The Ashburton Stigma
Few people want to go on record with their pre-conceived judgements and assumptions about Ashburton. Or for any other suburb for that matter. Having written this blog for nearly 18 months, I have accumulated enough anecdotes to confirm that a stigma about Ashburton is real, alive and evolving.
I thought the best way to diffuse the Ashburton Stigma is to acknowledge it and air it out in the open.
Or on the internet.
If there is one thing you learn growing up in good ole ‘egalitarian’ and ‘fair go’ Australia, there’s a stigma attached to EVERYWHERE. It draws on (among other complex things):
· whether you live in the country or the city
· which ‘side’ of a city you live on in relation to its river
· the name of your suburb
· the street you live in
· the size and style of your house
When it comes to the suburbs it even has its own name: Postcode Stigma. Researchers believe postcode stigma stems from Australians’ misplaced belief that there is no class system here. According to this 2020 article published on the ABC website, postcode prejudice is rife in Australia, and Melbourne is no exception.
Capital City Stigma: Other Capital Cities vs Melbourne
When I first told people I was moving to Melbourne from Perth, several acquaintances told me, ‘why would you want to live there? The weather is terrible!’ or ‘everyone wears black all the time, it’s depressing’ or ‘the beach is awful!’
I admit, they weren’t wrong about that last one. Nobody has ever moved from Perth to Melbourne for the beaches.
But then if I told them I was moving to Adelaide they would have responded, ‘Adelaide is so boring!’ Sydney: ‘but it’s so expensive, and the only good thing about it is the harbour!’ Canberra: ‘flat, hot/cold, too many roundabouts’; Brisbane: ‘too humid’; Darwin: ‘too feral’.
You get the picture.
But of course, only people from Perth are allowed to criticise it for its absence of any kind of weekday nightlife and its drivers’ inability to master the concept of merging lanes on the Kwinana Freeway.
To paraphrase the great Taylor Swift: the haters gonna hate hate hate.
No preconceived notions
I moved to Prahran. I chose Prahran because a few people I knew who lived in Melbourne told me it was nice and safe for single people. So I looked the funny-sounding suburb up in the UBD my Mum bought me. She did not know Melbourne either otherwise she would've known about the iconic significance of the Melways – and let me tell you I heard about THAT. But I digress...
Prahran looked close to public transport and the city office I would be working in. I could also afford a two-bedroom apartment there on my own. It was 2004 after all.
Rule 1 of Postcode Stigma: We don’t talk about Postcode Stigma
Soon after moving to Melbourne I discovered two things.
The first was that anyone I met from Perth would always ask the seemingly innocuous question: ‘what school did you go to?’ I figured out that this was so they could place me within their preconceived understanding of the socio-economic demographics of our mutual hometown.
The second was what happened when I met people from the western suburbs and they learned I lived in Prahran. But first, some theory.
Rebecca Wickes, a criminology expert and the director of the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre thinks stigma is a consequence of ‘structural decisions and policies that encourage particular groups of people to live in particular kinds of places’.
Apparently, early city planners tended to set the industrial section of a new town downwind from the living and housing areas so the wealthier residents were not affected by the abhorrent smells of abattoirs, smelters and Vegemite factories. As the city developed, the upwind areas attracted more of the well-to-do and land values rose, pricing middle income people out of the housing market. So they moved further upwind and away from the City. Meanwhile, the working classes lived in the downwind areas so they could be closer to their places of work.
Throw in a pile of racist and religious prejudice; ill-thought out government policy around everything from public transport to recreational space and you’ve got the recipe for Australian postcode stigma.
In Melbourne, this manifests as what I’m going to call the East vs West divide.
East vs West
Here I turn to the good people of Reddit for their anecdotes on the East vs West stigma of Melbourne (from January 2022).
“Living south of the Yarra my whole life, I don’t actually know anyone who’s moved to the north/western suburbs and it seems like another world whenever I’m out that way.”
“As someone from the Western suburbs, I couldn’t live anywhere but the West if I decided to return to Melbourne.”
“Westie here born and bred, I’d move to like 100 countries before I moved to the eastern suburbs.”
I’ve lived on all sides, and would not go back west. Freeway is mental and stressful, road rage was a daily occurrence, people just generally driving like they’re on a race track. It’s flat, there’s no greenery, takes forever to get to the city. Several other reasons.”
“Eastsiders think the Westgate Bridge turns into a black hole to nowhere.”
And my personal favourite:
“Living in Footscray but being from Los Angeles, I laugh when people talk about how sketchy it is.”
