I spent the summer between 2013 and 2014 as many 20 year-olds do: working at a restaurant. This one was on the corner of Church Street and Phillip Street, Parramatta. It was the type of place that opened at 7am to welcome spandex-sporting cycling groups and old men with newspapers tucked under their arms, and closed as late in the evening as possible.
We were each of us expected to become all-rounders, equally capable of working the espresso machine, mixing cocktails, short-order cooking, taking orders on the floor or cashing out at the register – which was to say that we were all equally shit at everything, and so the food was systematically under- or over-cooked. Cups of coffee, when transported to a table, would slosh helplessly into saucers. This made us appear even less competent than we were. Few of us could coax a stabilising foam out of the old espresso machine, the steaming wand of which was permanently encrusted with dried, old milk.
There was no air-conditioning to speak of, and as a career sweater I was frequently being advised to mop my upper lip by concerned workmates. Fortunately, the restaurant’s main wall was composed of two folding glass doors, which we would push to the sides to let in some air, allowing customers to sit on couches facing the foot traffic and feel as if they were outside too. We had a fly problem that was so bad that customers demanded we close these doors to stop them coming in. I never knew how to tell them the flies came from inside.
Shifts were between ten and twelve hours long, and I could rarely convince anyone to take my spot on customer-facing floor duty, even though we were supposed to rotate. By the end of the day, I found it impossible to emote any longer. My facial muscles were locked in a rictus, the after-image of sustained smiling. For close, two of us would be left to clean up, only paid to work up to 12.30am, but unlikely to knock off before 2; one of us would toss buckets of soapy water over the toilet floors and hope it knocked out some of the flies, the other would wipe down food prep surfaces and tables in tight, furious circles, and then push them indoors; and then we would all but run home, stinking and with about six hours before we had to be back.
The wage was $17.49 an hour, no super, and at the end of each shift I would lie awake for hours, unable to sleep because my feet ached so badly. I hated working there and I was desperate to leave. I lasted four months. I was offered another job, selling wine in the Inner West, and quit.
My last night at the restaurant, it was March but still sweltering. At midnight I was waiting for the last two customers to leave. When they called me over to the outside seating area, I said I regretted to inform them I couldn’t offer them another round because we were closed. They happened to be Turkish, so the younger woman said to her friend, ‘Ah! Ama ne guzel kafa çekiyorduk birlikte.’
I smiled, reminded of Istanbul, but remained firm, channelling a sort of desperate authoritarianism. I came very close to rising up and initiating my own one-person workers’ revolution that night but I was too tired to do anything but say goodbye to my compatriots. I went home and never came back.
I wrote some of these mundane details into short stories later: about a kebab shop employee who has to rest her legs perpendicular up her wall so the swelling in her feet will come down; about a young woman who sucks on olives while hidden in the kitchen in order to mainline herself enough salt and fat to make it through the day. It’s important to represent the lived experiences of the working class.
I stopped working hospitality and retail in 2015, fortunate to crack into a white-collar position as a research assistant at my university. Instantly I was earning more than double what I used to make per hour. Because I credited the restaurant with my commie origin story, I felt ambivalent about this newfound class mobility.
In 2017, I found myself back where I began, in Parramatta. I was excited to make a difference in my community through my new job: as a producer for a local literature organisation. The work felt like it was going to be important, and I felt like it had to be me who did it. All my life I had been a chubby, crooked-toothed, glasses-wearing nerd – not a self-declared nerd, either, and therefore the bad kind. I had been fortunate to discover literature at an early age, and spent most of my formative years at Max Webber Library or the Angus & Robertson in Blacktown Westpoint, accumulating a tiny empire of books which I buried myself into, to make up for my dearth of friends or much else.
My love of books and studying did open more material doors for me. For one, it threw me into the priority boarding lane of the ‘Gifted and Talented’ classes at Marayong Primary School. Such opportunities are made available arbitrarily, given that all eight-year-olds are much the same, but the die was cast. This leg-up got me into a selective high school, which then enabled me to study English literature and Spanish literature and post-colonial and Marxist theory at the University of Sydney, all of which had, by the year 2017, dyed my wool fully red and radical.
