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Hipsters join the westside tribe

On 2 January 2017, it was reported that several popular eateries and bars in Footscray had been vandalised, including the perennially successful 8 Bit Burgers on Droop Street, and Up In Smoke on Hopkins Street. 8 Bit had the warm new year's welcome gift of 14 smashed windows and the words “F**k off hipster scum” spray-painted on their entrance.

Meanwhile, another popular coffee haunt, Rudimentary, had rotten meat thrown into their premises. The stench of it was so bad it took the staff several days to remove.

This isn't the first instance of protests against gentrification in Footscray. Littlefoot Bar reported that anti-gentrification stickers had been pasted on their facade shortly after opening in 2015. Some of these had messages like, “People said it was too dangerous to live here, but you can actually find a couple of nice cafes now”. These stickers stopped shortly after the owners posted their own story about being a local family of 8 years and wanting to start a bar on Barkly Street where none had previously existed.

I've tried three out of four of these businesses (sorry Littlefoot, I'm a bit of a dag to be hanging out late at night drinking whiskey and listening to groovy music), and the products and services they offer are of a very high standard, with price points to match. Clearly their success shows that the price point is appropriate for the market they are targeting.

Reading about these acts, I feel awful for the owners of these businesses and can only imagine how hard they worked to establish themselves. Who exactly are the “hipster scum”? Do they mean me? (Probably). And what does ''hipster'' even mean? Is that like saying “yuppie”? What does that even mean? That could mean anybody.

The great minds on the Urban Happiness: University of Melbourne Facebook group got talking about these incidents, and most were in agreement about how senseless the vandalism was. Others saw it as an act of protest by locals resisting social change and gentrification.

I suggested that perhaps if businesses such as these weren't charging $25 for fries, milkshake and teeny burgers, maybe more people could try them and incidents like this wouldn't occur so often, or at all. But observations like this miss the important issues. Another clever comment from another user was that just because people like $2000 Prada bags, it doesn't mean every suburb needs a Prada shop.

Everyone knows that Footscray has a rich culinary history, and a wide range of food from the Asian and African continents can be enjoyed with much gusto at a range of price points (usually between $9 and $14 for a large, satisfying main meal). Until the untimely demise of the Little Saigon Market, it was possible to enjoy all manner of Asian dishes with a side of rice for under $12, and usually with an entree (mung bean pie or crispy fried squid) or a drink.

It could be said that the hamburger was once part of the everyday suburban food experience, but at its core is a symbol of US imperialism; selling and consuming such things only prolongs this hegemony. Until the recent gourmet burger proliferation, burgers have been a fast food that is accessible to anyone, along with meat pies, pizza and, of course, ''Friday night fish n chips''.

So, what is under attack here? Is it the individual businesses, or the culture they represent? Our culture has been formed out of many, including American. Let's set aside the hegemonic hamburgers and look at the bigger issues here.

Gentrification is widely accepted as the process of a new socio-economic group moving into a suburb alongside the established cohort, and when too much of this occurs too quickly, the result is that the existing cohort moves elsewhere. Gentrification can result in a change of place, a change of demographics and an increase in property prices. An immediate effect of this is new businesses popping up and attracting new customers, and new financial and social capital, which gives life to existing buildings and streetscapes that have been in disrepair, therefore contributing to ''civic literacy'', where everyone can take ownership of the space by engaging with the place.

Maribyrnong City Council (MCC) has been actively trying to promote Footscray as a town that is “open for business” through attracting new businesses to enliven the streets, but also by moving the ''undesirables'' along. Footscray has a reputation for being a rough place. At its most benign, it's viewed as a post-industrial town coming out of a decline, and at its worst, as a town with a reputation for street violence and drug abuse, regularly frequented by transient people with antisocial habits.

MCC has been trying to improve Footscray by changing the street-furniture and urban design in Nicholson Street and near the train station, which is cleaner and well lit at night to discourage people from hanging around in public. Private sector enterprises (both commercial and social) have been embraced and are changing the area by bringing in new customers and new activity.

Dr Maree Pardy, social and cultural anthropologist, has described MCC's approach as ''vengeful with a cappuccino”! The ''undesirables'' who used to have somewhere to meet are being moved away, and MCC gets what it wants: new business that activates the street frontages and brings in new residents, and new trade. But these approaches fail to recognise the causes of anti-social behaviour in the first instance and/or why they come to Footscray, and this is where local and state government need to step in and help in a big way, or get behind social enterprises that can.

Dr Pardy also talks about the fact that the visceral (or voyeuristic?) experience of meeting familiar faces and watching people is probably lost as a result of council's clean-up. The Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom rock sculpture, meaning ''welcome bowl'', was much derided as a waste of money by the Traders' Association when completed in 2013, on the corner of Paisley and Nicholson streets. The artwork fulfills the meeting place aspect, but without offering shade for hot and wet days.