There’s ‘leafy green’ Boroondara ... and then there’s Ashburton
Now if you told someone from Melbourne’s West today you’re from Ashburton, the first question would usually be ‘where’s that?’ I usually answer it with ‘around where Chadstone Shopping Centre is’ because that’s a fairly well-known Melbourne landmark these days. Once the inquirer has established that Ashburton is in the ‘eastern suburbs’, the assumption becomes it’s an enclave of the wealthy and privileged.
And for the most part, when it’s compared to the western and outer eastern suburbs, they aren’t wrong.
But if you tell someone who is from any other suburb within Boroondara that you live in Ashburton – particularly those of a Generation that starts with ‘B’ - there’s a good chance you’ll get a variation of the same response you’d get from saying you’re from the west.
'Trashburton': the origins of the Ashburton Stigma
Before I’m accused of Boomer bashing, what I’ve learnt from writing this blog is that the Ashburton Stigma dates far before Baby Boomer living memory. I believe it stems from the City of Camberwell’s long years of civic neglect of its far-eastern jurisdiction. I’ve written about it on the blog often, so I won’t bang on about it again. But I saw it when I was reviewing the City of Camberwell Council Minutes from the 1920s to the 1940s. I could count on two hands how many times Council mentioned Ashburton, let alone actioned any meaningful civic development. One example was the purchase of the land for Ashburton Park in 1924 and the Council’s failure to fund any development of it for eight years in favour of parks in Camberwell and Balwyn.
From reading these minutes it seemed that it wasn’t that Ashburton had a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reputation then; it was more that councillors and residents outside of it never gave Ashburton enough thought to judge it at all.
So when Ashburton became the location of one of the Housing Commission’s post-war housing estates in 1946, it had a reputational blank space in the broader community outside of the suburb. It wasn’t good or bad, it was just ‘there’. But it would not take much to fill this blank space with ‘bad’.
Social housing arrives in the City of Camberwell
It’s my opinion that in the beginning, Ashburton’s original residents didn’t have too much problem with the building of the Housing Commission Estate on the south side of High Street. They were, with the odd doctor and lawyer exception, predominantly of the lower middle classes themselves. Think more insurance salesmen than large business owners.
Since these new houses were intended for family men who had contributed to Australia’s War effort and the vast majority of Australians respected them for their service and sacrifice, nobody begrudged them a free house. Housing construction created jobs and the influx of immigrants needed accommodating. As I wrote in my post about the construction of public libraries in Camberwell and Ashburton, after the post-War period in Australia, governments wanted to show Australians that their sacrifices had not been for nothing. This was a time of considerable cultural, societal and economic renewal.
Fortunately for the Ashburton residents, the new estate was built on un-developed land. Most existing Ashburton residents lived on the north side in the streets clustered around the train station. Since there were few shops or facilities on the south side no-one ever needed to go there. To make things even easier, the Housing Commission built the Estate its own school (Alamein State School) and forbade the children of the Estate from attending Ashburton Primary.
In short, most original Ashburton residents could go about their daily business without ever engaging with the new residents beyond a curt greeting at the grocers.
The stigma evolves
In a 2017 report, University of Sydney social researchers noted that building community engagement and promoting pathways to economic and social inclusion is ‘one of the most vexed policy questions’ for governments. At least by 2017 this was acknowledged as a problem. I suspect in 1946 it was not even a government thought bubble to try and integrate Ashburton’s new social housing residents with the broader community, let alone a policy question.
This was particularly problematic because the entirety of Boroondara never had a strong historical association with providing housing for the working classes in the first place. Unlike Collingwood or Richmond, Boroondara never had slums. By the time the Housing Commission was being built, even humble dwellings found in blue-collar areas of Hawthorn, Camberwell and Kew had begun to be replaced by higher quality houses.
The stigma began around the style of housing first. When the Housing Commission decided in October 1946 that the new houses on the east side of the railway line extension to Alamein would be mostly of a solid brick construction while those on the west side would be of reinforced concrete (50%), solid brick (35%) and brick veneer (15%); the mayor of Camberwell asserted:
‘Camberwell did not want the type of house which the Commission was building.’ He declared ‘these houses were far below the standard of privately built homes [in the area].’
The situation began to compound when responsibility for building the infrastructure for the Estate fell to Camberwell Council. Although the Commission erected the housing in record time, the drainage, sewage, roads and other infrastructure took a few years to take shape. During this time, the Estate looked awful and inhospitable so it is perhaps not surprising that when aesthetics were combined with the absence of any policy of community engagement and strong religious divisions, an assumption developed among the original Ashburton and Boroondara residents that the people who lived in the Housing Estate must be awful and inhospitable too.
