Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Life in the Outer Suburbs

I found this book in the library called The Bogan Delusion by David Nichols.  I took it home purely because of the title.  I found that it was not so much a book as a rant, but very entertaining and at times even enlightening.

Mr Nichols is an urban planner, teaching at the University of Melbourne.  A few years ago he moved from inner city Melbourne to outer suburban Broadmeadows, one of Melbourne's best known public housing estates and supposed Bogan Central.  With the zeal of the convert, he launches a defence of all things outer suburban against all things inner suburban.  His chief target is the notion of the "bogan", the stereotypical uncultured, hard-drinking, mullett-wearing, uneducated outer suburban Australian, for whom Broadmeadows is supposed to be the natural habitat.

His idea is that there is really no such thing as a bogan.  From his description it would be hard to tell because he never really describes clearly what a bogan is, despite his visit to the town of Bogan in rural New South Wales where he took a photo of one.  This is part of his point - the definition of a bogan changes constantly and rapidly to suit the prejudices of its user.  Unfortunately his chief way of combating the bogan stereotype is to create an alternative stereotype, the "anti-bogan", the hypocritical inner city dweller who professes to be socially and environmentally progressive while chewing up more than their share of the ecosystem and avoiding contact with the great unwashed.

It's all good fun but in fact not what the book seems to be really about, which is a solid defence of outer-suburban living and the planners who envisaged it and created the various suburbs we now like to vilify.  Outer suburban living is more environmentally responsible, he says, the suburbs are better planned, the housing is better quality and the people who live there are no worse than those of the inner city.  Even where this is not the case, if people are forced for financial reasons to live in a place with few services, limited access to employment and poor transport, is this their fault, or is the fault of the planners and public servants who created these places then forgot them?  By his telling, of course, these are univerally from the inner city and never visit the places they designed.

In the midst of all this leaping about and stomping on toes he referred to another book, The Lowest Rung by social historian Mark Peel.  It's amazing that I haven't read this book before now because I met the author back in about 1995 while he was researching it, and my name appears in the acknowledgements.  It's in amongst a very long list and all I really did was to provide him with a few phone numbers, but I was very impressed with him.  It's a shame that he took until 2003 to get the book published because by then I had lost track and I've just now read it for the first time.

The Lowest Rung is about three outer suburban public housing estates - Broadmeadows in Melbourne, Mt Druitt in Sydney and Inala in Brisbane.  It is as careful and thoughtful as The Bogan Delusion  is cavalier and slipshod.  Peel interviewed over 250 residents and community workers in these three highly disadvantaged suburbs, inviting them to talk freely about their lives, their histories, their feelings about their community and their hopes and fears for the future.  He handles their views respectfully but not with undue reverence.  Their words are sprinkled liberally throughout the book and their voices come through loud and clear, but he is also not afraid to gently question and challenge them - first of all to their faces in various interviews, and later in his evaluation of what they say.

It can't be doubted that life is hard in these suburbs.  Unemployment is high, poverty is a constant foe and many of those he interviewed were losing hope and running out of steam as the welfare cuts and punitive regimes of the Howard years began to take their toll.   Peel is clear it is not people's fault they are poor, and poverty will not be solved by punishing or reforming them.  If there are no jobs, how can they find work?  Nor does he have any truck with the media obsession with crisis and violence, allowing his interviewees to poke wicked fun at portrayals of rioting and racial warfare through their tales of the way the media staged bits of the events and encouraged people to show aggression for the camera.

Yet these are stories of hope and resilience. People in Mt Druitt, Broadmeadows and Inala have long histories of local activism, aided by sympathetic welfare and church workers, and have created lasting social infrastructure by their own efforts.  Women in particular learn the skills to survive.  While people may sometimes speak in racist terms, in practice the level of tolerance is high in these most multi-cultural of Australian communities.  Women in particular have found ways to reach across racial barriers and share their survival skills and their cultural knowledge.  Even the men, struggling with unemployment and not knowing what to do instead of work, struggle towards ways to rebuild their lives and create meaningful roles for themselves in family and community life.

They don't need charity or punitive "earning or learning" regimes.  What they need, says Peel, is for people to listen to them, take them seriously, and help them to meet their own needs.  They need to be treated not as passive recipients but as active makers of their own destiny.  In the end they don't ask for a lot.  As one of his informants says: "You put up with the struggle, you know, just get by, if you get respect and if you're treated right."  Another responds: "That's right.  It's not being treated like an idiot, like you're a criminal."

No too much to ask, surely.

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