In fact, the whole Nicholson Street Mall is without decent shelter from the elements. Even though the mist of water that sprays from a few of the rocks is a welcome relief on a summer's day, this is annoying for the remaining three seasons of the year; the sculpture, therefore, has a tinge of the vengeful.

If the vandals targeting these four businesses are class warriors trying to resist demographic changes in the area, they have missed the boat by at least 5 years – the residential property prices and rates of growth tell us that Footscray is now firmly on the radar of first-home buyers trying to get a bargain. It might be a coincidence that these businesses all popped up around 2015; the 2015-16 financial year demonstrated an 18% jump in the median 2 bedroom house price, from $627K to $745K.

Between 2010 and 2012, Footscray and the surrounding suburbs of Seddon ($875K), Yarraville ($865K) and West Footscray ($721K) all had either steady or no growth, but since 2012 have had about 11% growth per year (obviously from differing median house prices). Consider further that the median 2 bedroom house price in inner city Melbourne is $1.336 million.

Footscray offers a lot of housing close to the city and is well-serviced by public amenities for considerably less money than other areas that have a strong multicultural working-class background, such as Brunswick ($899K), Richmond ($1,119 million) & Flemington ($875K). The steady growth in Footscray, Seddon and West Footscray is a reflection of the popularity of the area and its affordability – or rather, they are less expensive than all the other options.

I see Footscray as being relatively self-contained compared to other inner city suburbs that enjoy cultural spill-over (Collingwood, Fitzroy and Abbottsford, and Brunswick, Coburg and Preston) by virtue of being located close to the Port of Melbourne, bounded by the Maribyrnong River and Old Geelong Road, and surrounded by manufacturing and industrial complexes to the east and south.

Even the rest of Melbourne shares this impression – a current series of postcards published by Public Transport Victoria promoted the suburb with a design aesthetic straight out a 1930s travel magazine, making the Footscray Market appear like an oasis in a dense jungle.

The bike ride I take most days between the city and Footscray is either via Dynon or Footscray roads – the greyfields that separate the rest of Melbourne from Footscray. Regardless of its isolation from artistic hotspots, there's no shortage of creative happenings. The locals create their own artistic (Footscray Community Arts Centre) and creative (100 Story Building) opportunities.

Perhaps this is why the place feels very tribal, for want of a better word, and residents want to protect that as much as possible. A great example of this was seen during the Grand Final, when picket fences all around the west were painted in Western Bulldogs red, white and blue.

The class warriors vandalising a few small businesses are prepared to act in an ugly way to protect their westside “tribe''. The west offers some of this city's few remaining suburbs where it is still possible for the average Melburnian to own their own home in a vibrant and diverse area within 10km of the CBD. In the mind of the vandal, you have to match the reputation of Footscray to join the tribe, otherwise you are a threat.

Frankly, asking new businesses, or even new residents, to “prove their rep” so they can be accepted is childish in the extreme! What I would say about these businesses is that start-up ventures such as these could easily have failed, and surely the proprietor's struggle is admirable. They don't need to prove how much of a Westie they are because they obviously love the suburb and are doing their best to add to its diversity.

In simple terms, the benefits of these new businesses to Footscray are:

  • They offer a variety of goods and services at different price points.
  • They provide new employment opportunities that previously did not exist (and not just for those who work there, but for professionals and tradespersons facilitating opening their premises).
  • They pay council rates and taxes.

But what do these businesses actually do for the street?

  • Late night trading makes streets safer for pedestrians and residents at night.
  • They add a sense of vitality, movement and progression: there is somewhere to go.
  • They contribute to an enriched urban experience and civic literacy.

So, I wouldn't say that bad gentrification has occurred here in Footscray… yet. In The Life and Death of American Cities, journalist Jane Jacobs says that a little bit of gentrification is good for all the positives listed earlier, but that too much means the existing diversity is stamped out, and the only choice for existing residents is to move on.

In the case of Footscray, perhaps it is just that some of the negative effects of gentrification have occurred sooner than anticipated: for instance the sharp increase in property values, further dividing those who own and those who rent. Of course, expensive niche food and drink such as $6 cold-drip coffee doesn't appeal to everyone, nor is it readily accessible to all residents.

Cost differences aside, the fact that these things exist alongside $10.50 burgers, $9 bowls of pho and $12 platters of beyaynetu in this wonderful, crazy place means our new “hipster” cafes are making a bigger contribution to diversity than they probably thought.

Redmond Hamlett is a Director of Woollan Hamlett Architects, a St Kilda-based architecture practice specialising in projects that create enhanced social outcomes.

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