Where next Sydney freaks?

This is a draft of a thing I am thinking about. Subject to revision, hatemail and criticism.

OK, denizens of Sydney’s inner west, where are we going next? I am a fan of living in a dynamic and exciting city where I have inspiration on tap, from freaks and nutters and people who were born somewhere else. A bit of diversity, a bit of spice, a chance to dress up and be weird.

Currently one sweet spot for dynamic, freaky urban life is Marrickville. If you have not lived here, … well there are lot of things to love about it. Historically it has had many fine features — parks, ethnically diverse population, a mix of income levels, industrial spaces, loose noise restrictions and many shared public infrastructure, suchas community centres, theatres etc. Notoriously many people come to Marrickville for the semi-legal underground. I know we all love the warehouse scene in Marrickville, I certainly do. I love that there are gigs here, and sneaky parties and markets and you can get 10 different types of Vietnamese cuisine and drop in to a Greek spit roast after spending the arvo in an artist-run space, then spew into the canal, or go to the Farmer’s Market. Or whatever floats your boat. But various signs lead me to believe that the writing is on the wall for free-spirited, financially-questionably, bon vivant and/or bohemian lifestyle choices in what is increasingly a mortgage farm.

UPDATE: Looks like I am moving to Melbourne. Currently barnraising a cooperative house, in the Ouroboros project.

Why this cannot last

My main beef is that I can’t imagine the next cohort of Inner West cohort will be able to keep generating all the weirdness that makes it worthwhile, because they are too busy working multiple jobs to pay the rent. The inner west is too expensive now, and only getting more so. The average age of the suburb is increasing. It is getting real hard to survive here if you are young, or an immigrant, or basically if you don’t have parent footing your bills.

This is a bit outdated now, but check out this 2016 land value map and watch the waves of property value increase crashing down upon little old Marrickville.

TBH the entire setting of NSW is not favourable. The laws in NSW are repressive, for example.

This place is on a trajectory towards expensive, old, homogenous and boring, and if we want to be where it is cheap, fresh, diverse, and interesting, we need to make plans now for where to be next. And this place needs us less and less. Our tour of duty as the vanguard of gentrification is drawing to a finish. I have given it a solid go, keeping this place interesting, and I have come to the conclusion that there are other places where that task will be less sisyphean.

It turns out I’m not the first person to think that. People are leaving Sydney. See Elyse Dwyer’s note on Sydney out-migration.

This is a classic voice or exit problem: When should we stay and fight, and when should we leave? I find myself often at odds about whether to stay in a group, and try to steer it, or start a different one. Geographical ones are no different.

When I talk about where to go next, aficionados of, say, Sydney’s hipster inner west usually look at me funny, like I want to move to amenity-less sleepy suburbia 90 minutes in the shadow of a megachurch. Well… There is nothing wrong with sleepy suburbia, if that is what you are into, but also, I think various other areas are aslo going to be sisyphean to keep interesting. Places without walkable streets, places with few amenities, places with no public transport etc. A lot of the places that are still nearly-affordable in Sydney fit that description. Moving somewhere that does not price out vibrancy in terms of rent is a start, but it is not sufficient to make an area fertile ground for interesting community.

But there are places that are not hollowed-out mortgage farms, and not sleepy suburbia, and moreover, we could make more places like that. This post is about how to find good places and, just maybe where to make new good places.

From Elyse Dwyer’s report on Sydney out-migration: People are leaving Sydney.

From Elyse Dwyer’s report on Sydney out-migration: people are leaving expensive places.

But here, let me sell you on the benefits of embarking upon such a project.

There are exciting, more interesting places in Sydney

There is heaps of interesting Sydney left to be in, if we aren’t too snobby to see it. There are lots of thriving and interesting and more chaotic places, places with street culture and fun stuff and I think we could really bring something to such places. If we are really fond of the bubble we live in, I reckon we should see if other people can also be persuaded that our bubble has merit, by seeing if they want to share it.

Turning that around: What could we offer to a place that we moved to? What is the kind of space where we could make it better by being there? What can we offer to make people want to have us there? I feel like there is an implicit suggestion here that moving somewhere where we could keep a vibrant diverse and welcoming space would be a real win. Because, no mistake, my proposal is about gentrifying somewhere. I think that is also unavoidable, practically. Land is a zero sum game, and we all have to live somewhere. I could make a case that I think I am good for wherever I move, but I am clearly not an objective judge of that, so I will not waste our time. But if we want to ameliorate the process that is driving us out of our homes we could think about how to foster a less bad version of it where we go next. Could we, though, we give something back in return? Apart from keeping the property values low by hosting loud parties, I mean. Can we productively invest in futures of openness and diversity rather than spending that diversity down? Maybe through more opportunities and cultural understanding?

There are cheaper places in Sydney

Oh, and yes there are many more places which are cheaper too. That is good not just for us, but for the life and vibrancy of the community, where not everyone needs to work 70 hour weeks to pay the rent, and someone has time to keep community pumping rather than pass out in front of Netflix at the end of a gruelling day. Maybe this idea doesn’t speak to you. For me, at least, it is important that my neighbours are not only accountants who went straight into their profession after school, who work 8am-7pm and who I only see when they are running a petition to shut down the local music venue so they can sleep longer, to work longer, to pay the bills in this expensive place. (I have nothing against accountants, or persons of narrow life experience, mind, I merely want more a greater diversity of backgrounds and experiences in my community than implied by that life trajectory.)

