'Parallel Peoples: A Conversation About the State of the City' / Solomon Charles
Melbourne’s population has increased by one million since 2011. The skyline is climbing, existing suburbs are growing denser and the fringe continues to sprawl further outwards. Change has ignited tensions between groups with competing interests, causing the ugly head of inequality to be reared once again. The city’s change may often feel like a force the individual has little control over, division may seem too entrenched and inequality may appear insurmountable.
In writing this piece, I hope to contribute some of what I’ve learned over the past few years studying urban geography and actively participating in city life. This is an attempt to address some of the common anxieties surrounding Melbourne’s evolution that I’ve encountered, by offering a few recommendations on how you can engage with the cityscape to counteract some of the growing pains.
Gentrification has become an increasingly important topic of discussion in Melbourne, engendering a variety of responses that often deal in absolute terms. In recent conversations I’ve had and articles I’ve read, there are often common narratives that suggest gentrification is either the continuation of the cycle of inequality, or the development of a new dense and more sustainable urban future. I think both points have their merits.
Definition: Gentrification is the process of renewing a district so that it conforms to the taste of the middle-class.
Melbourne is no stranger to gentrification. In the 1960s and 70s during the peak of the middle-class’ urban exodus to the suburbs, working class and migrant community’s homes were demolished systematically by the Victorian Housing Commission to make way for their tidy new tower blocks (the commission houses). In North Melbourne, Flemington, Collingwood and Balaclava (to name a few), iconic Victorian era terraces and Edwardian weatherboards were indiscriminately labelled as slums and cleared to make way for the Le Corbusier dream Australiana. To their credit, there were plenty of slums not fit for people to live in. However, The Victorian Housing Commission’s manifesto The Enemy Within Our Gates, outlines the ruthless and systematic approach through which the government sought to reconfigure huge sections of the city. These areas predominantly housed the city’s lower-socioeconomic families, indigenous communities and newly arrived, Greek, Italian and Vietnamese migrants. With almost zero consultation or consideration for the needs of those they sought to ‘help’, homes and streets were torn down to make way for the new tower blocks. And if you’re wondering who the Enemy was, it was slums and poverty. Although the line between poverty and poor people seems to have blurred.
Today, a good portion of the young middle-class is looking to return to the inner-city. The desires of our parent’s and grandparent’s generations to hide away on their cookie-cutter quarter-acre blocks is about as appealing as a lukewarm overcooked lamb chop and a game of backyard cricket with those cousins you sees about once every 18 months.
This resurgence of denser urban living is based on positive aspirations. Living in denser spaces reduces consumption, encourages a healthier living and generally forces people to be more conscious of their environment. Dense urban neighbourhoods have traditionally been spaces of intense cultural and economic diversity. Renowned for her contribution to urban studies and sociology, activist and author Jane Jacobs speaks in depth about the importance of density in fostering diverse community networks that are central to an equitable cosmopolitan city. Jacobs’ most influential piece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, was a scathing critique of urban renewal schemes that sought to replace footpath-oriented neighbourhoods with disconnected tower blocks and large highways in New York City. The same basic principles are shared by the Victorian Housing Commission.
The renewal and gentrification of Jacobs’ time was different in the way it sought to restructure the city, when compared to current trends in Melbourne. What’s happening in this city is quite complex and confusing. Unlike the gentrification of the 1960s and 70s, the main actors aren’t as easily identifiable. It’s quite a lot easier to see a single government department headed by a wealthy political class as the drivers of gentrification. However, today’s development is more sporadic, and the people moving to these gentrifying inner-city neighbourhoods are doing so for valuable reasons. It’s not a coincidence that the federal district of Melbourne (one of the fastest growing districts in the country) is a safe Greens seat, receiving a 72 percent majority in the recent federal election. People that live in these gentrifying and densifying suburbs are generally concerned with social and environmental issues. Often people move into these areas because they’re more culturally diverse and are more than happy to give up the-big-backyard for the local park. Using less and sharing more aligns with the political values of this intra-urban middle-class migrant.
