It’s no secret that Australians have a penchant for big, wide spaces. With a land mass double the size of Europe and a population just one twentieth* the size, it’s in our DNA to spread our arms wide and find a piece of land we can proudly call our own.
Enter the phenomenon of the Aussie suburb. Like it or loath it (inner-city dwellers are typically conditioned to loath it), most Australians actually live in the ‘burbs; it’s simply that some suburbs do well on the cool scale and others don’t. Some of us choose to live in the suburbs because that’s what we can afford, but it’s more complex that that. Often we are indeed fulfilling our cultural mission to acquire a piece of country, realising a dream to curate a patch of soil, wanting an outdoor space for our kids to enjoy and seeking a contrasting retreat from relentless city life.
Just why is there so much bitter condemnation of suburbia? Marxist geographer David Harvey describes suburbs as “Places where working class militancy is pacified through the promotion of mortgage debt, which turns suburbanites into political conservatives primarily concerned with maintaining their property values”. Alan Gilbert, author of the Roots of Anti-Suburbanism in Australia writes: “Australian suburbs have been associated with spiritual emptiness, the promotion of an ersatz, one-dimensional consumer culture, the embourgeoisment of the working-class, and more generally criticised for being “too pleasant, too trivial, too domestic and far too insulated from … ‘real’ life”. Songwriter after songwriter has immortalised our burbs for better or for worse; this ‘aspirational’ Hunters & Collectors song is one of my favourites…
I too am guilty of harsh judgements on many a suburb in my hometown, not least concerning the conservative, leafy, largely mono-cultural eastern suburb which I grew up in. And I too have enjoyed many laughs watching Kath & Kim, with the illusion of laughing at ‘them’, rather than at ‘us’.
So is this obsessive critique of our suburbs a class-based criticism of the (vast) majority of our fellow compatriots, or is it perhaps, as former Fairfax journalist James Button alludes, a criticism of our former self? “The suburbs haunt the Australian imagination simply because so many of us grow up in them. For artists and for anyone, the place you are born in is the one place you never really leave.”
Ironically, living in a Melbourne suburb that that isn’t even on the scale of coolness makes my ‘burb all the more attractive. While I’ve never quite adjusted to the lack of diversity for eating out options (unless 20 Vietnamese and Indian restaurants count as diversity) and hate being so reliant on my car to travel places, I live in a place where socio-economic indicators guarantee I’m not insulated from ‘real life’, surrounded by a melting pot of fleeting and permanent migrants from across the globe. I live in a place where each of my neighbours has a different world-view to the next one, and there’s no stereotype to live up to (except perhaps wearing tracksuit pants to the supermarket – I quite like that).
That said, a recent trip to Europe where we predominantly stayed in cities and in medium-density apartments did more than cure my wanderlast. It made me crave the simplicity of small spaces and homes, where accumulation is impossible and it’s all about quality, not quantity. Won over by each city’s compact infrastructure, historic architecture and creative use of space, it wasn’t until I returned home to my wooly bush and broad beans that I felt okay about the ‘way we live’ here in Australia…
Last week a friend sent me a link to one of the best blogs I’ve seen in ages. 52 Suburbs is Australian Louise Dawson’s attempt to profile 52 different suburbs (read neighbourhoods) around the world over twelve months. It’s about revealing places that aren’t known for much, and “finding ‘ordinary’ beauty in the places where ‘ordinary’ people live”. It’s amazing. Here’s a few photos from her blog capturing the magic of my neighbouring suburb of Footscray.
* my rough calculation based on wiki stats