Community. The word always used to trigger a vaguely nauseated feeling in me. Having grown up on an insular peninsula north of the bridge, this suburban c-bomb of a word only brought to mind the parochial pride of over functioning P&C parents, or holier-than-thou Sunday mass attendees.
That was, of course, until I found community for myself in the back courtyard of a tiny gallery at the end of King Street. I had two pages of poetry crumpled in my sweaty hands and I was, according to the lingo, a slam virgin. It was the very first Caravan Slam, a travelling poetry event in the St Peters and Newtown area. That night, fifteen spoken word poets stepped up to introduce themselves in a three-minute burst of poetic flair, and in this small, tucked away art space, the atmosphere soon became electric. I had come knowing no one, but the creative energy and positivity filled up the whole space. People introduced themselves freely, bonding over a common appreciation of the performance. By the time the poetry had finished, no one among that motley and fiercely individual crew felt like a stranger. My love affair with community had begun.
Fast-forward two years from that day. Jade Oldfield, performance poet, artist, and monthly host of Caravan Slam, is proud of the community that she has helped to initiate. Her first foray into organising community events took the form of Chess Club, a monthly night of drinks and chess (think milk crates and tealights for mood) that began at an anarchist bookstore in Newtown and went strong for four years in studio spaces and venues around Newtown and Marrickville. “It began as a really small thing amongst friends,” says Oldfield, “but it turned into an amazing community event that brought so many different people together.”
Like Chess Club, Caravan Slam began as an event dominated by the Newtown-Marrickville set. However, the ‘caravan’ aspect of the monthly night, which travels each month to different venues all over Sydney, has meant that this particular community has transcended its beginnings as a child of the creative underbelly of the inner west and become a monthly meeting place for people from all areas of Sydney and beyond. “There are people of all ages and walks of life,” says Oldfield, who plays MC to the event. “Some really strong friendships have developed. Even if I only see these people once a month, they’re my good friends. When you hear someone’s poetry, it’s like knowing them before you’ve even met.” She says that the most important basis for a community is a common interest. “It’s not about the Inner West,” she says, “It’s not about anywhere. It’s about forming bonds between people of a common interest and a similar worldview.”
Reclaim the Lanes is another example of how an individual with a bright idea can bring together a diverse crowd of like-minded people. Organised by local Newtown artist Chris Lego, the event had its fifth and final instalment earlier this month. Meeting at Peace Park, Newtown, in the early afternoon, the crowd of hundreds enjoyed a laneway festival that moved between three different backstreets and continued into the night. More meaningful than a simple street party, Lego’s vision was for an event to celebrate reclaiming public space and rediscovering some of Newtown’s forgotten laneways. A colourful, motley crew of hundreds danced to the beat of a wheelie bin sound system under banners with slogans such as ‘COMMUNITY SPIRIT’ and ‘HOORAY FOR EVERYTHING’. Through hula hoops and glitter, chalk and facepaint, locals and their friends celebrated the creative culture and diversity of the local area. “You could even call it a bit tribal,” says Jade, making reference to the festival goers, face painting and dancing in the mud.
Even if it exists as a world detached from Sydney’s broader society I suggest to Oldfield that in this cynical and isolated world, it’s crucial for us all to reclaim and redefine the c-word. “It’s amazing seeing the Caravan Slam community grow, and the new events that have come out of that to allow people to come together…. Creative communities will survive anywhere, people find each other.”