Talking about suburbs

One Monday evening a little while ago I was listening to the radio on my way home and found myself laughing at a radio play on Triple R. The radio sketch featured two young men talking, with one seeking to find out, ‘Is it normal to think about suburbs?.. What about more than one suburb at once?’

Aside from us PhD candidates sometimes getting a little too excited about any pop-culture reference that touches on our research, it was of particular interest to me as us Melbournians do seem to be quite keen to talk about suburbs. ‘Which part ofMelbourneare you staying in?’ has always seemed a pretty safe question to ask new arrivals toMelbourne. It can lead to a bit of conversation but it also helps work out what their experiences of the city so far might be like. Suburbs do function as social indicators, but I never thought asking about which suburb a person lived in as being an overly intrusive question.

Researchers, such as Deborah Warr have been looking at ‘stigma’ associated with poor suburbs. However, inMelbourneat least, all sorts of social attributes are mapped onto various suburbs. Hair cuts, outfits, music, menus, household structures, professions, and political views of certain types are associated with certain suburbs. If I say that a music video is ‘very Smith Street Collingwood’, chances are many people would have an image in their head.

In some ways the identities ascribed to places have some degree of connection with reality because they can be self-fulfilling. A few years ago moving into aBrunswickshare house was the goal for many of my fellow students and I have known families who moved from inner suburbs toSt Andrewsfor the ‘good community feel’. At least amongst other people I know in my age group, there seems to be a north Vs south of the river divide. It seems to be quite common for people who work in the city to be willing to live in Thornbury, or evenCoburg, if they cannot find a place in Northcote but not to have even considered Caulfield.

Suburbs impact on our lives because they are physically located in relation to other places and offer different pros and cons for transport. Many of the people I know who have moved to Port Melbourne in the past couple of years have said they did so because of the location. However, how does the way we talk about suburbs reflect, shape or misrepresent the characteristics of the people we find there?

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