On the other hand, though, wasn’t I a sell-out? Surely I was placing distance between myself and regular people with all my sit-down jobs and book-learning, despite the fact that it was my cahil father who taught me the word capitalism, and which he meant as a pejorative.
I took great pains to remind myself that this literary work was radical in its own way. It was meaningful. Technically, it was the same work as anti-racism: there were young people of colour in Western Sydney, like me, who needed to be told that their stories were important and that they shouldn’t be ashamed to tell them; that they could write; and that they needn’t stage their work in Parisian apartments or English meadows that they had never visited. I was like a drunk at a bar buying everyone else a round, trying to share my good feeling, convinced that the sublime object which had liberated me – books and literature – could liberate everyone else too.
On my triumphant return to Parramatta, I was struck by all that had changed.
The graveyards of cigarette butts on the outdoor seating areas of Church Street were gone, thanks to the new smoke-free laws. When I had been working, we would tell customers in a low voice that while we couldn’t supply them with ashtrays we could sneak them take-away piccolo-size coffee cups filled with a little water to butt into. More than half of the hookah joints had been forced to shut their doors for this reason. In their place stood familiar Inner West and Inner City institutions: Bourke St Bakery, Jamie’s Italian, Gelato Messina. The famous Hungry Jack’s building, which was the site of stabbings, drug deals, and cheeky chunders, which was closed down in 2013, had now been ripped away, along with the old library where I had previously spent hundreds of hours tutoring high schoolers (another example of my early fixation on transmitting the Power of Knowledge). These mainstays had been cleared to make room for the linkage between Parramatta Square and the Parramatta River foreshore, which was set to beautify, elevate, the area, and render it more habitable to wholesome families and public servants.
Even the Roxy, Parramatta’s most iconic building, had been left functionless. Although it was long notable for being a little sketch, the building was pristine in my eyes: clean vertical lines in white, touches of red tile, a sumptuous quantity of rounded archways. Perturbed, and shuffling now down the street with my head buried in my phone, I pulled up an article announcing that the Roxy would soon be transformed into an office tower. Restaurants, cafes and shops at ground level, the original façade, and a hulking spire of glass offices built up on top, and liable to send Fredric Jameson into a tailspin.
Parramatta was well on its way to becoming Sydney’s ‘Second City’. Several government offices had made the move for the cheaper rent, and the transition to high-rises was going strong. All along the river new housing was being built, boutique hotels as well as serviced apartments. Western Sydney University’s Parramatta campus had been erected, as if overnight, while I was gone, and its red logo drew the eye like a laser pointer. When I started attending workshops at nearby high schools, the students of a local school had been moved to a temporary campus, and were being taught out of demountables connected by wobbly, plastic ramps, which, a teacher informed me, had been thrown up in two months. The school was set to re-open as a high-rise. One of the students isn’t taking it well, she remarked. He likes to go outside and let his feet touch the ground on occasion, feel the grass – it helps him think.
Still, it felt a little nice, too. The next day, I rolled in at 8am. I was running early to meet a writing mentor. To kill time, I grabbed a muffin and a coffee from Bourke St Bakery, quite chuffed that the influx of bourgeois taste had finally brought in the type of latte I was used to sipping in the Inner West – soy, with a floret on top to boot, something I had never quite learned to make myself, and which altered nothing about the experience except the symbolic. The addition of latte art suggested care and value, for me and my impressive feat of owning four dollars. Latte-sipping is over-saturated as a metonym of ridicule by now, but I do believe it has something potent to say about the passage I had completed through the velvet ropes of labour relations. Debord described such a transition in his 1967 The Society of the Spectacle:
once [their] workday is over, the worker is … redeemed from the total contempt toward them that is so clearly implied by every aspect of the organisation and surveillance of production, and finds themselves seemingly treated like a grownup, with a great show of politeness, in his new role as a consumer.
I lazed like a veritable bon vivant on one of the new, brightly painted benches, which faced the water feature in the centre of Parramatta Square, watched pedestrians pass, most of them in dress shirts and pencil skirts. Outside the Town Hall the Council had placed a ping-pong table, and I observed a beefy tradie in yellow high-vis playing against a short, older man in a puffy vest. What a multi-cultural utopia, I thought, putting out my foot to halt the ping-pong ball on its roll away from the players.
