As a bleeding heart leftie, it’s fair to say I’ve spent my share of time on the soapbox espousing the evils of gentrification.
Gentrification can be described as the slow sweep of the middle-class elite into urban areas that have been made cool by the edgy reality of ordinary working communities. They’re drawn to the area by the promise of a unique and vibrant culture that has been built out of the grassroots evolution of a community; and then, once happily ensconced in the suburb, they use their economic and political capital to gradually price the original residents out of the area.
Braddon is a good example of this.
Once the stomping ground of revheads and the working man, and the occasional hipster who made it far enough up Lonsdale St to get to the few fashion stores right up the top end – it’s now a bourgeois home to overpriced coffee and cramped apartments that are rented at ridiculous amounts to the yuppie tenant who likes the vibe there.
(I would know. I was myself a yuppie tenant living on Lonsdale St, buying my fresh ground coffee from Barrio and almond croissants from Sonoma.)
As an economic mechanism, gentrification is damaging to communities and relies on market pressures to keep cycling new people with more money into areas deemed to have land value but the wrong type of resident.
But the flip side of that is that more infrastructure spending follows, and amenities are upgraded according to the expectations of the new middle-class community that wants things to be a certain way.
And having now moved my yuppie/hipster self further north, I can’t help but wonder if a little gentrification might be exactly what Dickson shops needs.
Just across the road from the shopping complex, the main drag of restaurants and cafes in Dickson seems to have escaped the tawdry reality of their neighbours. There are clean pavements and a smorgasbord of places to eat and drink.
It’s pleasant enough and retains the area’s reputation as the heart of Canberra’s Asian dining, but the shops seem to be getting grimier and less welcoming with every passing year.
Like most inner north residents, I’m faced with the weekly dilemma of either spending way too much buying my groceries from IGAs, navigating the hell that is the Canberra Centre to access Coles and Aldi, or doing the dreaded trip to Dickson Woolies.
Despite my better instincts, I usually succumb to the geographic convenience of Dickson and brave the Woolies, even though I am yet to ever leave the place feeling anything other than frazzled and stressed.
The dingy exterior of the shopping centre, with its weird orientation and little alleyways filled with scraps of human detritus, combined with the annoyingly jammed carpark, the uneven pavements, and the sheer disconnect between the size of the supermarket versus the huge number of people in the surrounding regions, fills me with dread.
Two friends on recent occasions have told me stories of being heckled in the car park of Dickson Woolies. One copped a racist slur. Another, who was there with her girlfriend, had to endure homophobic taunts (both times by people who appeared to be sleeping rough or at least loitering in the area, seemingly vagrants).
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want Dickson shops to become another glossy, inaccessible, overpriced precinct, or to lose the important amenities of the library, local retailers, and the longstanding cafes that have been in the courtyard for eons. Public areas are for all people, and that absolutely includes the poor, homeless and suffering who may come to Dickson to access shops and health professionals, and the bustle of community.
But I also want vulnerable members of our community to be able to easily access the resources they need, and it stands to reason that this could be more easily achieved if the space was given a bit of a spruce up. A rearranging of the infrastructure to make it less dark and creepy and more open and inviting, a bus stop that was closer than the interchange perhaps, and obviously a massive improvement to the Woolies or the addition of a Coles that we’ve been waiting for now for years would all help.
Why has this public area been left to languish for so long and what will it take for the breeze of gentrification – as problematic as it can be – to unleash at Dickson shops?