Gentrification is threatening the eccentric character of West Footscray. The sleepy sidekick to Footscray is in flux.
West Footscray, with a population around 10,000 is also known as Wefo (a tongue in cheek reference to Soho) which is also a Twitter hashtag. Social media posts show a pride in the place.
Developers are planning more four storey money-makers, while the suburb’s stalwarts are working out ways to keep the kookiness.
A barefoot bicycle rider, without a helmet, carries a basket of washing on his handlebars. He shows an anything goes “live and let live” approach, ambling along the footpath past Bollywood Fashion and the halal butcher, taking in the spicy wafts from an Indian supermarket in Barkly Village.
The wall at Buzz Barbers features male models with ’80s blow waves. It’s unlikely any customer has walked out with likeness to the looks, nor wanted to. The fittings are further outdated by the street-style art a few doors up, where the new bearded breed has just moved in. The young buck is boldly challenging the original.
There’s also a jumbled tool and parts shop competing with a Bunnings up the road.
Rino Vari has declared the family fruit shop organic after it was established by his migrant father over 50 years ago. He watches the streetscape, as if willing the change he predicts. Gourmet is on the way.
There still remains many houses established by Italian and Greek migrants, some with fruit trees, bees and chickens. It contrasts Footscray’s high-density university renters and Yarraville’s yummy mummies.
One local reported a stigma when she bought, leaving a prestige postcode in the east to follow three daughters and discover “west is best”.
In West Footscray 15 years ago, a three bedroom house sold for high $200,000s. “The cultural mix attracted us,” church op-shop worker Joanne Scanlan explains.
“If you don’t know someone by name, you know them by face.”
Our conversation is disturbed by a supported woman with psychological issues graphically describing armageddon debauchery to strangers. Kindly waiting for the interruption to pass, Scanlan resumes.
“They come here for comfort. Having differences embraced by our children at a young age was important to us. It’s what makes Melbourne,” she said.
West Footscray primary school is now at capacity and has been zoned, illustrating the latest demographic change from elderly couples to young families.
Another local said: “We bought by default. It was all we could afford to buy. If we bought a house now, we wouldn’t be able to live where we are.”
The median house price is now $885,000, according to the Domain Group’s latest figures. The Real Estate Institute of Victoria’s figures put it at an increase of 75 per cent in the past five years.
REIV president Joseph Walton explains: “Given its proximity to the city, West Footscray continues to offer value for money with a median house price well below the inner city median of almost $1.4 million.”
Mary Long runs bustling art space “Post Industrial Design” which philosophically resists the notion of a throwaway society, rebels against populist thought and thinks minimalism can be boring. It co-exists with Pod café, where locals sometimes donate produce from their gardens.
The menu includes home-made rhubarb and ginger cordial and all the furniture is handmade one-offs. The feature dining table was sculpted by Long’s husband Jos Van Hulsen, who used part of a printing machine from The Age. He refashions found objects to preserve history.
Long loves West Footscray, saying its big-hearted working class roots remain.
It was where Olympian Frank Beaurepaire set up the Olympic Tyre and Rubber Factory in 1934, after seeing that the motor car was replacing the horse and “people’s desire to motor was so great that they would pay more than a week’s salary for a tyre”. After merging with Dunlop, the business employed over a thousand people of many nationalities.
The site has been redeveloped as Banbury Village, including 430 houses and apartments, serviced by a revamped West Footscray station, 5 stops from the city.
“West Footscray is the last inner city bastion where neighbours make you soup if you’re sick,” Long says. “It’s close to a small country town without the small-mindedness.
“It’s very cosmopolitan and inclusive of difference.”
Supported residential care is nearby and Long knows and understands the clients, observing community care for people who are less fortunate.
Actor William McInnes is another “old school” resident whose animator wife Sarah Watt formed part of the neighbourhood’s creative set before her passing in 2011. Baby Guerilla, a renowned paste-up street artist also recently used West Footscray as a base.
Maribyrnong mayor Catherine Cumming works in the suburb, which may be the reason why residents report a recent infrastructure improvement burst after Yarraville and Seddon had their turn at the rates kitty.
But a traders association has been established to lobby for seating, parks and lighting and to rebrand the Barkly Street strip. It was recently closed for an enthusiastically embraced Hindu Holi Festival – the throwing of colours.
It’s the type of event which celebrates a unique diversity and urgently stamps identity where it could soon be lost.
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