Gentrification with Alan Weedon

Alan Weedon is a photographer and writer known to many in the literary and art scenes of both Melbourne and Sydney. Knowing his connection to Melbourne’s western suburbs, we thought it would be pertinent to invite Alan to photograph our Speak Easy at Festival of Live Art event, which took place at Footscray Community Art Centre. Spurred on by the topics of conversation at the Speak Easy table, Alan opened up to us about some of his experiences growing up in Melbourne’s west. Beck Pope revisited these themes with Alan in the interview below.

BP: We recently spoke about your experience of our event as the official photographer and also your impressions of someone who had spent a chunk of their life in Footscray. I was moved by what was coming up for you throughout the event through observing and leaning-in to conversations to capture moments. Can you share some of those big thoughts again?

Whenever stories about Footscray’s gentrification happen in ‘high brow’ contexts such as FOLA or a writers’ festival, the biggest emotion I feel is one of anger. This Speak Easy event was no different. Conversations in these contexts ostensibly happen with its most important voice—the marginalised who are either in the process of being pushed out (usually at a time where the services they’ve sorely needed for years have finally come online).

I can only speak from my experience growing up in Footscray, Tottenham and West Footscray. The City of Maribyrnong services each of these suburbs, and I still find it weird that the council finally has the income to push towards supporting initiatives such as the ‘festival city’ (of which FoLA plays a part). Anyway, I digress.

I feel this sense of anger stems from two contexts: one being completely selfish and growing up in a Footscray which never had the services and cultural events it has now, while the second is directed to those on the table engaging in big-picture conversations, without actually having experienced the impacts of gentrification on a fine grain level.

As a child, I moved between four houses around Footscray as my parents were renting at the time. I then moved a further two times to the outer western suburbs as rental prices gradually pushed them out of the inner west. So from a very early age I was completely immersed in the complex impacts gentrification has on low socio-economic classes.

In all: I would’ve loved to participate and challenge some of the points I heard throughout the night, but of course that isn’t my place as a photographer. As you said, I was simply there to capture photographic moments.

BP: Gentrification was one of the themes at Speak Easy and we spoke more broadly about the topic. You shared a few of your own experiences both personal and work-related. I got the sense that this is a topic that you have thought deeply about before and hold strong values that often can be hard to reconcile in reality. How is this important to you and the way you see the world currently?

It’s really everything to me. As outlined above, I have a deep personal connection and passion about talking about gentrification. As cities like Melbourne and Sydney transcend into unparalleled affluence, I feel this conversation is incredibly pertinent. In the past few years, bourgeois media outlets such as Broadsheet and The Thousands have highlighted a particular subsection of the gentrification that’s hitting our cities. To be clear: I don’t see gentrification as a belligerent force. It’s completely understandable that people wish to move into areas that are well-serviced with amenities (cultural or otherwise). The trouble is when marginalized communities are forced out of these places into areas with little to no amenities where, based off of demographic data, these people need civic/transport/cultural services the most.

At this point I should say I’m privy to Melbourne’s gentrification, too. However, I don’t feel that people should feel guilty about moving into areas which are close to the city, well serviced, and have some semblance of an organic culture—I feel as though these are the reasons why we move to cities in the first place: there’s layers of history (both good and bad).

But in reality, the trouble is when there seems to be choice between one or the other. I feel we wouldn’t be having these conversations if our cities were well serviced from the get-go (obviously that’s a lot easier said than done).

BP: Personally, I was struck by how engaged participants were when discussing  the themes of place, gentrification and environment. There was a genuine openness to pushing past old ideas or embracing new ones. As a photographer, writer and thinker yourself is this something you push yourself to do all of the time? 

Absolutely (though I may not be conscious of it 24/7).

In my writing, I’ve had a particular knack for researching about place and sustainable urbanism. Melbourne’s had its fair share of urban bungles (especially having grown up in the outer west), and as such it’s this personal history (and my passion for looking at our urban landscapes) which constantly make me drawn to looking at new ways to build community. Essentially this is spent looking at broader cultural narratives: Who are we and what does our sense of place tell us about ourselves? Why am I drawn to certain aesthetic aspects of suburbs? How do I ‘feel’ a suburb? And so on.

I also find the term ‘thinker’ a bit curious. Everybody thinks. I feel it’s been given this high-brow sheen in the realm of writers/arts festivals. Personally, if you’re hustling week-to-week you’re always going to be pushing past old ideas to keep you afloat. There’s a certain luxury in relishing in the ability to be a ‘changemaker’—and I fall prey to that given the relative privilege / education that I now possess.