Melbourne's western suburbs are changing. You can smell it in the air. Footscray no longer smells bad, it smells of hope instead.
I can smell the earthy, warm scent of eucalyptus trees lining my street in West Footscray. My neck and shoulders loosen, the heaviness in my legs vanishes. The battle of winter is over and summer is just around the corner. Yet this scent driven psyche shift is at odds with the fact that I live in Melbourne's west where there is a long-held association between industry and particularly pungent and unpleasant smells.
As far back as the 1870s, the banks of the Maribyrnong river were home to the McMeikan Bone Fertiliser and Forbes Sulphuric Acid companies. Just before the turn of the last century, when the stink of urine and excrement and the putrid odours of blood, rotting flesh and other hospital waste filled the air of Melbourne's streets, the Spotswood Pumping Station was built to pump the city's sewage to Werribee. For more than 80 years the Angliss Meat Works in Footscray employed many working class men and women but did so with gritty working conditions where the lifeblood of employees came from dead animals. In 2013, residents of Brooklyn protested at the suburb's foul stink, citing meat processing and heavy industry as likely culprits.
Riding around smelling Footscray. Photo: James
"How we make sense of these changes is important because who we are and what we value are tightly bound up in our relationship to place."
But the suburbs in Melbourne's west are changing. Manufacturing industries are withdrawing from the area. Maribyrnong has seen the development of large scale commercial and residential projects and an increase in rental and house prices. While it continues to be a home for people from relatively disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, many wealthier people are moving in.
How we make sense of these changes is important because who we are and what we value are tightly bound up in our relationship to place. The west is characterised by its rich industrial heritage, its creativity and its social and linguistic diversity. It is also an affordable and inclusive place to live. Its smells, new and old, and our experience of them, offers a deep and unexplored connection to this shared social experience. They may help us to better understand the changes occurring in the urban landscape of Footscray and its surrounding suburbs.
Left: Olex Cables tower. Photo: James, Middle: Sniffing through the area near Sunshine Road. Photo: James, Right: The old Uncle Toby's factory. Photo: James
The Heavenly Queen Temple in Footscray. Photo: Darren Howe
“Their smells are traces of the physical and emotional effort we make to help each.”
What I can make out, barely, is a smokey aroma, most likely the exhaust of cars from Sunshine Rd. There is also a dry and woody scent, probably from the dust and earth of the nature strip, and a hint of what smells like rubber. The smells result in a fast and vivid personal memory trip: visiting my father when he worked at a BP petrol station in Preston in the late 1970s. I can still picture him in his green shirt with its company logo and working at the desk in the office area.
I pedal my way back down Sunshine Rd, past the giant, faded signs of what once were an Uncle Toby's factory and Wool Stores, and into Footscray. I stop briefly at the Western oval. Its wide, grassy turf is empty and smells fresh, summery and calming.
Near Footscray station, at the giant, recently-built multilevel business centre, people talk and laugh in a cafe. I smell the smoke of lit cigarettes, the toasted spice of coffee and the sweet but strong perfume of a nature strip thick with succulent plants. The tall, new apartment block on the other side of the station does not smell like this at all. All I notice there is the exhaust from cars and trucks barrelling up Dynon Rd. The air is cold, too. It is like that lonely walk at the airport across the tarmac to a waiting plane.
Later I ride my bicycle up Sunshine Rd into Brooklyn to sniff out more about the place where I live. It doesn't take long to reach the tall, cylindrical tower of Olex Australia, once Olympic Cables, a company that makes insulated cables. For me, the tower symbolises the industry of Melbourne's west. The site is for sale. Its wide and deserted company grounds look eerie and desolate, as if I've stumbled onto the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. I lean my bicycle against the fence at the bottom of the tower and focus on breathing in deeply through my nose, trying to discern the differing scents on the wind. This is more difficult than it seems.
Top left: A not-so-busy Footscray station. Photo: Aisha Dow, Bottom left: The Station Hotel in Footscray. Photo: Eddie Jim, Right: Potato Curry served at Dosa Corner in West Footscray. Photo: Josh Robenstone
Left: Chùa Phật Quang temple, West Footscray. Photo: James, Right: Peking duck in Little Saigon. Photo: James
Four blocks away in Little Saigon market I'm greeted by a wild and vibrant smellscape: rich and peachy incense; the heavy, salty and fishy odour of bound and wriggling crabs; sharp and appetising ginger and onion that fries and sizzles; rank and rotting garbage; and the light, zesty fragrance from piles of fresh oranges.
Here, in the chaotic smells of life and death, people are persistent. I am reminded of the steaming, spicy soups and other food Quang Minh Buddhist Temple makes available to those who visit on Sundays. And the tangy oranges and sweet apples students receive as part of their studies at the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning Program. These are things in the west I have come to know and respect. Their smells are traces of the physical and emotional effort we make to help each other.
In Patrick Süskind's famous book Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985), its main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille claims that "a person's scent is their soul". So far, I have found the smells of closed business and a new apartment block to make me feel lonely, and adrift – a kind of dehumanised transience. This touches on the very real and troubling impact of what happens when our neighbourhoods become increasingly commercialised. And, in a practical sense, the need to support low-income households and vulnerable communities through more tightly controlled and strategic urban planning, housing development and population policies.
Above: Views across to Melbourne
But with its many leafy streets and grasslands, eclectic and affordable food, welcoming and busy social spaces, the people of the west have cultivated a scented experience that is vibrant, refreshing and life affirming. It is a fitting aromatic evocation of its past during a time of change. And, to me, in a world increasingly measured only by its dollar value, it is the smell of hope.
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After years of living in the Western suburbs I have seen it grow and evolve. This story was published in The Age on November 12 2015 and it is a sensory journey that captures my reflections on the area of Melbourne where I live.
Copyright 2016-2020 Ben O'Mara
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