When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were sacred. Each week without fail, we started the weekend with a run to the shopping centre. Back in primary school, our regular haunt was Crows Nest Plaza, and if my brother and I behaved ourselves during the long, tedious loop through the supermarket, we were rewarded with a little square of fudge from the health food store. (“Health food” had a slightly different definition in the 1980s.)
In high school, we frequented Woolworths at Neutral Bay, a suburb whose very name implies blandness – presumably when names were being handed out, it sat on the fence. By then, we were old enough to grab our own groceries to toss into the cart. In my case it was almost always peanut butter, in hindsight one of many poor adolescent nutritional choices. We didn’t look in any of the smaller stores nearby because by then, Woolies had developed their trademark stock-everything fresh-food format, and it was just easier to buy the week’s supplies from the Fresh Food People Who’ve Gradually Destroyed The Other, Independent Fresh Food People.
We’d fill the boot with plastic bags and sometimes the back seat as well, and when we got home, we’d carefully transfer our purchases to the fridge and freezer and pantry. The weekend shopping calculation was critical – we had to buy enough to fill our packed school lunches each day and cover each night’s dinner because if we ran short, it meant shelling out for takeaway or wasting an hour or two more on a return supermarket run or, worst of all, braving the local mini-market, which meant paying considerably more to choose from an extremely limited range, very little of which was fresh.
Back then, life was organised around these missions to more built-up areas. We had a few small stores nearby like the newsagent who was our go-to sweet vendor, the perpetually grumpy dry cleaner and the little video store which went broke years ago. But anything more complicated, like seeing a movie or shopping for clothes or going to the post office or browsing in a record store, meant a special trip to another suburb in the car or by public transport.
We lived fairly centrally – just a few stops north of the city on the train. But the places we could easily access on foot were, as a rule, streets of houses like our own. That was how everyone we knew lived, with the exception of one family who had bought an old fire station in the CBD. That seemed exhilarating, and yet eccentric – why would anyone want to spend their weekends in the place where everyone went to work?
Then at uni I moved into a house right next to campus, and my addiction to convenience began at roughly the same time as my addiction to coffee. Everything I could possibly want – or afford, more to the point – was around the corner, in the nearby shopping strip or, at worst, at the mall just down the road. My suburb had supermarkets, a post office, a cinema and even a discount department store, and I soon began to adapt to a life that required no planning. If we wanted to cook, we went and bought exactly what we needed on the day, but given the abundance of great cafés and cheap Thai joints food a stone’s throw away, that wasn’t even necessary. And if I fancied croissants on a Sunday morning, there they were, a short stumble away. As were several pubs, the source of most of those morning after-stumbles.
Back then, we had to pay our rent in cash, but that was easy because the bank was right there. So was the post office, for that matter, so we could pay the phone bill. And during the years of perpetual 21sts, it was easy simply to buy a gift on the way to the party, and get them gift-wrapped on the spot. Scoring pot was just as convenient, I’m told – I was one of those “square” students you hear about.
My student days got me accustomed to a life where everything you wanted was available right there, whenever you wanted. And when I left uni and had to find a place to live, it was a simple equation: if the choice was between space and convenience, then I’d choose convenience. And that’s why my first post-graduate apartment was in Potts Point – which is almost unaffordable nowadays, but back in 2003 represented pretty good value if you chose an older building. It’s one of the most built-up areas in Australia – nearly everybody lives in apartments, and their buildings tend to have shops on the ground floor. I loved the extraordinary array of food on my doorstep, even if I sometimes had to step over people who had passed out on my doorstep to get to it.
At the end of that lease, there was only one place I wanted to go: to the city proper. People look at me strangely when I tell them I live in the CBD, because I’m not a backpacker on a working holiday visa, sleeping in a two-bedroom apartment with nine people crammed into it, or a multi-millionaire in an enormous apartment with panoramic water views. I have a small balcony instead of a backyard, and there’s always plenty of traffic on the street outside, as well as crowds of people in various states of intoxication. But I’m a short walk from a supermarket, a cinema, endless restaurants, and also my work, and I still can’t think of living any other way.
So while people find my preference for convenience over space odd, I find everyone else’s preference for quiet, residential streets and spending hours each week commuting equally unfathomable. And the great thing is, the city keeps getting better. Small bars are been opening in rapid progression, and so are new restaurants and retail and leisure developments. More and more residential building keep going up, squashing more and more people into less and less space, and that means an ongoing increase in convenient facilities, and also Pie Face outlets.
I’ll probably sing a different tune if I ever have children – and if I want to sing tunes, incidentally, there are karaoke bars everywhere in the CBD. I’ll probably conclude that it’d be lovely to have a backyard and a barbeque and my very own Hills Hoist. In fact, I’ll probably end up driving my own tribe to the local shopping centre every Saturday morning someday, the way my parents did. But until that day comes, I’m a devoted city-dweller. Because in the end, who needs space when you can walk to yum cha?
That’s right, I can walk to yum cha. And yet people ask me why on earth I’d want to live in the city. My question is, why don’t you?