The Footscray gentrification trap

I would like acknowledging the traditional owners of these lands, the ‘working class’ Westies of yore.

There have been a spate of cafes opening in Footscray and surrounds of late. There are some – myself included – who take a quiet pride in being ‘pioneers’ on the wild frontiers of the inner West, who are thankful and welcoming of such outposts of ‘civilisation’. However, there’s something a little disquieting about the process of gentrification, because gentrification inherently involves gains on some fronts, but also a certain amount of loss on others.

Wikipedia describes gentrification as the changes that occur when wealthier people buy or rent property in low income or working-class areas. To some, gentrification is a good thing; increasing property values, ‘better’ services and amenities, and more convenient access to things like cafes, bars and other venues that are signifiers of ‘culture’. In the context of Footscray and Melbourne, by culture I mean Western Anglo-centric culture. Sometimes I wonder what gentrification in non-Western settings looks like. Does a gentrifying suburb in Beijing become more ‘Chinese’ in some way? Or is the notion of modernisation so central to gentrification that it embeds a kernel of Western modernity into the very idea of what it means to be gentrified? But I digress.

What interests me is the mostly ignored flipside of the gentrification process. I say mostly, because there is some visible tension that this process creates. On my walk home from the station, I passed a SOLD sign in front of a house, plastered over a FOR SALE sign which spoke of subdividing and units. Someone had scrawled across the sign ‘GENTRIFICATION’. My first thought was, ‘Yes! And about bloody time! Where’s my neighbourhood wine bar?’ but in recent weeks, I’ve started to question my stance. What is it that we’re actually losing by watching as Footscray turns into a ‘Hawthorn of the West?

It’s a natural part of the market-driven system in which we live that businesses will seek to cater for their customers in the way which will generate the most patronage. So as people with higher incomes and the specific tastes and pretensions¬†that come along with that move into the area – again, I count myself as one of them – the nature of new businesses that open up, and the fortunes of existing businesses change. Except for the fortunes of the Olympic Doughnut van, because that’s just awesome.

Enter those cafes that I was talking about. Reading Room, West 48, Footscray Milking Station, and now Common Galaxia in Seddon. I haven’t been to all of them, but those I’ve visited have been thoroughly modern Millies – read communal tables, slightly quirky but warm yet sleek fit-outs, menus with idiosyncratic twists. (Lauren‘s my go-to girl when it comes to updates on that front, and she should be yours too.)

I love the fact these places have opened up, but I also love the fact that they’re at somewhat of a remove from downtown Footscray, which is still predominantly Vietnamese restaurants and hairdressers, with a sprinkling of various Sudanese, Eritrean and Ethiopian eateries, kebab joints and weave shops. There’s a charm and excitement about living in a part of Melbourne that is so unlike most other parts of Melbourne. In the ghetto? I’m not sure. While ghetto commonly is taken to mean poor, or crime ridden, its original meaning refers more to areas which are predominantly occupied by one social group. I’d argue that Footscray doesn’t really fit into that sort of pigeonhole, instead being a vibrant mix of Asian, African and Anglo-Saxon neighbours (and others!).

But as tides are wont to do, the tide of change has reached Footscray proper now: right in the middle of Nicholson Mall, Footscray’s getting a Noodle Box. Well, a Noodle-in-a-Box.

‘What’s the big deal?’ you might say. It’s just another Chinese food outlet. There are plenty of other Chinese restaurants in Footscray. And yes,¬†although it’s probably Chinese run, to me it heralds a dumbing down of cuisine in the area, much like the entrenchment of KFC, Subway or Nando’s in the area. How is there a market in an area as vibrant as Footscray for such a beige offering? I guess some of the demands of gentrification seems to be that life is easy, convenient, and familiar. In a sense, it’s about living in a place that is your comfort zone. Which, if you’ll excuse me, can be terribly boring. Yes, I’m one of those who lived in Brunswick more than a decade ago that now laments the closure of so many Turkish and Lebanese restaurants, yet still finds himself enjoying going out for a drink in the bars which have replaced those restaurants. It’s a problematic position, I know.

So I guess what I’m irked by is the bland edge of gentrification. Does gentrification always have to just be another word for homogenisation? Is there some way around the blandification which seems to accompany the installation of ‘comforts’? Or are the two actually the same thing?