Wollongong: an “enclave of scumbags”?

In the news today, a new UOW survey undertaken as part of the Brand Wollongong campaign, reveals negative views among the city’s residents. In the findings there are lots of salutary lessons and warnings: stop the decay in Wollongong’s public spaces and infrastructure; provide people higher quality cultural experiences; avoid city marketing ‘spin’. But underneath the skin of the city, are there also more worrying dimensions?

Clearly, Wollongong has a long way to go to overcome its own inferiority complex. An interesting comparison is with research undertaken in AUSCCER on vernacular cultural life in Wollongong: that research, published recently in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, showed that among residents there is extant  ingenuity and resourcefulness, despite a low opinion of Wollongong, and of themselves as ‘working-class’ people.  Does everybody and everything in Wollongong have to be ‘marketable’ to the outside world? Must working-classness be construed as ‘lack’ of marketability, when evidently there is ample creativity already within working-class culture?

A deeper concern is the lurking classism that seems a perennial feature in Wollongong. To quote the news article, “Wollongong Hospital, Wollongong railway station and the Piccadilly Centre were criticised for creating an ‘‘enclave of scumbags’’ while residents expressed concern that some suburbs were hot-spots for crime”. This reminds me of common attititudes expressed in Penrith, where I grew up. In the very heart of the ‘battler’ suburbs is where one would find the most extreme views about those slightly less fortunate.  A short walk from Penrith’s public housing estates, one would encounter harsher views of poor single mums than you’d ever hear on Sydney’s leafy north shore. There’s a tragic irony in that. Perhaps the issue is less one of marketability, than of civic embarrassment that the city has visible welfare recipients, unemployed youth, pensioners, mental illness. They might not be marketable or fit neatly into Brand Wollongong, but they are a part of our city, warts and all.

 

Chris Gibson is Professor of Human Geography at AUSCCER and Chief Investigator of the ARC Linkage Project, Cultural Asset Mapping for Regional Australia. Twitter: @profcgibson See Wollongong results from this project.