The early Housing Estate residents
According to Ashburton resident and former Camberwell Councillor Neville Lee, most servicemen had no choice about the location of their new house. Many of them came from areas far away from Ashburton or were European immigrants. Isolated from their own families and social networks, these new residents formed their own community support based around their street. While some families moved away as soon as they possibly could, others stayed to raise their children.
However, as time passed, it was not long before the very real consequences of the War on the mental and physical health of some of those servicemen began to be felt. Some could not hold down jobs, creating poverty for their families. Others abandoned their families, leaving them destitute. Children grew up with domestic violence and without positive parental role models. Alcohol abuse also put the residents at odds with the strong tradition of temperance prevalent in Ashburton and the broader Boroondara area.
But at the same time, many of these men worked hard, held down their jobs and saved up enough money to buy their house from the Housing Commission. Despite how hard their lives often were, the Housing Commission residents across Ashburton, Jordanville and Oakleigh developed strong traditions of community support. Noted Waverley Council’s Community Services Officer Bryan Sheridan to the Chadstone Progress in 1973,
‘while many people in the [broader] community tend to look down on those living in the Housing Commission areas, there are numerous examples where we would profit in looking at their community spirit.’
He went on to describe how the cash-strapped Commission residents provided food to those in need, looked after the elderly residents, and even accommodated entire families that had fallen on hard times in their small houses.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, it only takes a few bad eggs to spoil the lot.
Social housing stigma
There’s no formal research that I can find into the stigma that developed around the eastern suburbs Housing Commission estates but I believe the results of other social research done in Australia translate readily to this area.
Ashburton’s long defunct local newspaper, Progress Press, often alluded to ‘delinquency’ among local teenagers with a tendency to loiter around milk bars and cause trouble. Blame for this behaviour was laid squarely at the feet of their parents. According to Mrs Quinton, a special magistrate at the Children’s Court, delinquency was caused by a paramount lack of parental control, broken homes, drunkenness and 'unsuitable' films which parents did not bother to supervise.
Attempts at community engagement did occur through an effort to establish a Youth Club in the Alamein area. Although enthusiastically supported, the effort was complicated by the failure of the Housing Commission to set aside space for a ‘boys club’ premises. As the correspondent pointed out, ‘churches reach only 20 per cent of our youth. That leaves 80 per cent in need of your sympathy and interest.’
By 1957, a widespread push across Camberwell to establish Youth Clubs to provide non-religiously affiliated entertainment for young people resulted in a Club starting in the Ashburton Park Pavilion. It lasted a few years and closed due to a lack of parental support. However, the cricket team that sprung from the short-lived Ashburton Youth Club thrived well into the 1980s.
The effect of the stigma on residents
One research study on suburban stigma in Sydney showed that when persistent negative labelling is so pervasive yet so at odds with a resident’s subjective experience the result is anger and frustration among residents. In young men particularly, an attitude of living up to the imposed reputation developed that was then released through violence and gangs. Their poor behaviour then provided critics with the tangible evidence needed to feed the negative perceptions of the neighbourhood.
Research I’m undertaking for the Ashburton Willows Cricket Club supports this finding. There was a clear ‘Us vs Them’ mentality within the preceding Ashburton Cricket Club (ACC) of the 1970s. Although the Club itself predates the Housing Commission by several decades, by this time its membership comprised largely of Housing Commission residents.
‘Discrimination because of religion and/or social status and where one lived – Burwood or Ashburton – was rife from primary school days,’ one former player said.
As the Canterbury Cricket Club historian told me, ‘Canterbury back then was nowhere near the socio-economic level it is now. My neighbours were a plumber and an electrician. But it didn’t matter to Ashburton Cricket Club. They carried a fierce competitiveness against other teams, especially from Canterbury, Deepdene and Mont Albert.’ I must note that he held the players in the highest regard for this despite naming the 1973-74 Grand Final between the two clubs ‘The Bloodbath at Watson Park’.
I’ve also spoken to several gentlemen of a certain age who told me how much they dreaded playing any sport around Ashburton and Ashwood for the inevitable fights that would break out. Yet despite their willingness to settle confrontations with violence, many of the ACC’s members credited the Club and the mentorship of its older players with saving them from the local gang culture.
Ashburton’s ‘bad’ reputation
The 2017 report on social housing also found that ‘when an area is labelled by outsiders as ‘bad’, insiders (my emphasis) project this reputation onto certain streets or groups of people or manifestations of behaviour as a way of disassociating themselves from the tainted reputation.’
There’s no question there was real evidence to support the negative reputation of the Ashburton Housing Estate within Ashburton from the 1960s to 1980s. I’ve written about two notorious murderers who grew up in Ashburton on this blog. Even the State Government tried to erase the stigma around social housing in the early 1980s by rebranding itself from Housing Commission Victoria and becoming the Ministry of Housing.