Wandering down the streets of Parramatta or Harris Park now, it is hard not to be lulled into a temporary state of safety and respectability. The night lives of these suburbs – supposedly – have been newly re-oriented around sitting down to a $25 meal at six, chucking back a handful of mukhwas at eight, and home and in bed by nine, rather than the fantasies the Daily Telegraph might previously have had us entertain about being carjacked or punched-on.
Still, and mukhwas notwithstanding, people like me have been conditioned to recognise gentrification as a social harm. Something enacted by right-wing governments and the white middle class who, first need to step out of their hemp outfits and then go straight to getting fucked. We are agreed that we should do all we can to halt its effects, and puzzle over how to invite economic development into an area without displacing, or replacing, its existing populace. Governments and activists have experimented with policies geared at achieving this, advocating for zoning controls, taxation incentives and affordable housing minimums that can preserve the social and ethnic make-up of an area.
In Parramatta, anti-gentrification proponents have been focused on halting the arrival of light rail, as well as expanding the North Parramatta heritage precinct, advocating for the preservation of various terrace houses and villas, as well as Parramatta Gaol, and the Parramatta Female Factory—settlement-area buildings said to capture vital parts of Parramatta’s working class history. This activism is in the vein of that conducted by individuals such as Juanita Nielsen in Potts Point in the seventies, aimed at preventing workers’ cottages and single-storey terrace houses from being torn down and replaced by high density housing for the upper classes. These North Parramatta buildings have taken their place alongside other imperial jewels: Elizabeth Farm, the Macquarie Gate House, the suburb’s churches, the Lancer Barracks, and Old Government House; Parramatta’s cultural touchstones.
I wondered if there was a way for the arts sector to fight one of the battles of the anti-gentrification war. The mission statement of independent American publisher, Akashic Books, for example, is to ‘reverse-gentrify’ US literature. It was possible, I thought, to do something with the burgeoning sums of money that had been allocated for the arts in Parramatta. Western Sydney has been in recent years designated a ‘priority area’ for government arts funding, both as an election tactic and for the arts’ supposed crime and violence prevention benefits, which in fact makes the arts a part of the police-industrial complex, and all of us harmless cardigan-wearing bespectacled arts workers technically cops. Still, people like me could ensure that such funding went towards improving skills and opportunities for the people who already lived here, and who genuinely needed it.
After my fourth month as a Parramatta arts worker it was difficult to avoid the reality that, for the most part, the individuals who were finding our public events and opportunities were not those I had imagined. A great many already possessed certain resources. Free time. An a priori level of wealth which made them entertain the idea that they could legitimately pursue writing for themselves or their children. The knowledge of how to look these things up; or the sense of possibility required to believe that there was anything to look up. Unfortunately, although our costs were pegged as low we could manage, several locals nonetheless advised us that they couldn’t afford our programs.
And I should have known this; it’s not as if I had written any optional words between the years 2010 and 2015, not as if I had attended any workshops or readings. I was busy, trying not to cark it, tunnel-visioning via the strength of my focus on just surviving and then thriving, working my way into a comfortable position in life through brute force. Only after that had the words burbled up.
As an under-resourced and under-staffed organisation, it was easier to go where we knew there was need than to manufacture demand. Many of the students we engaged with our public programs were children of colour, of course, and very cute, and I enjoyed watching them develop pride and confidence in their budding voices. But, equally, they were often part of families who planned to also send their kids to tutoring colleges, or wanted them to engage in literature to improve their prospects of securing university entry. The children of parents who read to their kids because one of them could afford not to work—or because they could read, in English or at all.
We in the literary community are often guilty of romanticising the plights and output of decorated writers who mop floors or clean buildings. I think it is more important not to impute bootstrapping narratives onto the stories of people like myself or others fighting worse structural oppressions, who make writing or the arts work by cleaning toilets or mixing drinks: we represent overwhelming exceptions to the general rule that ‘one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ Possession of the means to write is strong evidence of, on average, a not-quite-proletarian status.
