta Road I liked to think of the velodrome empty, waiting for my next visit.
It didn’t seem part of the factories and terrace houses in the surrounding streets. It had the same still presence as abandoned drive-in cinemas and empty sports fields, a kind of force field that turned all sound into a background blur and left me with my thoughts. Devoid of the cyclists for which it was intended the concrete track reminded me of an amphitheatre, something grand and Roman. It had the atmosphere of a ruin despite the fact it had only been there thirty years. Looking closer, the faded ads for Winfield reds along the side gave me visions of the spectators at a 1970s bicycle race. Men wearing tight t-shirts branded with beer logos or the names of tourist towns, women in sundresses with tanned children and full eskies. Transistor radios and sunburn.
Back then the grass would have been clipped and the advertisements neatly painted. Later, after years of disuse it appeared to be slowly melting into the ground, in chips and cracks and flakes. As the wooden stands rotted and the concrete gave over to the weeds growing through the cracks, decay seemed to be a gentle, softening force, gradually making the structures organic.
I liked to sit on the stands and look west, towards Annandale. I saw familiar landmarks from a new, elevated perspective – the spire of the Anglican church, the gaudy main road billboards and the rise and fall of the different roofs – and thought of this as the canopy that held my life in place. Or I watched people walking their dogs around the perimeter of the track, fixing my eyes on Labradors and Pugs while my thoughts skipped off, untraceable. At dusk the lights of the planes coming in to land spotted over the sky, gradually enlarging until they roared overhead and I waited until only the tiniest tint of daylight remained before returning home.
Then a sign went up. Much as I love signs, this one accompanied a severe layer of wire fencing and featured molecules with long, carcinogenic names and the shocking news that O’Dea Reserve was contaminated. The soil presented ‘a significant risk of harm to human health’. The velodrome was doomed and I felt angry, as if something had been stolen from me. It hurt to be reminded that the velodrome was not really mine. It was O’Dea Reserve, property of the council, polluted from past uses as a rubbish tip and a factory.
I wasn’t scared by Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and neither were other people because holes soon appeared in the fence. It wasn’t as if we were going to eat the soil, so even if the velodrome’s days were numbered it seemed unfair that people could no longer use it while it was there exactly as it had been the day before the fences and signs went up.
My first mission into the velodrome after its condemnation was also the first time I went there at night. The grass had grown to knee-height and was slowly consuming the park benches. Weeds shed sticky burrs the shape of exclamation points which covered my socks in prickles and made it difficult to walk through the long grass. The grass and the weeds were so healthy that I figured it must be the Aromatic Hydrocarbons. The contamination gave the velodrome a Chernobyl-like grandeur and the same sense of hidden danger; while everything looked regular, on a molecular level I imagined it to be the equivalent of a piranha-infested lake.
We negotiated the long grass until we came to the concrete ellipse of the velodrome. We looked like wind-up toys, all lost on our own path. Phil was carrying a brown leather briefcase full of Learn Chinese tapes that we found in a pile of rubbish during the walk from Newtown. It gave him a crazed appearance, like he was a lost businessman doomed to endlessly traverse wastelands in search of the office. I giggled as I watched him struggle through the grass in long, laboured strides, briefcase slapping at his legs. I came to a stop at one of the stands and climbed to my usual position at the top as Tim’s grey shadow ran a lap around the track.
The buzz of a helicopter accompanied the circle of light that I watched moving over the factory roofs. I was sure the helicopter was searching for escaped felons, and felt frightened we would be targeted and spot-lit. They were probably looking for three people who had just robbed a bank and here we were with a big leather briefcase, tottering crazily around an abandoned site. I pictured it all in my mind: the wind from the chopper blades and the megaphones and the questioning. But the searchlight came to the edge of the velodrome and no further. The helicopter changed direction. We were safe.
I moved from the stands down into the flat grassy oval at the centre of the track. I felt tiny down here, as small as an olive in the middle of a platter. Phil joined me and we stood in wordless appreciation of night and space, heads tilted towards the few stars strong enough to shine through the ambience of the city.
‘Hey!’ Tim’s voice ballooned over to us. He was at the top of the steepest edge of the track. ‘Come up here!’
‘I can’t climb that,’ I whined, but he persisted and stretched his hand down for me to grasp. When I tried to climb I was surprised that it wasn’t very difficult, and I was proud of myself as I stood on the top, surveying the velodrome. The lights that circled the track were all broken, the wires hanging down, creaking in the breeze. Behind that was the sound of the traffic, the ever-present roar of the city. We stood there for a long time, just looking. It felt good to be in this unusual place, with no one else in sight, after midnight, the whole suburb sleeping.
A few months later Tim arrived at my house with the news.
I felt sick and resigned and avoided walking past it for weeks, until curiousity overtook melancholy. Everything had been uprooted, a grubby yellow earthmover slowly shunted pieces of what had been the concrete track into piles. I remembered a time I lay on it half asleep, enjoying the sun, and thought how that piece would be somewhere in the rubble.
The ground was being levelled, so there would be no hint of its former shape. People would move into the area for the first time without knowing that, a few years earlier, they would have lived near this surprising place. For them it is now a playground carpeted in soft, foamy asphalt to stop kids from getting hurt when they fall off the ultra-safe equipment. Even if they were told what it used to be, it probably wouldn’t mean much. Hearing descriptions of what places used to be like has an airiness, for it is impossible to imagine them properly and you inevitably disappoint the person who reverently describes it. I am aware that it probably doesn’t sound like an extraordinary place every time I tell someone about it, but often significant places are not extraordinary. Whatever image of the velodrome you might have in your mind, what is more important is that you understand the sense that it gave me, that it was special and different, somewhere I could go to feel removed from my everyday life yet also feel at home.
Existing now only in my memory and a few photographs (I look so young with my red streaked hair and inches of black plastic bangles) I find I can still retreat there, as I try to remember exactly how it felt to lean down and duck under the fence and walk inside. Like I try to recall the details of the houses I grew up in, many of them now also demolished, by thinking of how the atmosphere changed when I walked through the door, from outside to in.
Significant places have always grabbed me like this. Once I cross their boundaries I feel a shift as the relationship between myself and my surroundings is amplified. I’m in it and it’s in me.
[This story was first published in I am a Camera #7 (2002). It was then revised and published in my book Strawberry Hills Forever. This is the version that appeared in the book.]