But there’s also no doubt that the vast majority of people on the Ashburton Housing Estate over the decades just went about their daily lives and never caused any problems for anyone else. Several people interviewed for the 2004 book, The Alameiners: From Mud to Palaces : Stories from the Early Residents of the Alamein Estate reported they felt stigmatised by the broader community despite experiencing no trouble with crime or unpleasantness themselves.
Nevertheless, several people have told me that the negative perception of the Housing Estate affected the reputation of the whole of Ashburton. For some of these people, it was so embarrassing to say they lived in Ashburton that during the 1990s, when Premier and local member for Burwood Jeff Kennett was rezoning the local councils, residents living on the borders of Glen Iris and Camberwell pressured him to have their streets re-zoned out of Ashburton. Kennett himself allegedly disliked having his office in ‘Burwood’, preferring the more salubrious ‘Camberwell’.
I’m still trying to find more evidence of this but I can show that during the 1960s, W Gordon Sprigg, the champion of the ban on Sunday Sport lived in Florizel Street and signed his letters ‘Ashburton’. His section of Florizel Street is now in Glen Iris.
Ashburton will shift again soon
Today, Boroondara still has very little social housing at all compared to other areas of Melbourne and the majority of what there is remains in Ashburton.
Boroondara's allocation of social housing vs privately owned and rented (2021)
It’s my opinion that all this sound and fury about stigma and neighbourhood reputations says a lot more about the people standing in judgement than it does about the residents. Yet the Ashburton Stigma isn’t over yet. And I suspect if current trends in housing in the neighbourhood continue, it’s going to evolve yet again.
Let me explain.
By the 2000s, the old privately owned former Commission homes were being bought up by professional couples with young families (including myself) and replaced with larger, modern houses. By 2014, land values in the former Ashburton Housing Estate had skyrocketed to over $900,000 per 600 sqm block. At the same time, the State Government finally demolished the largest remaining tranche of social housing, the Markham Estate. I wrote about the battle over its re-development in one of my first blog posts.
As a result, Ashburton housed the lowest number of public housing residents since 1946. For the next eight years, commission houses were consistently demolished and replaced by privately owned homes.
The Stigma Today
Social housing still remains, including aging apartments on Sunderland Avenue and Gloucester Road. These streets continue to undergo a considerable amount of renewal and transformation and the housing apartments now sit among large, modern houses that currently sell for around $2 million. It will not be long before young families will be priced out of Ashburton entirely, if they aren’t already.
I can confirm Ashburton’s social housing residents live companionably next to the homeowners. We ignore the Ubers pulling up to the apartment block to deliver drugs. Yes, we see people peering into our car windows on our security camera footage. In the street I live, we suffered with a ‘bad egg’ who spent his days screaming at us in his front yard for two years. Ironically, I received some sympathy about living near this fellow from a social housing resident I recognised from my security camera footage as the guy who rifled through my car one morning. The ‘crazy guy’ is gone now and peace is restored. Aside from him, most of the time, everyone just goes about their business.
Interestingly, houses on the south side of High Street are still cheaper than similar houses in other parts of Ashburton. According to figures from Realestate.com.au, a four bedroom house on Warner Avenue sold for $1.8 million in September 2022. A similar sized house on Nicholas Street sold the same month for $2.5 million.
So even in this astronomical price range, perhaps the Ashburton Stigma has not entirely gone?
To add another dimension to the shifting neighbourhood demographic, the new Markham Estate social housing apartments (below) are nearing completion. Ashburton is about to see its first increase in social housing resident numbers in 20 years.
So now there will be people paying $2 million for their houses living next door to people provided an apartment for free by the Government.
I will be observing these neighbourhood developments with interest. I noticed the Alamein Learning Centre has been extensively re-developed so it's good to see a pro-active effort to ensure new residents have support services available.
In the meantime, I live in hope that when I return to Perth for Christmas, its residents have finally learned how to merge on the freeway.
 Built Heritage Pty Ltd, 'Thematic Environmental History,' City of Boroondara, May 2012. 144  Ibid. 134.  Ibid. 134. ""Loneliness Alarming"," Chadstone Progress, Glen Iris, 7 November 1973.  "Milk Bars a Menace," Progress Press, Ashburton, 29 June 1955.  "Magistrate", "Youth Club for Alamein," Progress Press, Ashburton, 27 November 1950.  "Youth Club in Ashburton," Progress Press, Ashburton, 6 February 1957.  Flanagan, Kathleen, Julia Verdouw, and Daphne Habibis, 'Intersections of Stigma, Social Capital and Community Engagement in the Suburbs: A Social Network Analysis,' University of Sydney.