So how are a bunch of middle-class lefties contributing to the negative aspects of gentrification? Professor of Urban Geography at RMIT, Libby Porter writes that ‘Collingwood… is so fully an example of a gentrifying hipster enclave that it’s a parody of itself’. In Porter’s view, the new inhabitants of Collingwood have failed to meaningfully engage with the existing indigenous communities, bringing with them only the bitter taste of systemic income inequality. Good intention and voting habits haven’t been enough to prevent small local grocers from going under, replaced by nice cafés with ethically sourced everything.
This is not to say that middle-class people who move into lower-income areas amongst established migrant or indigenous communities are bad, or even wrong. The city-scape is ever-changing, living close to one another is a good thing. And on a macro-scale, it appears that there’s not a huge amount one can do other than complain. It’s also pretty hypocritical of me, I’ve moved into a Melbourne’s inner north-west, where the rent is cheaper and pockets of poverty are persistent. Flemington’s population resembles a migration timeline, with English, Irish, Greek, Vietnamese and Somalian people existing alongside one another, creating a vibrant high-street along Racecourse Road.
In Collingwood, well intentioned wealthy newcomers have not successfully engaged with the pre-existing community. Something of a parallel community has been created, with its own parallel economy that has slowly inundated those that came before them. Competition for space was won by those with greater economic strength. In last month’s release, Verve published Fetle Wondimu Nega’s piece on her disheartening experience of gentrification in Footscray (if you’ve not read it yet I suggest you do). She speaks to the disconnection between the new opportunistic urban middle-class and the well-established migrant communities. Businesses that exclusively cater towards the desires of the newcomers are slowly forcing out those who have built their lives in Footscray, with new development and higher rent.
The city’s evolution, its development and gentrification is deeply emotional. People form communities that are rooted in the space around them. This is especially relevant to people who’ve just moved here and those who are vulnerable. Identity can be found and lost on the city’s ever-changing streets, markets and homes.
Having lived in Flemington for almost a year before shifting one suburb up to Ascot Vale, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why the story of gentrification feels and looks distinctly different here, when compared to much of the North and even the West. Flemington is developing, growing and changing along with the rest of the city, but the new slick looking businesses popping up are a mix of cute cafés, Somalian restaurants and independent grocers. The one-in-one out pattern that slowly strips away diversity elsewhere in the city appears to have not been replicated here. I think this is largely because people appear to be more willing to interact with each other’s smaller communities, not just in conversation, but with their wallets.
As a young middle-class hipster that lives in a Victorian era terrace house, I’ve found that simple interaction with people from different demographics causes a bridging between otherwise parallel communities. Whether that be something as simple as a conversation over the back fence with the family that’s just moved in, or choosing to eat out locally instead of elsewhere, these little actions begin to form networks between disconnected people that share the same space. Through these small gestures, the wealthy middle-class becomes another dimension of socio-economic diversity. This can be powerful, as diversity counteracts inequality. A wealthy middle-class that participates in gentrification can either supplant what was there, or elevate those around them, by simply choosing to disconnect or interact.
Inequality is expressed in the streets we walk. Roads, rivers and walls separate people along the lines of class, race, gender and ability. If you’re a member of any city, I don’t think it’s too much to consider the space you’re in and how you spend your dollar. It’s important to be conscious of how you interact with the city and with those that inhabit it.
‘A little gentrification is usually quite constructive’ – Jane Jacobs, 2002
The city is an ever-evolving place. Development is an inevitable reality in Melbourne and most other cities in Australia and across the globe. As individuals and communities that are a part of these mammoth structures, we should consider how everyday interaction and participation can help counteract inequality to raise the collective standard of living for everyone.
Of course, this is only one small dimension of a complex problem. But if you’re interested in learning about and participating in Melbourne’s development direction and urban geography in general, I’ve left a couple of links below that might be interesting.
This is an interactive map that shows the origins of the migrant groups in suburbs and town in Australia – It’s a lot of fun to play around with.
If you’re interested about the future of Commission Housing in Melbourne and Victoria, this is definitely worth a look.
Participate Melbourne is a good place to learn about the direction of the city and get give critical feedback to planers on upcoming projects.