Parramatta, though, has been home to a significant middle class, immigrant or not—not always, but for a good long while. Certainly the area has long been derided by the intelligentsia and elites for its supposedly elevated crime rate, its lack of social and cultural facilities, and for its preponderance of brown and black folk and public housing. However, Sydney’s western suburbs have also been zones of affluence and comfort for settlers. Post-war Coalition and Labor governments sponsored home ownership in Western Sydney, and facilitated the mass construction of homes with backyard pools and barbecues and Hills Hoists. As Michael Bounds and Alan Morris note, securing ‘the detached home in suburbia was the backbone of the Australian dream,’ and the Australian dream is inextricable from the colonisation of this continent. Any account of the evil of gentrification in Parramatta which overlooks the root of that evil, colonisation, is doomed, therefore, to remain either ahistorical or apolitical.
Parramatta has often felt like homeground to me – fifteen minutes on the train from where I grew up in Blacktown, and so a prime spot for shopping, socialising, picnics and nights out. For over a decade, sitting beside my father in his ute, driving from Blacktown to Parramatta to Auburn – Sydney’s Turkish diasporic centre, on our way to purchase something from a specialty grocer or sweets store – he would point out at the occasional house, his eyes flickering for a moment before returning to the road.
‘Bak.’ I would dutifully swivel my head. ‘Ben o evi yaptım.’
I would give the requisite ‘Wow’, remark facetiously on the straightness of the bricks, and ask questions designed to draw out choice anecdotes he wanted to tell. But I did genuinely feel a little buoyed. We had made our mark upon these parts, our family, having made the migration in the eighties poor, and building ourselves up, brick by brick.
In Europe, primarily France and Germany, countries which have significant diasporic populations, one of the foremost racist stereotypes that exists about Turks is that that we make reliable builders, and good bosseurs. Unlike other Middle Easterners, Turks aren’t lazy, but rather work hard, running kebab shops or engaging in masonry. It’s part pat on the head, part slap in the face, given that Turks rebuilt a destroyed Germany after the war—their labour was imported en masse through guestworker programs, with the end goal of booting everyone back out when all was done. Turks were viewed as an unassimilable population, due to their status as Muslims, and as such needed to be sent back to where they came from and permanently denied avenues to citizenship. The status of Turks as builders and ‘hard workers’ in Europe, therefore, tends to denote their status as perpetual other, a domestic alien or kanak, and signifies their permanent assignation to the working class—tireless creators of homes for a nation which does not want the builders of those homes to ever live in one themselves.
But, Western Europe is not Australia. Here, people like my father and me have built on top of other things, directly and violently. As Randah Abdel-Fattah has written, Turks were the first Muslims to be allowed to immigrate into Australia under post-war migration, in 1967, and have endured racism and Islamophobia since. However, the relaxation of Australia’s immigration policies, which allowed increasing amounts of olive to brown migration and naturalisation at relatively high rates, has much to do with the state’s populate or perish policy, and the desire to settle vast territories stolen from Aboriginal populations more efficiently. Although the Australian suburban identity is today inextricable from whiteness, immigrant labour created the conditions of its possibility.
One of my final acts as a Parramatta arts producer was to compile the research for an app the organisation developed, geared at encouraging on-foot exploration of the suburb and greater engagement with its history and culture. I tracked down archival photographs, pieced together whimsical historical anecdotes about ghosts and windmills, visited and re-visited the Parramatta Heritage Centre, and then took tens of kilometres of walks in order to triangulate the spots I wanted to include.
Finally, I found myself stopped in the middle of Parramatta Park, feet blistered and aching from my office sandals. I stood holding up a piece of paper I had printed out from a study documenting the various trees in the park, some of which still bore visible ‘scars’. These were markings from sections of the tree which had had their bark stripped away by the Burramatta people of the Darug nation, to build canoes. I was mind-fucked by the reminder of how recently colonisation began in what we currently call Australia.
I left this job soon after. Of course, my experiences there are only emblematic of the underlying, structural issues which impact the entire arts sector, and for which no individual organisation is culpable. I am grateful it encouraged me to take a longer view on the gentrification of the suburb. It helped to stop riling me that Parramatta was to become a ‘Second City’, bringing in out-of-towners who had no idea what it was like to grow up in the area, to live through the racism or the terrible hospital waits, or to know all the Turkish restaurant owners by name. Or, it did continue to rile me, but my reasons changed.