We have more power to set the rules if we move outside our bubble.

My other selling point of moving: The inner west is a safe political seat. You have zero political leverage living here, because the incumbent representatives have massive margins. If you leave this bubble you move to more marginal seats, where your vote is worth more, and where politicians need to listen to your community’s voice to win the votes they need to stay in power. Leaving the inner west: good for you, good for Australian political power.

Where next?

So: Where next? Canterbury? Ashfield? Hurstville? Lakemba? Bankstown? Lidcombe? Blacktown? Wollongong? 1

Your thoughts?


What is a liveable place? Can someone repeat this Most Livable Cities Meta-Analysis for Australia?

And how to live there; that is a whole different kettle of fish.

  1. Or, bigger picture, we want to have a look at where climate change is going to be extra bad and move there? That might mean abandoning this city entirely and heading south. Melbourne, Tasmania… but that is a story for next decade. Probably.↩︎


Chris Mountford

I think you're describing a thresholding function - the discontinuity where the income potential of the people you want to live around falls below the price determined by the invisible hand or if you prefer, the number determined by the pumped up gambler inside every would be competitor for that same space. I ask, why do so many people with more money like what you like? Elsewhere you say you don’t want to live around boring rich people. In Australia, we are all rich, globally speaking, so therefore, all boring?

You're right to point out that other communities, to which you would represent the same evil force of gentrification, are on the verge of complaining of the same thing, should you arrive and stink up their sleepy hollow with all your metrosexual monopoly money.

There are two sides of this coin that I think should not be separated. One is the effort and reward of building of community value at what you present as an absolute cost determined by your apparent earning potential and that of your favourite weirdos. The second side is the delta improvement of earning potential that you and those same favourite weirdos could attain instead. To be precise this delta is relative to the price-competitive demand - quite high if there are loads of cashed up, motivated boring people who are chasing the dream you created but who represent something of a fart in the elevator. These two sides of the coin are functions over time, affected by your decisions predominantly but also by the influence you wield in such eloquent articles as your audience rise up and seize the means of profit.

Or, you could make bank ethically and become a patron of the arts.

One might have the skills to acquire the means to fund Marrickville 2.0. How could you? Either through taking some of your precious attention and spending it on increasing the market value for your skills or through writing another blog post about collectivisation and systems or the education of your weirdos in generating the necessary funds without being besmirched by the capitalism of it all. Indeed it seems you have been asking these questions elsewhere.

Or, to flip the coin back again, maybe we need to adopt the living habits of immigrants? Brothers and sisters living together and pooling resources. More people in the warehouse with collective ownership and getting fucking organised in all the ways etc.

I don’t want to hear that this can’t be done any more than you want to hear that establishing a new colony in the promised land is infeasible.

Hell yeah I’m triggered. Personally I find a tiresome inevitability where so few perceive it or discuss it: it is self-flagellation for inner-west anti-capitalism to be driven by a religious dogma that at once insists that a right to a place be funded by forced acquisition of resources via political control (somehow, against all evidence that it will succeed) and also a mandated fervour to keep one's hands clean of the nasty work required to acquire such resources. Learn business, marketing, finance, science, technology and maths! If to do so is to become the enemy then we should see the consequence is I lose the rat race, which means not only am I a rat, but I’m a loser! I suggest one needs these skills more than many things still taught in schools today, and more than ever.

Why doom ourselves to such inner conflict? Starving artists cannot make better art if they starve to death! If making art is the priority rather than merely leaving a corpse with pure artistic intentions, then we should suit up and take the advice of some of the most successful artists, taking charge of the responsibility to deliver volume and value, and to be paid. The landlord is no artist? The vendor is no artist? Is that because what they offer is only of little value to us (unlike high art) whereas all this mob of competitors are confused and offer prices that are objectively too high?

It reminds me of omnivores vs vegans. At least vegans can rationally claim a right to disgust at having blood on their hands whereas meat eaters who find slaughter distasteful ought to look in the mirror. If you live in a place so many others want to live, you have benefactors by virtue of the profit they make. As opaque and long as the chain, may be, it's still a transitive fact: daddy has blood diamonds.

I recognise I've taken this somewhat sideways but here's the zinger. This is all stolen land we are haggling over.

Reply to Chris Mountford
Dan MacKinlay

Ah, the "boring rich". I can see how my phrasing could make it sound like I think rich-implies-boring. Let me disambiguate that: It is not that rich people are boring, it is that communities with only rich people that are boring.

As for “can we do stuff in Sydney as individual actors?” Of course! we can act anywhere. Yes, individually, we can swim against the flow of the policy and market design that favours boringness, and we can do interesting stuff. WE can patronise arts! we can build ephemeral community spaces etc. However, the same amount of money and effort will get better ROI than it will in Sydney, where the arts dollar goes further, and more punters will be able to afford the cost of the commute to the community space.

I love this town; but at some point, I need to accept that it does not love me back, nor the other people I care about, and we will do better to bestow our affections elsewhere.

Ultimately, if I accept a worse and worse deal from this town, and sweat more blood and tears to make it interesting for people like me, then possibly my very best effort will end up being nought but propping up someone else's business model, by performing urban chic long enough to drive the sale price up just a little further before I get turfed out.

Reply to Dan MacKinlay

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