”If you don’t know the way through the scrub you may be lost in the forrest. If you don’t know the power of your own story you may be lost in life”
I first heard this Aboriginal proverb when visiting indigenous camps in the Northern Territory two years ago and when the Smith Street Dreaming Music Festival came to the corner of Stanley and Smith Street on the 20th July I realized that this was the beginning of an important story of unification on Smith Street.
Unlike many retail destinations, Melbourne’s oldest shopping strip is shared by the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people, who have for thousands of years met in Fitzroy and Collingwood, in a time well before European settlement, when ‘Smith Street’ was just a dream.
“The dream is for Smith Street to become a place of celebration, where people can live in harmony and have fantastic relationships." Hieng Lim, Neighbourhood Justice Centre Crime PreventionSmith Street Dreaming took place on 20 July 2013 and offered the local community, comprising Smith Street traders, residents, Victoria Police and local aboriginal Indigenous communities, who are also produly known as ‘parkies’ and community elders with an afternoon of music from Aboriginal artists as part of the Leaps and Bounds Music Festival. A welcome to country and traditional dancing kicked off the festival, despite the light sprinkling of rain and cold Melbourne wineter, with a spirited line up of talent including Bart Willoughby, Kutcha Edwards, Illana Atkinson and the Deans.
It is apparent Smith Street has well and truly turned a corner in creating an understanding between retailers, traders, the police and community groups and a unifying chapter in Smith Streets history has already begun. Nobody understands this more than Neighborhood Justice Crime Prevention Manager, Hieng Lim. Hieng believes in the power of stories, and their role in making a positive contribution to society
“Stories are important to Smith Street and that’s what we have to used here to narrate the value of this special place through the Smith Street Dreaming event. Stories offer a metric to peoples lives and stories are their currency.”
The Smith Street Dreaming story included no less than 12 community groups and government bodies, spearheaded by the Smith Street Working Group. It was a ten month dream of Hieng’s to get the reinvigorated Smith Street Business Association, the police, and indigenous community and their elders to have respectful relationships, understand, share and lead projects that build Smith Street into a place of pride, of celebration and of culture. And Smith Street Dreaming was their crucible.
A great representative of this is local retailer Dianne Harris, from Oonkas Bookas , also Vice – President of the Smith Street Business Association. A community ‘go getter’ with a penchant for poodles and quirky objects d’ art, Di’s challenges on the street began many moons ago when her partner Matthew Harris moved from cyclone ravaged New Orleans and find Smith Street as their home 18 months ago.
Once threatened by the local ‘Parkies’ who congregated at the corner of Smith and Stanley Street, Di and many other retailers on Smith Street championed the efforts to create a positive celebration of understanding and compassion for each other on Smith Street. “To have compassion and understanding around aboriginal culture and to live in harmony has been the best result of the festival” Di Harris says.
Of the Smith Street Dreaming music festival Di describes “the mood was awesome and the music, was of a very high standard . When the designers came in with the crew and started to build the event it was quite magical”.
This is the transformational power of music and culture which specifically allowed new voices to be heard amongst the multicultural cacophony of Smith Street. The turn out was strong with many of Smith Streets locals mixing together, despite the rain, and celebrating in a peaceful positive spirit. It was hard to believe that next to the TAB amongs a few park benches, on a gradual incline where usually there was nothing more than a few littered park benches, that this could be the scene of such camaraderie.
One of many Aboriginal people who enjoyed the festival was Troy Austin who grew up on Vere Street at the foot of the Parkies’ billabong. Troy speaks fondly of “Everybody was very happy to be in each others company.” Troy Austen, Elder and Regional Aboriginal Justive Advisory Council Executivethe stories of the Smith Street area including those of ‘Archi Roach’ and the ‘Dirty Mile’ and in reflecting on this positive event he reports to Smith Street Life that “the beauty of Smith Street Dreaming was that the parkies were proud of the many visitors coming to enjoy their space. Everybody shared the enjoyment of the day from all nationalities: Chinese, African, Anglo Saxons, Aboriginals: all Australian just celebrating each others company to the tune of Aboriginal music”.
And this can only mean a new chapter for business and tourism on Smith Street has begun. As Hieng says of his dream “ I knew this was my goal, I knew that someday this will turn and attract business and tourism to our street”.
With neighboring streets such as Gertrude Street turning a corner for economic growth, its undoubted that a new story is beginning on Smith Street with many more community projects planned in the next few months, heralding that this once bustling street is about to return to a reinvigorated, reunited heyday of yesteryear.