Class tourism

Under normal circumstances I manage to avoid ABC Life Matters. I know it’s on at 9am, but, every now and then I find myself in the car after a quick ad hoc trip to the school uniform shop, or chewing glass while my ears bleed.

The chattering classes are preoccupied with class tourism, and this episode of Life Matters was the epitome of this. The host breathily gushed her intro about the horrors of the ‘outer suburbs’, setting up the dualism between ‘good’ urbanisation and ‘bad’. Quota words got a lap around the oval – holistic, inclusive (for good suburbia), alienating and ethnic for ‘bad’.

She did note that about 80% of Australians live in suburbs, and yet it seems that the only ones that are a problem are the ‘outer’ ones. Yes, this means the large houses occupied by some of our newest Australians.

To be sure, the angsting over suburbia is an Australian academic tradition, but I think fetishising the outer suburbs as something new and unsettling is just the newest version in an old racist trope. In the 1960s Eastgardens (in Sydney) was considered a nascent den of iniquity, housing undesirables in cheek-by-jowl homes. The design and layout was ‘revolutionary’ – the suburbs were planned for some green space and so that people could have a backyard, as an antidote to the (declining) inner city urban terrace housing that was uncontroversially the pit of all sin.

My point is that lack of transport, insularity and a lack of local employment has long been viewed as a planning problem. I note that the radio guests never used the term, ‘dormitory suburb’ but indeed, this is what they’re referring to. However, I think, contrary to the pearl-clutching of all the guests and hosts, none of whom, I am almost certain, actually live in the outer suburbs, the areas they refer to are probably the least problematic ‘new suburbs’ that Australia has had. This is for a number of reasons – there are more employment opportunities in the suburbs, in shops and services, than in the dormitory suburbs of Australia’s recent past. Women are more integrated into life – they work, participate in education more, and there are strong cultural communities that are connected through churches. The housing is often multi generational, which means that people are connected in more ways. And, importantly, there are a mixture of people from different cultural backgrounds, which means that everyday life will take on different patterns. The sterility of the dormitory suburbs of the 1950s-70s was oriented around an extremely regimented, culturally uniform nuclear family.

Sure, there are problems with infrastructure and transport, but listening to the academics and hosts talk, I really wondered if any of them had been to Peterborough or Marrickville, or Summer Hill. How socially cohesive are these neighbourhoods? Are they not dogged by overloaded transport, air pollution and a lack of green space too?

Of course they are. In fact, these suburbs are probably emptier than those in the ‘outer suburbs’ during the daytimes, as people send their kids off to private schools, full time care, and both parents in single generation households go to work full time.

I’m not suggesting that the outer suburbs are great, or without problems – for sure, there are many. I think though that discussing them like they’re some kind of weird, alien, dystopian hellscape is ridiculous. The only suburban places that are truly like this are the ones that are outside the growth corridor and have a majority of public housing. Abject poverty and disadvantage is the recipe that bakes the shithole, nothing else.

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