By Laura Donati
Today Sydney Road is portrayed as the contented and harmonious face of multiculturalism. The road, positioned within the ethnically diverse Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg is, as one publicity blurb put it, one of the finest places in Melbourne to engage with interesting people and lifestyles from all over the world. Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries share the streetscape with Asian grocers, Greek cake shops and delicatessens, halal butchers and retro cafes, Islamic clothing shops and African hairdressers. Its footpaths are crowded with pierced bodies, women in hijabs, youths wearing the latest fashion, elderly men congregating, women in mourning black and a seemingly endless stream of children in prams. Trams and cars, together with an array of languages, provide an audible expression to the visual chaos that is Sydney Road. On first impression, the streetscape appears to substantiate Moreland City Council's motto of 'one community, proudly diverse'.
Sydney Road is a road that has many faces, depending on which expression one chooses to ascribe to it. Not only is it a multicultural wonderland, but also Mecca for would-be-brides, a dreamscape for the thrifty or the culinary minded on a shoe string budget, a commercial streetscape endeavouring to promote its relevancy and viability in the age of shopping malls and a straight run, albeit a slow one, for those seeking a northerly passage to or from Melbourne. Within Brunswick, the southern end of Sydney Road skirts the edge of hip and is the latest place to be for those seeking a slice of Bohemia, some live music or the local arts. Coburg's stretch tenuously retains its local, down to earth shopping precinct atmosphere. It is an old road, worn by both time and use, and chaotic with its constant motion and allusions of better times long past. Simultaneously, though, it possesses an energy that is difficult to quantify but one that is almost palpable, an energy that is sustaining and life affirming.
Like the energy that Sydney Road radiates, a strong sense of community is both life affirming but difficult to quantify. It is a concept that may be considered airy fairy by some people but is one that is vital since it is about sustaining people, about sustaining culture in a way that enables people to feel that they belong. It offers people a sense of place. The late Graham Little said "place enables us: feeling at home where we are makes us effective where homesickness debilitates; the loss of our place is a loss of at least part of ourselves." Being part of a community allows us to feel safe, nurtured and not alone as we become part of a wider group. A strong sense of community not only allows people to contribute and be heard, thereby making them feel valued, but promotes a sense of belonging and self, which in turn, encourages success and fulfillment.
Yet communities are complex things. They are fragmented and multifaceted with a somewhat subjective meaning. For some people, it is defined by municipal boundaries or geography yet for others it is defined by gender, ethnicity, religion or something else. All people belong to numerous communities simultaneously. While people living within the geographical boundary lines of Brunswick and Coburg may constitute two communities, within them there are communities of women, of men, of Greeks and Arabs, of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, of heterosexuals and homosexuals, of single parents and so on, each with their own shared experiences, values and characteristics. Consequently, the notion of community is not only inclusive but also exclusive as it reflects who and what we are but also who and what we are not.
While the ideal of community is often portrayed as all-encompassing and nurturing with warm fuzzy edges, the reality is sometimes different. Sometimes communities clash as loyalties, behaviours and expectations are questioned. The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated Brunswick and Coburg's not so harmonious multicultural community in its ugly reality when some Muslim women were abused by a small but angry section of the community. One woman had her hijab ripped off by two men while exiting a tram on Sydney Road, another was spat on and another woman was called a 'bloody wog' and told to "go back to your own country" as she walked along a Brunswick street. During that period, some Brunswick residents questioned people's community spirit and just where their loyalties lay. In writing a letter to the editor of a Brunswick newspaper, one woman voiced her concerns when she said "personally I have no objection to people of any race, colour or creed but I do believe that if they wish to live in Australia and enjoy the benefits here, their first loyalty should be to Australia, not their ethnic backgrounds." For some people, community and ethnic loyalties were mutually exclusive as if simultaneous allegiances to their geographical and Muslim communities was impossible. Consequently, Moreland City Council's motto of 'one community, proudly diverse', is perhaps more of an ideal rather than a reality for some Brunswick and Coburg residents.
The notion of community is a fluid construct. It is continually changing as communities shift and personal allegiances change. Until the mid twentieth century, notions of community were fostered and strengthened by involvement with social institutions, from churches and schools to recreational clubs and sporting clubs. Neighbourhoods centered around such places and allowed people to share common experiences, to foster common goals and to conform to common ideals and principles. Yet nowadays, the social institutions that were the pillars of local communities have eroded and no longer command the same place in society. Gentrification has also exacerbated such changes. Church attendances have dwindled, sporting clubs have amalgamated or folded and people move from suburb to suburb, thereby severing ties to place, requiring them to tentatively construct new ones. Allegiances are no longer with the neighbourhood institutions but elsewhere, whether it be a school or club two suburbs away.
Despite changes to its form and content, Brunswick and Coburg continue to have a strong sense of community which is evident in the many volunteer groups, festivals and events that take place each week in the two suburbs. Yet where once it was spontaneously expressed, its public expression is now more contrived and introverted. Consequently, Sydney Road has lost some of its importance as a place where people can collectively nurture and foster a community spirit as much of it takes place now behind closed doors. During World War One women spontaneously took to the streets banging their pots and pans and church bells rang after news of an important strategic victory. Until death and mourning became a private event, funeral processions made their way along Sydney Road and the road came to a stand still as businesses pulled down their blinds and people stood still as they mourned the loss of a member of their community. Such events allowed people to come together, to feel they belong and to share an array of emotions, experiences, and, as time passed, memories. Such events no longer happen but other community-strengthening events have taken their place. Protest marches and rallies have become popular along Sydney Road as a means of addressing perceived wrongs, whether it be against the war on terror or cuts to public transport. Street parties have also become popular and Moreland City Council has used them to actively foster and promote a community spirit, especially in relation to the annual Sydney Road Street Party. The street party was created in 1989 when Brunswick City Council decided that the annual mayoral ball was inappropriate as it did not reflect the community of Brunswick. Rather than hold another elitist and expensive dance, the council decided it would hold a family day in the park, complete with free entertainment and food stalls. Over time, the family day metamorphed into the Sydney Road Street Party which now attracts thousands of people. Whilst shop keepers take advantage of the opportunity to ply their trade during the party, the Sydney Road Street Party is more than just a commercial enterprise. Instead, it is a day where people can come together, share common experiences, feel proud of their multicultural suburb and nurture the many facets of its community. During the 2004 party, local clubs and institutions lined the road, from a myriad of political organisations to the Abruzzo Club, the local kindergartens, the Brunswick Community History Group and the Save the Brickworks people. Arab men sold corn on the cob, belly dancers wiggled their hips and teenagers watched graffiti artists create works of art. The harmonious and bustling street party reminds local residents of the value of community and of its strong history. It also gives hope to the thought that perhaps one day Moreland will live up to the motto of 'one community, proudly diverse'.
also: Local history in a global age