Thursday, October 18, 2012

Outer Suburbia

"Northern suburbia did feel at that time like the edge of the world, relentlessly ordinary, yet also liberating in being so quiet and uncluttered, and not without a strange beauty." Shaun Tan, from Comments on Outer Suburbia

Like Shaun Tan I grew up in a suburb that was "in process", slowly being carved out of the bush. I lived on a road that curled up the mountain like a spine and played in houses being built in the bush behind my back fence. The cement slab and floor would be built first, and then the wooden frames, and sometimes then the money would run out and the houses would stay like this for years, and we would move in like feral animals, playing games in these half-thought structures. I learned to ride my bike in the subdivision up the road - Lentara Avenue, Weemala Court, Lalwinya Road, Summer Court. My best friend had five acres of bush just up the street. Her parents still own this property on Mount Nelson, Hobart, which was once surrounded by paddocks and entirely private, and is now surrounded by houses peeping over their wire fences.

It has just been announced that an independent school, Acacia College, in Mernda (an outer area of Melbourne) is to close because of financial reasons. Doreen is not far from our house, and the independent schools in that area are probably the closest to us (with the exception of Eltham College). Frederique did a GATEways program at Acacia in grade one for maths and Martin came home pleasantly surprised at the area and the school. Since Avery was born we have looked at several houses in Mernda and its neighbouring suburb Doreen trying to get our head around the possibility of living there. I wrote this poem about it in January. For us the appeal is that we can afford a comfortably proportion four bedroom home, but also it's the ease of it; a friend described it as the supermarket approach to buying a house. You choose your block, you choose your house from a catalogue, the price is fixed (yes, I know, except for all the hidden extras). You choose your colours, your fa├žade.

Doreen surprised me the first time I went. I was expecting McMansions. I was expecting to hate it on sight. I was expecting to laugh up my sleeve at it. I was not expecting to half fall in love with the austere beauty of it, to see the potential of what it could be (what it still might be if it can survive the haphazard development - so many developers that Doreen and Mernda are actually several microsuburbs pressed in together). I was not expecting to look past the surface gleam and yet still simply like some of the display homes. I was not expecting to find a really great cafe and community gardens or to be impressed by the cultivated parklands and waterways. I was not expecting to be able to visualise myself living there, or the regret that I would feel when eventually we ruled it out because of lack of infrastructure like public transport, adequate roads, and untested schools. The thing about Doreen is that if you have ever driven there from the city, chances are you went up Plenty Road and yeah, it's one sprawling developing suburb after another. But when you drive there from my place (ie if the centre of your universe isn't the inner city) then you drive through the most amazing green hills and bushscapes. If you live in Doreen chances are you're going bushwalking in Kinglake on the weekend, or ridging your bike through Arthurs Creek, or coming to St Andrews market or a nearby Farmer's Market or taking your kids to Scouts in Plenty or archery in Yarrambat. It's not a million miles from EVERYWHERE. Just, unfortunately, from essential services. But in terms of places you can buy a house for less than 500K within the city limits, it's nice. It's really, really nice. And your neighbours aren't drug dealers and terrorists (well, not exclusively). I bet if you did a quick doorknock you'd find lots of teachers, nurses, administrative staff, retailers and tradies. People like us, a family who came to home ownership after the boom, who was scared out of the rental market by crazy rent hikes and lack of availability, a family who found themselves with another baby to love even though they probably couldn't afford the children they have (ie a family whose circumstances had moved beyond "ideological" to "practical considerations").

The coverage of the closure in the Age brings out all the old bigotry about the outer suburbs. Someone from Middle Park writes (without vitriole): "You would think access to schools would be high on any parents list when choosing a place to live and I understand these places are sold as cheap, but the age old adage holds true that price does not equal cost!" (I believe it was only a few months ago that we were shown photographs of "stricken" parents from her area because their kids would have to use public transport to travel to Elwood or other areas because Albert Park High School was beyond capacity. Inner or outer suburbs, when it comes to public schools, the ball was dropped by the Kennett government and since then everyone's been standing around in the playground kicking it with their toes, not brave enough to pick it up again.)

Acacia parents are described as "aspirational" because of choosing a fairly inexpensive private school education (to go with their "McMansion" - another myth - the houses we've looked at in Doreen tend to be reasonably modest single-storey houses). Look, I am a huge proponent of public schooling and have been known to sneer lately at MLC running around flailing their arms about all the hundreds of thousands of dollars they seem to have lost track of. But when it comes to Acacia, I sympathise. There is no public secondary school. The roads are jam-packed in the mornings with commuters. Trying to get round the roundabout in Hurstbridge to head back home in the mornings takes ages because of people driving in the back way to get to the city, so commuting to Diamond Valley College (probably the closest secondary) is a time commitment, plus as if it's not expensive enough living in the outer burbs in terms of car dependence. 

I agree that it's not the responsibility of the government to bail out independent schools. However, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure all areas are adequately serviced by the state school system. Mernda and Doreen have no secondary school. Real Estate agents are always assuring us that the Doreen high school is "in planning stages".  From a quick google, it looks like someone is conducting a "feasability" study and some property has been "earmarked". Uh-huh. It is also the responsibility of government to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure in place for developing suburbs. While I don't think the government should hand the Uniting Church 10 million, I do think they need to work more closely with the community than offering "advice on alternative placings". But hang on, should Bailleu be held accountable for mistakes of past governments and the massive planning debacle that is the northern growth corridor (and all outer growth issues in Mlebourne)? Well, actually, yeah. It's in the job description. 

I remain fascinated by Doreen. Shaun Tan and Vicki Wakefield in her wonderful debut All I Ever Wanted show that Australian life happens there in all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. Perhaps as well as continuing to foreground the infrastructure issues in these areas, its time we started to explore them on a cultural level as well, to turn around the assumptions and stereotypes that allow these areas and the problems they face to be dismissed as consequence of bad decision making on the part of the individuals who have chosen to live there.


  1. Tim Sterne10:28 PM

    Great post, and the final paragraph is a kind of mini manifesto for not being dickish about people who live outside of Zone 1.

  2. I was quite sad to hear that they were closing! I've been to Acacia College a few times this year for work and it was such a beautiful campus. Plenty Valley Christian College isn't too far though. That's always an option for parents!