Precinct or enclave? Socio-economic change in Melbourne’s super-diverse north.

What is it like to live in the super-diverse inner suburbs of Melbourne, Australia's immigration gateway and 'most liveable' city? While some of these areas are experiencing rapid gentrification, or even 'yuppification', others are risking entrenched socio-economic marginalization. How are these changes affecting multicultural communities – both new migrant arrivals and ageing southern European migrants who settled there in the 1950s and 1960s?

New research comparing two suburbs in Melbourne's inner north, Coburg and Fawkner, reveals how a range of residents in super-diverse neighbourhoods feel about the past, present and future of their areas, particularly the changing character of where they live and the changing sense of community that comes with economic and social change.

In Coburg, where about half of all residents were born overseas and 47% speak a language other than English at home, rapid gentrification is underway. Like in many inner northern suburbs well-connected to the city by public transport, a demographic of young urban professionals is gradually replacing the ageing southern European migrants who settled in there in the 1950s-60s. While the neighbourhood's central shopping district on Sydney Road still features mostly small ethnic businesses – Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, Italian patisseries, and stores selling Orthodox christening outfits or traditional Islamic clothing – in recent years signs of 'retail gentrification' are becoming apparent in the form of refurbished 'gastro-pubs' and more upmarket cafes.

While policymakers see great social and economic benefits to gentrification, locals have mixed feelings about the changes. The increasing residential density and traffic congestion are generally unpopular. The gentrifiers are also a more individualistic breed. They have money to spend and careers to pursue, leaving the long-term residents, who used to exchange lemons over fences and mind each other's children, feel somewhat out of place in the up-and-coming 'multicultural precinct'. Escalating housing prices and increasing local consumption options highlight the growing income gap between old and new residents.

The suburb of Fawkner is even more diverse. More than two thirds of residents speak a language other than English at home. It is also socio-economically disadvantaged, with unemployment significantly higher and median personal weekly income significantly lower than the Melbourne average. The suburb is experiencing two key demographic processes: ageing of the earlier migrant cohort that cling to their old homes and 'ethnic' networks (more than a fifth of residents are over 65); and arrival of new residents, mainly overseas migrants from Muslim backgrounds attracted to Fawkner's Islamic college and mosque. The new arrivals are mostly highly skilled, but few are able to secure appropriate jobs. Due to relative geographical isolation and recent migrants' precarious employment, Fawkner has a potential to develop into a disadvantaged enclave.

Yet, although aware of the social and economic challenges they face, Fawkner residents are generally optimistic about the future of their neighbourhood. Long-term residents often hold a great sense of pride in being from Fawkner, while new Muslim arrivals feel a sense of connectedness to their religious community and a sense of safety from the discrimination they often face when they venture outside of Fawkner's quiet streets. While the suburb lacks any sense of the bustling consumption culture of Coburg, local community spaces – such as the community house, local library, leisure centre and seniors' centre – are important sites of activity, where positive encounters between diverse residents occur. Local government is investing in community development and support services with considerable success, but what the future holds for old and new residents of Fawkner also hinges on powerful structural forces. Population ageing, welfare provisions, employment opportunities and ethnic prejudice will undoubtedly shape the future of the suburb.

Historically diverse areas like Coburg and Fawkner are facing similar challenges all over Australia, as post-war migrant cohorts begin to age, new groups move in, housing prices rise and cost of living increases. In areas like Coburg gentrification is creating new pressures on established residents and transforming multicultural spaces through new retail sites and consumption practices, while in others, like Fawkner, new ethnic or religious hubs are forming alongside the ageing long-term migrant community.

Although socio-economic indicators like income, employment rates and housing prices can reveal the overall trajectory of these suburbs as either marginalized or upwardly mobile, residents across the board have very mixed feelings about the costs and benefits of economic and demographic change, particularly the impact on their sense of community. This research shows that local and state policy makers can gain from respecting established community practices as they make decisions that pave the way for the next wave of inhabitants.


26 August 2013

Contact: Mark Smith, Media Officer

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