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Death by a thousand yuppies


For the best years of my life, I have lived and worked in and around Coburg, a shabby, multi-cultural suburb on the north side of Melbourne.

My first job here, at 14, was 'spruiking' — commanding shoppers through a loudspeaker to buy discounted nappies — out the front of Sam's Baby World, for $10 an hour. At the time, I thought this was being paid handsomely. I now know it was not. I was being had by my 'It'll be character building' parents, and by Sam, the nice man I punched at karate under the instruction of Sensei Guido.

Spruiking is a job for out-of-work performers who are also adults, and normally pays over $40 an hour — as if that is enough to assuage the humiliation of repeating inane calls to consumerism ('Come in! Have a look around! Get yourself a bargain!'), and earning the wrath of shoppers.

Such is Coburg. At least I wasn't getting paid $5 an hour, as was my 12-year-old brother down at the sweatshop. I mean bakery.

Until a few years ago, there was graffiti on a wall by Coburg train station that said: 'R.I.P. Tupac. Your soul lies with us in Coburg.'

Which pretty much sums up the essence of my heartland. That's not to say there are drive-by shootings or gang wars (well, not many). It's no gangster paradise; it's actually quite nice. But there is real social inequity here, measured with a kind of local humour and playfulness that is refreshing.

The graffiti no longer exists — no matter how heartwarming, all graffiti is temporal. But along with its absence, I have noticed the beginnings of my civilisation's decline. Pubs with boutique beer are creeping their way north. Day-old bread at the café where the yummy mummies drink lattes is $4. Gentrification. The cycle of life.

I want to save Coburg from its fate, but I should first register my own complicity. Although I adore Coburg's idiosyncrasies, I am limited in my capacity to adequately contribute to them. It's rare for me to shout obscenities on the tram at random, or point umbrellas at people and sing them ditties. I am not a charming fruitier who spurns health and safety regulations by smoking inside his store.

Also, I am in the problematic position of being a bleeding-heart, bike-riding vegetarian: the least trusted source of cultural regeneration in the world.

So what, aside from my burning love for this place, do I contribute? Local pride. 'Keeping it Coburg.' Go back whence you came-style. It's not pretty, actually.

There are drawbacks to living in ungentrified suburbs. They can have higher crime rates than other places. But that isn't such a problem if you accept that you need to be safe and lock up your belongings. The thing that really upsets me — and of course this occurs in all places — is that Coburg is a place where men think it's okay to shout at women as they walk or drive past.

I've never felt truly unsafe here, but that sort of behaviour certainly needs to be shut down. It's not to say that poor people are sexist, although conditions of social inequity can generate unhealthy gender relationships. When men are content and have things to be happy about, they seem to have less desire to attack women for simply existing.

So, my project for Coburg is shouting at men that it's not okay to shout at women. For example, when I go jogging and a strange man shouts some sexist abuse at me, I shout obscenities back at him and keep on running.

There are things that could be better here. And they are improving. But there are ways of improving a community without excluding the people who made it interesting to begin with.

Gentrification is inevitable. But it doesn't have to be totally bad. When a few years ago I drove past the cramped inner-city terrace house in Sydney where I was born, there was a Ferrari parked out the front, and I had the chance to imagine — just imagine — that its owners were my real parents.

Gentrification can even increase the livability of a place. Yesterday, Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported that since 2005, Coburg's 'livability' ranking rose 63 places, from 175 (out of the 314 areas surveyed) to 112. The criteria included access to public transport and schooling, proximity to the CBD and the beach, hills and tree coverage.

By some of the criteria, Coburg could never compete, even if all the oil barons moved in. But it still ranks number one on my survey. 

Will my hip predilection for live music venues and vintage clothes mark the downfall of Coburg? Nope. That will be the fault of someone who might look like me but who is not me. I was here first. Such is the paradox of gentrification and local pride. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, gentrification, multiculturalism



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Existing comments

'Gentrification can even increase the livability of a place. Yesterday, Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported that since 2005, Coburg's 'livability' ranking rose 63 places... The criteria included access to public transport and schooling, proximity to the CBD and the beach, hills and tree coverage.'

Sounds like Coburg is turning into Canberra. (Both don't really have beaches, of course. And Canberra doesn't have a CBD as such.) This must terrify you, Ellena! Before you know it it will become abnormally clean and 'nice', with more trees than people.

Penelope | 25 November 2011  

Whatever happens its got to be better than a suburb

graham patison | 01 December 2011  

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