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Thu, Apr. 1st, 2010, 09:35 pm
Newtown is dying!

"Because it's becoming gentrified! Independent vegan co-ops are moving out and chain stores are moving in. The community is being broken up"

I think this is the pervading sentiment among the mohawk set these days. It's also a sentiment I can't stand.

It's ironic than in trying to defend its geographical coherence the Newtown alternative community contradicts what it is supposed to stand for. By arguing that it has a right, above other communities, to inhabit a particular space renders it far more a shadow of the mainstream than an enlightened alternative. And not just a shadow of the mainstream, but a shadow that is worse and more bigoted because it refuses to conceive that it may possess those qualities.

But what really annoys me is the sense of entitlement. I might be more willing to give the community some slack if it has done something in the past to stake a claim on the space. As the situation stands, it seems that people are defending their right to live amongst others with similar fashion choices, rather than the right of for their community to exist. Because really, how much of a community is it, if it refuses definition except in the most banal terms. It's a community that seems to only exist to compare itself (favourably) with the "mainstream" (whatever that is); it's alternative, different, queer.

But how coherent is a community that can only define itself by reference to something else? Has Newtown really come together properly in living memory around, oh, I don't know, a single political policy?  It's a community that hangs its identity in a series of signals - fashion, swagger, aesthetic - that are likely empty signifiers to be coloured with whatever substance the onlooker desires to read. And those whose bodies don't project the right (empty) signifiers are rendered outsders. Let's be honest: the courthouse on a thursday night shares far more in common (in the openness of its community) with a North Shore bowling club than a meeting place for eccentrics. it's more Dresden than Rive Gauche.

And the influx of different people? I say, in the words of PJ O'rourke, "let them in". Open the flaking, 1920's terrace doors to anyone who wants. If it leads to a community that doesn't place so much important on clothing and swagger, then that's great. If not, then I struggle to see in concrete terms what has really been lost.

This pretty much only leaves the economic factor. The classical arguments against gentrification point to the replacement of 1) poor people and 2) people of colour with the white upper middle class. The problem with applying this argument to newtown is that 1) Newtown has always been inhabited by uni students with rich parents and 2) newtown is, and always has been, overwhelmingly white. And honestly I struggle to see much sympathy in Newtown for the working class. Half the people here have never been west of Marrickville. If the community really does possess the qualities of solidarity with the economically and socially disadvantaged, then moving out of Newtown would finally give them an opportunity to express it.

Thu, Apr. 1st, 2010 11:41 am (UTC)

You're completely right that traditional thinking about gentrification isn't terribly applicable here—Newtown has always been a place of wealth and leisure. Even in Gough's time I doubt many working class people lived there. But I don't think that delegitimises the sense of loss for it's recent transformations.

I've also been feeling a real sense of loss about the transformation. However I don't think your reading of this resistance really captures where the sense of loss is coming from, but I do think "image" and aesthetics are at it's root. Not the image-as-performance of the alternative set that the suburb has always been known for, mind you. But rather the way appearance and character of the space appear to march towards a polished, designed, considered and overly manufactured image.

Even thinking about my visits to the suburb as a high schooler (which was only, what, 5 years ago?) there's been a massive transformation. Almost every store was run by the person who owned it. I always felt that if you spent enough time there you would come to know them, and each store would have an identity and a soul. Which was a strange and refreshing thought coming from suburbia where Target, Coles, KFC and other highly image managed "brands" opened a series of characterless clone outlets and dominated the areas of economic exchange. Where as Newtown, from the vintage store just near Green Gourmet which was run by a friendly 30 year old Vietnamese couple (even if they tried to exploit the naive vintage shoppers) to the fish and chip shop down near the Sandringham, run by a cranky 60 year old englishman that had outward contempt for high schoolers despite his proximity to Newtown Performing (but still had a hand painted lightbox and coke posters from the early 80s adorning his shopfront) was nothing like that. Each store was personal, unique and deeply ingrained with the fabric and history of the space. Obviously corporations acknowledge this history, as each of the franchises that have recently found their way to King Street all at-least attempt to pay lip-service to this tradition, usually in an immensely superficial way (I'm thinking of you Thomas Dux! Your fake wood and carefully chosen colour scheme isn't letting anyone forget you're owned by Woolworths!).

I can see your criticism of the people who have traditionally taken part in the image-as-performance aspects of the place, I'm quite certain they are all just middle-class white kids who've come to the suburb to "drop out" (even if only in a perfunctory manner). But this sub-cultural liberty has been the suburb's trademark for decades. And as the corporate and shiny bourgeois businesses increasingly transform King Street into an open-air Westfield I can't help but feel it's loosing this liberty.

So I guess my key argument is, that you're looking at their sense of loss through the prism of (P)olitics, when I would argue that it's really one of culture. Admittedly it's a fundamentally bourgeois culture, but it is one with a deep sense of tradition and history of shallow eccentrics, multiple subcultures and (perceived) social acceptance. This "identity" is exponentially being eroded and transformed, and I think the sense of loss is quite a legitimate one.