Friday, March 19, 2010

G is for...

I recently read a fascinating article in The Age regarding the ongoing urban development plans for Coburg. I suspect this isn't of much interest at all to those of you who have nothing to do with Moreland, let alone know where it is (about 9kms north of Melbourne, incidentally), but lets just run with the whole redevelopment - if it ever happens - as having big implications for the remaining suburbs to be molested by the Melbourne 2030 plan.

Moreland City Council seems to be approaching the redevelopment in a cool enough way - they want to preserve the character of Coburg (presumably with less smackies). They recognise that industrial closures in the area over the last 30 years have gradually led to little in the way of employment for those who live in the area. They want to reinvigorate the suburb for the locals who have made it what it is and what it was (and recognise that's a good thing to do). So why at the centre of all this reinvigoration, are there plans for massive townhouse and apartment developments? Further still, why are the fuck are only a fifth of these new and proposed apartments actually categorised as "Affordable living", in a residency with acknowledged depleted employment?

Surely, this council might have worked out by now that placing expensive multi story apartments right on a train line isn't exactly establishing housing for locals, but is instead, you know, maybe aimed at attracting city workers to Coburg in a hope to increase rates and decrease dependence on community facilities? Now wait... what's the word for that again? That's right, it starts with a G...

Oh yeah - gentrification.

The reason traditional employment in Coburg has dropped in recent years, is not just because of those nasty industries closing down - though I have to say that the closure of Pentridge is one industry I'm happy to see in decline - but because of rocketing value of real estate in the area given its proximity to the city centre in the middle of a very, very long housing boom. However, while employers can move where they wish without much hassle, surely they'd have less incentive to if industrial land was not rezoned as residential – making it incredibly profitable - so willingly by councils?

Maybe someone needs to remind these Councillors that you don't protect jobs or community by razing factories and building unaffordable apartments, and that no amount of creating 'green squares' and - rather oddly - sinking rail lines and stations will help that.

Now I'm not arrogant enough to deny that I'm part of one of the key groups that benefits pretty well from this sort of gentrification, and that while I've spent the last ten years odd on my preferred side of the Yarra, I wasn't born there; my parents weren't born there; I have no connection to these suburbs other than what I directly choose to have now. That said, even I have felt driven out of these areas by overdevelopment, displacement of heritage, and just general fuckwittery – all of which doesn’t just force massive rent increases, but destroys community culture. It happens so slowly, too - one day you realise that the road that you would never choose to go north of, you would now never go south of. Why? Because the shops have changed so completely that they don't so much cater for the locals and blow ins, but cater almost exclusively for half cut 16 year olds from Ringwood trying to up their credibility over the space of a weekend. Basically, when people stop wearing moccies and hangover appropriate eyewear and instead start styling themselves after Corey Worthington, with the added touch of designer moccies, you know you're in the shit. Get the real estate guide out right now, you're going to need it.

But at least when this happened to Brunswick, and yes, I'm going to be the first to say it - right here, right now - Brunswick has gone to shit. It used to be great. Then it was AMAZING! Then it was good. Then less good. And now it just sucks. I have a few minor exceptions to this rule, and those are the Brunswick Hotel, Cafe Mingo, and Warwick Thai. Don't even fucking think about trying to placate me with lines such as "Oh! But have you been to The Retreat!" Have I fucking ever. It's a soulless cesspit smacking of the arrogance and desperation of the coked up owners clinging to their youth*. It was, is, and will be the future of Brunswick, I have no doubt. But sorry, I think I was saying there was some kind of silver lining about when and how this happened to Brunswick. Ah, yes, that's right. They didn't start knocking down buildings. Well, not many of them. I suspect it's just because I got there a lot later in the piece, but just in the same way that Fitzroy suffers in a different way to Collingwood, Brunswick will suffer in a differently to Coburg.

But lets get back to Coburg. The hypocrisy of the Councillors involved in this decision making process astounds me. The really wonderful thing about places like Coburg, and why I love living in these suburbs, is because they have not just a sense of history, but a sense of community. These aren't suburbs where the Italians are hidden in one corner, and the Asians in another - the cultures are there, they are vibrant, and they have living communities. Food, language, religion, art, and hell, even architecture** is all practiced, shared, and celebrated in its own way, and living in these places I've always felt every bit like the fly on the wall - I get to see all these wonderful interactions around me, I get involved in them as much as I please or want, and overwhelmingly, I've felt a part of it without much effort at all.

And that's what I find strange when I cross back over the river to visit family, or head further north visiting friends and so on. Hell, driving around Mill Park, you find house after house shuttered up behind a myriad of security devices (bars!!); other places, you find yourself as out of place as Shirley Bassey’s corpse in the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Some, you turn up and you get the overwhelming sense of unsettled, unsatisfied, restless people. I'm glad I don't live in these suburbs, but I think that as rent inevitably rises, I'll probably have to sooner or later.

To see Councillors actively destroy that awesome community culture of Moreland, shouting down gentrification while committing all the worst tenets is truly awful. These suburbs should be protected, and the council is absolutely correct that they should be reinvigorated; the residents deserve that at the very least - but expensive apartment living and eradication of industry is not the answer. It's great that they want to spend money on this community - but maybe that money would be better used in finally providing Coburg with a public high school, by supporting its desperately under funded sporting centres, and by giving industry an incentive to stay in the area, and even to move back into areas like the old Kodak site; all those issues that the residents have been fighting for over the last decade. Once that's done, maybe then you can talk about placing the rail system underground. Is that what we want to see as a model for the Melbourne 2030 redevelopments? Why the hell not.

To hell with their apartments,
The Rantolotl.

* I have a great story about that. Remind me to tell you one day.

** I have many great stories about that too. My favorite involves a dug up road, a burst water main, and four elderly Italian men complete with stubbies, knitted singlets, shovels, and ridiculous hats trying to convince any concerned passers-by that everything was A-OK.


Anonymous said...

Thankyou for writing one of the few things I've ever read about gentrification that doesn't make me want to scream obscenities and bash my head repeatedly against a wall. A lot of the discourse around gentrification seems to teeter on the edge of either homophobia ("this community was a great place until all the poofs and dykes came along, and everything went to shit") or racism and xenophobia ("it's all the Asians coming here and buying up the properties who are causing the problem"). So it's always refreshing to hear things like planning policy and zoning legislation get injected into the discussion.

I don't know much about the situation in Moreland, but I feel a bit of sympathy for local councils that are actually trying to protect working-class communities, because they're pretty much doomed to fail, and end up copping a lot of the shit for a problem they don't have the power to fix. After a quarter century of federal governments deregulating the manufacturing sector, doing everything within their power to destroy the trade union movement, and introducing a generous suite of special tax breaks for rich people who take their investment dollars out of industry and into property speculation, it's no fucking wonder that decently-paid manufacturing jobs are steadily disappearing, while housing becomes less and less affordable. There's only really so much that local councils can do to stem the tide, unfortunately.

The Rantolotl said...

I tend to agree with you Mooky - however councils are largely responsible for zoning duties, and I can't help but be a little cynical of their cries of 'we love locals' while they're happily rubberstamping rezoning changes left, right and centre, and encouraging exactly the sorts of housing developments that are forcing those very locals further out.

There is very definitely a fine line between forcing industrial zoning to stay industrial and saving jobs, and creating a shanty town with no jobs or housing - but I think Moreland are nowhere near that situation, and have made no real attempts to retain those industry jobs through the powers they do have.

I am sympathetic to the need to collect rates and push housing in such a sought after suburb, but it's a bit rich when they're making the saviour claims they are.