'All the Beers are Hoppy and Bitter' / Fetle Wondimu Nega
A while ago I reluctantly had drinks with a friend at one of those new trendy bars in Footscray — the type where all the beers are hoppy and bitter. We walked in to an open space where ambient music bounced off exposed brick walls. There were tiny menus on each of the ‘sourced-fresh-from-a-tree’ wooden tables. We flicked through one, and ordered a couple of their original cocktails with witty, all-too-long names before settling into a booth. The bartender shook them with their whole body, pouring and garnishing with surgeon-like concentration. I watched them for a bit, and wasn’t impressed by their North-side schtick. They eventually glided over with the drinks and explained the ingredients — all of which were organic, Australian and rare. All I could think of was how this space lacked the warm spirit, colours and fragrances — the foundations of Footscray. I felt my face getting hot — maybe the cocktail was too sour.
It seems that places like this bar are where new residents can best connect to Footscray. They find comfort in minimising its unfamiliar quirks and eccentricities. Perhaps the nostalgia bitters my experience but it is justified: gentrification is corroding the place I hold so dearly.
As a result of the Ethiopian Red Terror regime, my parents, Wondimu and Alemitu, were forced to flee their country. After several patient years in Sudan, they were finally allowed passage into New Zealand, the birth place of my brother and me. Before we could settle down for too long, we moved to Australia with promises of cheaper expenses and an abundance of work. Melbourne’s Western suburb of Footscray became our home.
My earliest memories of life in the West are saturated with enticing smells of frankincense and myrrh wafting out of African store fronts. Each of them adorned with overflowing shelves of everything from hair creams, afro combs, extensions and wigs, to spices, perfumes, and gold coated tea pots. As a child, I was entranced by the huge, boundlessly stocked, Asian gift shops. I would linger in the isles losing sight of my parent, with the hope that they would forget we had to leave.
From 2001 my parents were co-owners of Café D’Afrique, which was at the centre of Melbourne’s ‘Africa town’ on Nicholson St. Here, I absorbed the city’s vibrancy and liveliness. A communal spirit emanated from every tightly packed outdoor table and dishevelled market aisle. Movement from store to store was like teleportation; each place a social hub humming with laughter and fresh gossip. Footscray was a place for people to heal some of the wounds incurred by the trauma of civil wars, dictatorial regimes and displacement. The city offered a warm respite within the concrete suburbs, which I can only imagine looked like a crime-ridden, bleak matrix of infrastructure to outsiders.
Immigrant-owned stores served as the continent away from the continent. There was an undisclosed, almost mythical, net of support between these businesses. Restaurants would source their ingredients locally — the one-street-away or store-next-door sort of local. Most of the new bars and businesses, however, don’t seem to engage in or sustain the same ecosystem that existed amongst their predecessors. Instead, they saddle it, and capture income from a demographic for whom its nature is edgy and appealing.
Gentrification has been imminent; an impending doom. Over the last five years, there has been a dramatic shift of the types of people in the city. Young and predominantly white professionals have been moving in, and naturally the new trendy bars with specialist beer taps have satiated their needs. They have replaced local businesses, who were unable to keep up with skyrocketing prices caused by gentrification. Many land and business owners have had no choice but to sell to developers offering large sums of money. As expected, the communities of colour are slowly but surely being pushed out, and with them, the warmth and character that I’ve so lovingly attributed to their presence in the suburb.
My parents eventually left Café D’Afrique to enter new occupations. My mother worked in hospitality, and my father resumed as an electrical engineer. They found that the Australian workforce was often a hostile environment for people of colour. It was apparent that the nature, and interest, of white-dominated workplaces was to perpetuate systemic barriers. Imagine a tiresome decade of being overlooked for promotions while watching less-qualified white colleagues climb the ranks. That was, and still is, the reality for many hardworking immigrants. So as soon as it was within their means, Wondimu and Alemitu opened their first fully-owned and operated restaurant, Ras Dashen, in the heart of Africa town (now on Barkly St). They outstretched their arms to the community and found that, over the next eight years, they were hugged back.
During this time, characters marked each street like local landmarks. Down one corner you could find a woman who fashioned (and still fashions) her metal spiked fence with an assortment of white and grey plastic bags, sometimes with the odd embellishment of a colourful sock. There was the man who would kindly guide me to a free parking spot he felt was worthiest of my little red car. And the woman, our kitchen-hand, who always had a story more dramatic than yours. If someone had broken a leg, you’d find that her cousin had suddenly had his leg nearly chopped, in half, by an axe. If you didn’t react accordingly, she’d raise the stakes - “he slipped then broke his arm too!”. Then there was (and still is) the owner of the African salon on the corner of Nicholson St. She’d perch herself on a small red stool at the front of her shop. And there, with the backdrop of flashing fairy lights and miscellaneous wigs, she would begin inhaling and exhaling an endless cycle of smoke. From morning to evening she barely left her post, yet her croaky, bellowing, laughter seemed to travel past the zebra crossing and at least two stores down. I don’t see many of these people anymore so my walks to the station have recently become dull and lacking any eventful detours. Footscray is being homogenised – I worry that it will soon mimic the tones of the CBD.
The Footscray from days gone was a microcosm of Vietnam, China and the Horn of Africa. It provided me and other members of the diaspora, a connection to home that was invaluable to living in a Western society. The reassurance of growing up in a space where people share your experience is like no other. Especially when, outside this space, there is a constant and nagging reminder of how ‘other’ you are. In Footscray, among my people there is no need to explain how or why I exist in the spaces I do. With them I can just be. We’ve been conscribed into a system that does not benefit us, but in Footscray the pressures of this system were momentarily alleviated. Unfortunately, gentrification is gradually co-opting for newcomers and pushing out communities of colour. It’s being reconfigured to better suit someone else’s idea of home. This is why that cocktail was so sour.
Cover Image: Fetle and her family.