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IT SEEMS the need for an internationally recognised icon has again crept on to Melbourne's ''to do'' list. Not satisfied with being one of the world's most liveable cities, the cultural capital of Australia, and, according to a recent vote, the world's best sports city, what Melbourne feels it really needs is a symbolic structure, instantly recognised the world over. Unfortunately, McDonald's has already taken the big yellow ''M''.
When brainstorming for iconic drawcards, cities traditionally come up with two ideas - a very tall building or a very strange building. Melbourne tried with the world's tallest apartment block in the form of Eureka Tower, but it seems every second city in the world now has a monumental erection, and I still can't confidently place any of them, except the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower.
We also tried the ''strange'' option with Federation Square, but buildings that look like sat-upon cardboard boxes are now a dime a dozen.
What I find sad is that I believe Melbourne already had a great icon, one that it sold out. I'm talking, of course, of the tram. Not just any tram, but the good old, uniformly coloured green tram.
Call me easily thrilled (growing up in Canberra I had to be - my favourite toy until I was about 16 was a wooden ruler that I pretended was a train), but the excitement of coming to Melbourne to watch the cricket was made all the more wondrous by the trip to the 'G on the 75 tram.
They may have seemed a boring fact of life to the locals, but the old green trams were the recognisable symbol of Melbourne. A green tram on a postcard said ''Melbourne'' more than anything else. The floral clock could have been in my next-door neighbour's yard for all I knew.
I loved the trams. We stayed in a place in Camberwell, and I remember going to the end of the street in the evenings to look out for those big, single headlights of the W-Classes, as they trundled up Burke Road. I loved their sounds, their motion, their character. The buses of ACTION (the Australian Capital Territory Internal Omnibus Network) just didn't compete.
There is so much to love about trams: the way they connect the city like a neural network, always passing through the centre, so that one can travel from Fitzroy to South Melbourne, or Brunswick to St Kilda, in a single trip.
And so egalitarian. As much as the residents of Toorak may shudder at the thought, they are forever linked to the good folk of Coburg by the No. 8.
As a kid, though, one of the things I loved most about the green trams was their sameness. Seeing a row of identical green trams banked up in the city was a beautiful thing. Kids like a perfect match, recognisable patterns - Snap! There was something comforting and secure in the familiar colour scheme. It made the bigness of the city feel more like a friendly village, one that was safe and easy to explore.
Not any more, of course. Every tram now, if it's not a yellow bumble bee, is a moving billboard, advertising the ANZ in blue, or Jetstar in orange. It's as if they've developed an identity problem. And isn't it identity that one is hoping to achieve from a representative icon?
Gone is the comfortable familiarity, the sense of place and connectedness. I can't help wondering if the increase in street violence isn't somehow linked to the demise of the green trams. Not to mention that riding in the rear of a speedy modern people shaker can be like trying to hang on to a crocodile's tail.
I'm not saying there's any chance of bringing back the W-Classes, and I know the doors of outdoor advertising space are hard to close once opened. (How ever did we survive without it?) But when our chances of building a new Taj Mahal are slight, and a giant statue of Sam the Koala could be confused with Goulburn's Big Merino, why shouldn't we consider losing the mobile billboards, a job that is best left to, well, mobile billboards, and reinstating a public transport vehicle as our proudest icon?
Think of London's red double-decker buses, or San Francisco's cable cars, or the gondolas of Venice. Surely all are as immediately evocative of their respective cities as Big Ben, the Golden Gate, or St Mark's Square.
When every bloody city looks the same, maybe it's time to forget about the next big edifice and bring back the humble, single-coloured green tram, the familiar face of Melbourne, to promote it again to the world: not as all that we have to offer, but as a symbol of our city's unique and friendly character.
Richard Castles is a Melbourne writer. His recent story Death Duties appears in The Best Australian Essays 2009, published by Black Inc.
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