arch-peace editorials

02 October 2010

Banal and Mundane

In her article published in 2005 “Kant comes to Footscray Mall - thinking about local cosmopolitanism"”, Dr Maree Pardy reclaims the notion of cosmopolitanism from the educated and cultural elite, at home everywhere in the world, for the “mundane and banal” circumstances of a suburban place with the world in it.

Footscray is 7 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne but is subjected to the inevitable homogenizing effect of property prices. It the space of five years it has become unaffordable.

The City of Greater Dandenong (CGD) is 30 kilometres from Melbourne’s centre and like Footscray has an industrial base of working class and migrant labour and a refugee intake that traces most of the political and social conflict and upheaval of the 20th and 21 centuries. Unlike most regions in a post industrial Australia, CGD retains a large manufacturing base and its historic regional status as a rural centre is now replaced as the centre of a growth corridor of dormitory suburbs.

CGD has the most disadvantaged community in Metropolitan Melbourne according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics SEIFA index (Socio – Economic Indexes for Areas) but this classification misses something. In spite and because of all the circumstances, CGD is the focus of questions of national identity and at the same time is separated from the national debate. The central idea of multiculturalism is lived in the public life of Greater Dandenong as a “mundane and banal” cosmopolitanism that is in part a testament to the 1970’s claim of “strength through diversity” and by its example of complex issues dismisses the glib rhetoric of current policy debate. Diversity implies that there is no single dominant culture and cosmopolitanism speaks of an “affinity with humanity not a country”. For the vast majority of Australian’s, diversity, let alone cosmopolitanism is not a lived reality.

CGD’s ambiguous claim as “Melbourne’s Second City” has given way to a self-confidence as simply “a great city.” The public infrastructure of CGD dates back to the 19th Century but unlike Melbourne, whose wealth was based on gold and speculation, CGD's rural past was based on produce and this serves as a metaphor for the place. The strength of this great city is its recent social history of being home to difference irrespective of the changing public paranoia fueled by the government of the day or the media and their shared appetite for scapegoats. Diversity is not something sought after in this city, it is a reality that gives a default promise to the greater ambition of cosmopolitanism through daily life, language and a dynamic civil society. This manifests in public, in the streets, the markets, in its governance, on public transport and in every facet of daily life and every part of its day. Ride the train some time and you will see the faces of the world, of places of conflict and of individuals grabbing hold of a promise and giving a commitment no-one else in the country is asked to give. Visit the streets of a morning or late into the evening or on weekends and it will be populated not as a place of cultural tourisms but as a social space. The hairdresser, the baker, the market, the library, the train station and the midday meal all become part of a public, daily and weekly cycle that is not fabricated like the obsession with coffee, chocolate and eatertainment but lived.

CGD is the most diverse municipality in the State of Victoria with 56% of its population born overseas. It is the only area in Melbourne where the majority of people (51%) are from non-English speaking countries. It has the largest recently arrived migrant intake of any municipality and, being home to one fifth of all humanitarian settlement across metropolitan Melbourne, has the highest refugee intake in the State. Among the 156 birthplaces of its residents are Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India and its most recently arrived refugees are from the wars of Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Burma, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

The economic and political centre of CGD is Central Dandenong. Like Footscray, Central Dandenong is one of six Central Activity Districts in the Melbourne Planning Scheme for a multi centred metropolis with a 60-kilometre radius at its outer limit. Over $250 million of investment is being made to deliver high-density housing in Central Dandenong. Government policy has not been able to harness the notion of diversity in planning principally because the only tenure is home ownership. Any development of infrastructure and amenity is predicated upon and results in what Henri Lefebvre describes as the “pulverization of space” The impact is being felt in CGD with property prices recently rising by one third

In Central Dandenong you will encounter refugees who have just been released from what has been described as worse than prison. Under Australia’s mandatory detention laws, asylum seekers are incarcerated for processing in detention centers either on islands or in remote locations far from urban centers. This has been in effect since the mid 1980’s under all governments. Many of the refugees are escaping the wars of Australian involvement over the last decade in Iraq and the subsequent Afghanistan war. While the despicable Temporary Protection Visas have been abolished and there is now no fear of forced repatriated for asylum seekers, children are still being held in detention centres under governments of all persuasions.

By historic comparison and in Springvale (part of CGD) you will see the grandchildren of refugees who fled another war of Australian involvement over 30 years ago: Vietnam. The Vietnamese refugees of the 1970’s and those escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were treated differently upon arrival in Australia in the era that gave birth to the notion of multiculturalism in Australia. Under the Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser and in less than a decade (1975 – 1983) 90,000 Vietnamese refugees alone came to Australia. While most were processed offshore in camps in South East Asia, 2000 ‘boat people’ were granted entry. Refugees and ‘boat people’ were welcomed into this country not in detention centres but through migrant hostels. At the peak of the Indochina refugee crisis, 20,000 refugees were taken for two to three years in a row. Australia’s current annual refugee intake is 13,500.

This history of humanitarian and economic migration in Australia has a built and social form most clearly seen in CGD. In Springvale is the aptly named Enterprise Migrant Hostel that received migrants and refugees from 1969 until 1992. On the surface, the built form of this approach to the provision of migrant services resembles the post modernist’s favourite whipping boy - the prison like institution. That the Enterprise Hostel is now the Lexington Garden’s retirement village with little structural change to the building or grounds is either a testament to the modernist’s foresight or a condemnation of the way we treat our elderly. In either case what is not evident in this building is the continuing attitude of the community towards diversity: essentially open. Openness is a principle characteristic of cosmopolitanism. Springvale is now home to the largest population of people of Cambodian descent and the number of Vietnamese born residents is nearly a quarter of the population of this area.

At the other end of CGD in Dandenong Central is the produce Market, operating from its current site since 1926 and historically in this city from the middle of the 19th Century. In part through its historic significance and in large part through the migrant and refugee influence on the City of Greater Dandenong, the local government has invested in cultural and social facilities: a $12million theatre and a $15 million upgrade of the market place. There are few if any municipalities outside of central Melbourne that have an open-air market place like Dandenong

Language is the other key influence on this city that has the most diverse spoken languages and the largest number of language schools in Metropolitan Melbourne. Across the municipality, the public libraries have the longest opening hours of any municipality outside central Melbourne and are education and language centers. Importantly the libraries are social spaces. This has been achieved through the retention of the library infrastructure and management in local government hands and the upgrade and expansion of these services and facilities is the next major capital investment. The maintenance of a mother tongue across two and three generations is a curious quality in a monolingual country like Australia but CGD is the exception not the rule.

CGD holds the promise of a living debate not about multiculturalism as such but about our place in the world and the world in our place, a cosmopolitanism that is “mundane and banal” in the best sense of these words – everyday and ordinary.

Anthony McInneny
Architects for Peace, September 2010


beatriz said...

Thanks for introducing us to this authentically vibrant part of Melbourne. Perhaps arch-peace should consider focusing and tapping on current projects there--is that a possibility?

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