Liminality – the time and place we find ourselves in

By Major Brendan Nottle - Salvation Army Project Melbourne 614

COVID-19 has caused many emotions to stir within me as I’m sure it has for you. 

One of the very strong emotions that I feel is a sense of incredible pride that I feel for so many of our small business owners, be they café, restaurant or Queen Victoria Market (QVM) stallholders.

The common perception, or should I say, misconception, was that small business owners were simply in the business to benefit their own commercial interests. The reality is, they also very much exist to provide employment to numerous individuals which in turn brings much needed support to families right across Victoria. Small businesses in the CBD also bring great benefit to the people who access the city as well as to the city itself. Small businesses play a highly significant role in creating a sense of vibrancy, diversity and creativity to the city, hence attracting visitors from far and wide.

Sadly, as I wander the streets of our city, I see that one in four shop fronts are now closed. The impact of COVID-19 on the CBD has been nothing less than devastating. But still, small business owners keep turning up, plying their trade in the hope that things will improve.

But as my animated conversations with small business owners continued, I was surprised to hear another theme being constantly reprised. I cannot recall the number of times I heard the phrase, “We just need to get back to normal.  Once we do that, everything will be fine.” In other words, the hope and belief of many is that things just need to return to what they were before COVID-19 struck, and then we will be able to get on with our lives.

Sadly, I cannot see the days of old ever returning. Even with the roll out of the vaccine, many of us have been so scarred by the COVID induced events of 2020 that it will lead us to maintain our reluctance to warmly hug and shake hands with friends, attend sporting and entertainment events or even visit the city.

This state of flux that restaurants, cafe’s, QVM stall holders and other small business owners feel at the moment is a horrible place to be entrenched in.

It is disorienting, dark and directionless. However, this place that many of us find ourselves in may well have a silver lining. A word to describe where we find ourselves is, “liminality.” It describes that place between what we have had, loved and treasured in the past but no longer have, and what is to come in the future. The reason why liminality or liminal spaces are so confronting and unsettling is simply because we have let go or lost what we have known but we still don’t quite know what the future will look like.

It is absolutely critical that we start to ask ourselves, individually and corporately, what do we want our future to look like in our city? What do we truly value from our past that we want to hold onto? What do we need to let go of and leave behind? What new things do we want to embrace? The future in our city is uncertain, but it is ours to shape.

Surely, it’s time for us all to turn our minds to dreaming about the type of city that we want to metaphorically build going forward. But the reality is that time for talk has well and truly ended. We must begin to strategise and act, not simply based on replicating what we have known. Instead, we need to build a city that creates opportunity for all. A place where everyone can flourish and no-one is left behind.

There is one thing that gives me hope that revival in some form will visit our city again. It is the entrepreneurial, incredibly hard working, “can do” attitude of so many small business owners that make Melbourne the great city that we knew before COVID-19. If we work together and are prepared to create a new vision for our city that is informed but not limited by our past experiences, we will contribute to making Melbourne the thriving, creative city that we all long for it to be •

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