Parramatta was New South Wales’ first central business district, not its second, as it was the stronger of the two trade and agricultural hubs before businesses drifted back up-river. With these changes, Parramatta is only reclaiming a status it once already held. Likewise, the arrival of light rail to the area will signify a return; what used to be an extensive tramway was only ripped up in the sixties. It is impossible to form a politically and historically satisfying account of gentrification in Parramatta without going all the way back, and recognising that Parramatta was first, very first, a blak centre, a meeting place bearing economic, cultural and spiritual significance for the aforementioned people of the Darug nations.
What, then, do I make of current anti-gentrification movements in Parramatta? If continual displacement of local populations in the name of ‘development’ is Parramatta’s story, and if displacement did not begin five years ago but two hundred and thirty years ago, what use is there in attempting to freeze its current class and racial composition in amber?
Recognising these tensions goes a long way to identifying the light stink of white supremacy that underpins many urban conservation projects today. Although it is a truism, it is worth underscoring the point that heritage and conservation projects are, in point of fact, conservative. As is clear in the current challenges being faced in having the Brewarrina Fish Traps, one of the oldest human-made structures on earth, World Heritage listed, or preventing a go cart track being constructed on Wahluu, what is considered heritage and what is worth conserving are determined by the powerful. Indeed, ‘defending our heritage’ is a phrase that sits easily in a white supremacist lexicon, and the sites that have been deemed most worthy of protection in Parramatta today bespeak a colonial nostalgia.
Any attempt to restore places like Parramatta from middle-class and white clutches back over to multicultural ones, and to its suburban origins, represents an attempt to reclaim what does not belong to us. The un-gentrification of Parramatta, then, if it is taken far enough, if it is to host a truly radical impulse, is perhaps better called, simply, decolonisation.
To conclude this essay, then, I would like to offer some reflections on what a decolonised Parramatta could look like. I mean to use the word in the least symbolic, figurative, or metaphorical sense possible, but at the same time prefer to remain epistemologically humble. If I thought I knew anything about anything, perhaps I would fare better at holding down a job.
First, I would caution against buying into a discourse about winding back the clock to a pristine past. Such navel-gazing does little for the present, and neglects the persistence of neo-colonial practices of displacement affecting Aboriginal communities right this very second. Indeed, two Indigenous-led ‘anti-gentrification’ movements, whose aims are better dubbed as decolonial, and merit greater attention, concern the Parramatta Girls Home and the Block at Redfern.
Second, I would note that decolonising approaches both to our suburbs and our literature require a more radical approach than the twin mirages of policy reform or symbolic activity. None of this is to undermine the value of symbolic empowerment, or the meaningfulness of self-representation. Only to emphasise the fact that these activities must run alongside material approaches, starting with support for treaty, return of land, and reparations.
Otherwise we have no hope of uplifting more than lucky upwardly-mobile individuals who remain that way, forever individualised, without access to a community. To raise the class status of one person is to create more members of the middle class, piled on top of others less privileged. However, to raise the class status of an entire class is to abolish class. And that doesn’t happen with words, as much as I wish that were the case, for this hobby of mine would feel like less of a hobby and more of a life purpose if that were true. Wealth, land, and the means of production, just as much in literature as anywhere else, require radical redistribution. In the words of poet Alison Whittaker, ‘what I’m looking for is wealth transfer — I’m looking for a shift in the conversation that puts feet on the ground and food on the table.’
This essay was funded by a grant from the City of Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and Stories Research Fund. We’re very grateful for this support.
Michael Bounds and Alan Morris, ‘High-rise gentrification: the redevelopment of Pyrmont Ultimo,’ Urban Design International, vol. 10, 2005, pp. 179-188.
Randa Abdel-Fattah, Islamophobia and Everyday Multiculturalism in Australia, Routledge: London, 2017.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, trans. Ken Knabb.
Alison Whittaker, radio interview on Triple R 102.7FM, September 19 2018.
John Western, Cosmopolitan Europe: A Strasbourg Self-Portrait, Routledge: London, 2016.