Coburg Mix

Coburg is changing – I’ve had this conversation many times, one of the most memorable was with another resident in the Victoria Street Mall. I liked the changes and he didn’t, was this simply a matter of different tastes? He didn’t like the café culture although he couldn’t explain what was wrong with people talking and enjoying life. I enjoy having more good cafes and restaurants within walking distance of my home. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like the changes but he kept on talking about the way things used to be. In the end I could only conclude that he just didn’t like change.

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Coburg cannot simply be seen simply as a working class suburb in the north of Melbourne. Coburg is a mix of the old and new, people from around the world, a mix that creates a friendly atmosphere on the liminal zone.  Coburg is now in the liminal zone the inner and outer suburbs but it was once a rural village just to the north of Melbourne. The basic structure of Coburg was laid out in the late 19th century when it was still a rural village aspiring to be a city. The row of churches, the grid of major streets, the pubs, the cemetery, and the civic and recreational spaces had been created before the population boomed.

Coburg remains a mix, a muddled merger, a blend that hasn’t been homogenized into one substance. All there are many elements in this mix from the rural and urban, the mix of prison and industry, the mix of nationalities and a mix of classes. The mansions along the Avenue and the Grove are an indication the wealth of some people who lived in Coburg in the late 19th century.

Mansion in Coburg

Mansion in Coburg

Richard Broome often comments in his book, Coburg – between two creeks, on this mix even when Coburg became a largely working class suburb in the 1920 – 70s. (p.215) Broome comments on the aspirations of Coburg’s blue-collar employees, reflected in the higher than average home ownership in the suburb. Coburg as suburb with high home ownership; even in the Great Depression there were only a handful of repossession in Coburg. Home ownership makes people, in a classic Marxist sense, not working class as they have capital. Although Coburg did have a large number of factory workers during the 1920 – 70s as the factories closed down the population mix changed yet again and Coburg became a dormitory suburb.

The micro-suburbs like Connan’s Hill on the border of Coburg. Or “the Toorak of the north” as the original publicity claimed for the new suburb of Merlynston. Both of these mico-suburbs were urbanized post WWI before they were all farmland.

Coburg’s Chinese population arrived along with the European settlement of the area and specialized in market gardening. Chinese market gardens opposite the Coburg Town Hall; the land was acquired by the city, although there were still Chinese working market gardens along the Merri Creek into the 1970s. The presence of the Chinese market gardens was marked by a piece of pavement art in the park. Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski pavement painting ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) first exhibited as part of the Moreland Sculpture Show (it was in chalk then and was on a different piece of pavement), now the painting has gone too.

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

The mix of Coburg is one of its many attractions; it makes for great people watching. I love walking or cycling around the suburb, I can do almost all my shopping locally and dine out locally. I do have to leave the suburb for art galleries and most of my live entertainment.

Coburg is an area of land bounded by the Merri and Moonee Valley creeks. The Moonee Valley creek is now just a large concrete drain but the Merri Creek is now an attractive place, recovering from its badly polluted state in the late 20th century. Coburg has changed from a village to a city, to a dormitory suburb, to a shopping and business hub. Coburg has changed since Europeans stole the land from the aborigines but it is now being done with greater taste. There is a greater sensitivity to preserving the local character. There are a surprising number of heritage listed buildings and heritage overlays in Coburg. Developers are preserving art deco facades of factories (see my post on Art Deco Coburg) and homeowners are restoring Federation era houses, renovating the interiors for the 21st century. There was plenty of insensitive development in Coburg in the 1960-80. Now there are many new construction sites along Sydney Road many of the old shops, garages and warehouses are coming down. The “Hygenic Building” still stands but the dairy behind it has long gone.

I didn’t realize the passions raised by these changes in Coburg until I wrote my first blog Coburg 2010. But it is still out there, last week I got of pamphlet from the Save Coburg campaign. This is often the parochial politics of the current gentrification of a suburb, the financial and emotional attachment to the home, the financial pressures to move, the loss of rental spaces for students and other low-income groups. If you want to make really intelligent comments on this aspect of redevelopment then I suggest that you first read Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979); far too few people have read this brilliant book. Thompson describes the chaos mathematics of the forces operating to depopulated former inner city slums and makes them attractive places to gentrify.

For more on the history of Coburg you can read Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) but I must warn you that it is a boring local history with too much focus on details and not enough narrative. Broome had made full use of the archives but struggles to make a history out the material collected and his frequent contemporary asides are not an alternative to analysis.

About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “Coburg Mix

  • Malcolm Gunn

    Great item, Mark. I like the way you muse on the conversation you had with a resident. We all know old Coburghers… it’s interesting to tease out “what Coburg was” to get make sense of its special character now.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Malcolm, it is difficult to write about local history without it becoming dull details but it is worth trying to put into the local into words. I love people watching in Coburg because of the incredible mix.

  • L

    hi, i am currently researching on the ageing population in Coburg, and trying to come up with an architectural intervention that tackles this issue (of ageing, giving the elderly a place to meet outside of their homes, coming up with programmes etc.) and would love to hear your opinion on this matter.. wondering if you have any advice / information on this?
    this is all rhetorical, of course, just for a school project. cheers!

    • Mark Holsworth

      Hi L, Sorry about the delay in replying as I’m traveling. You should take a close look at Victoria Street Mall in Coburg, especially the public seating around the library.

  • L

    thanks for this piece, too! gives me a little insight on what it was like, and what’s to come in Coburg

  • jonckher

    Thanks for this. I was told by someone that there used to be market gardens along the Merri creek and was glad to find out they were chinese some presumably lasting from the 1870s ( my grandparents are from China).

    • Mark Holsworth

      There were lots of Chinese market gardens in Coburg and some continued well into the 20th Century. They were mostly along the Merri Creek and on the land opposite the Coburg Town hall, where the park and indoor swimming pool now are. There are also a small Chinese section of the Coburg cemetery.

    • jonckher

      cool. I didn’t know about the chinese section in the Coburg cemetery.

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