Bell Street was once the edge of my world. Now I proudly live amid the doof-doof of Lalor

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I am standing in my driveway on a summer’s afternoon. The removal van has left and I am holding a cardboard box, wondering, as I have been for several days, whether I might have made an enormous mistake. But there is my new neighbour standing in his own driveway, waving at me and shouting across the fence: “Hello! Welcome!”

I had reason to feel nervous about my move. I’d rented in Brunswick for over a decade, knew it intimately, felt at home there. I was ready to buy a house, but not able to contemplate or even comprehend the prices they were fetching in that suburb. So, I traced the train line north on the map, out past Preston and Reservoir, which were already beyond my meagre budget, and landed in Lalor. I knew nothing about the place. That was eight years ago.

I remember once telling myself that I’d never live north of Bell Street. Like some Melburnian flat-earther, Bell Street was once the edge of my world. If Courtney Barnett could sing about Depreston then surely, I reasoned, it just got worse the further north one went.

Initially, I was reluctant – embarrassed, even – to say where I’d moved. Most people had no idea where Lalor was and, if they did, their faces usually betrayed either surprise or alarm. Yet in my first few months in Lalor, other neighbours came to visit or stopped me on the street. They brought me vegetables from their garden. They mowed my lawns. They introduced me to their families. The edges of my life here began to radiate outwards.

Lalor is an extraordinarily diverse community. It remains staunchly working class and unmistakably, wonderfully multicultural. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 70 per cent of people in Lalor have two parents who were born overseas, compared to around 40 per cent in Victoria more generally. But this data doesn’t get us to the heart of what it’s like to live here. The life of the community is held in the stories of its people. Over time, I’ve come to hear some of these. Many in Lalor are refugees. Some came recently for education or work. Others came in the years of desperate poverty in post-war Europe, and others in the late 1960s and 1970s, where they filled the local factories and Australia’s demand for labour. Some then lost their jobs long before they had planned to retire, when manufacturing was sent offshore.

The local shopping centre, with its Italian, Persian, Syrian, Indian, Vietnamese, Iraqi, Chinese and Lebanese foods, reflects this diversity. Every weekend, I am down at the local shops, asking random customers, “What is this food? Do you like it? How do you cook it?”

The Samoan church next to Woolies is a marker of the Pacific Islander population in Lalor. The nearby Aboriginal health and childcare services are testament to an ongoing Aboriginal presence. Lalor is on the lands of the Wurundjeri-willam people, who were here long before the German settlement at Westgarthtown in 1850; and long before ex-servicemen formed the Peter Lalor Home Building Co-operative Society in 1949, which laid the foundations for the Lalor of today. The layers of this place go deep.

I know that I am describing Lalor through an idealised lens; as a suburb where 45 years of successful multicultural policy has found its apotheosis. So to save this reflection becoming too celebratory, I will pause here and note that, in some ways, Lalor fulfils its negative stereotypes. There’s rubbish in the laneways; abandoned furniture in the streets. A frisson of seediness in some parts; obvious neglect in others. Late on a Saturday night, young guys hoon their way up and down the stretch between Keon Park and Epping, the doof-doof from their car speakers competing with the engine revs.

In my first few months in Lalor, neighbours came to visit or stopped me on the street. They brought me vegetables from their garden.Credit: Justin McManus

Despite the crisis in housing affordability, Lalor remains persistently uncool and, so far, appears to be largely immune to the gentrification that has been spreading northwards for some years.

I may not live here forever, but I now see a bland homogeneity in the endless expanse of cafes and new apartments in the inner suburbs. I don’t know if I would want to return.

Lalor is how my childhood suburb was, but before I was old enough to appreciate it, and before I moved in my 20s to places that were “cool”. I’ve come back – not to the place I grew up, but to an idea – a community where I’m part of an interconnected world of people, cultures, languages. I still feel that I haven’t quite yet understood all the layers of this suburb, that there are more surprises to be had, and more stories to be told. For now, I am here, and I am home.

Kathy Lothian is a historian and sometimes writer.

This piece is part of The Age’s Life in the ’Burbs series.

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