Preston, Victoria, 2011 to 2016
First published in The Big Issue Australia in 2017 in Edition 547.

I lived in the not-quite-inner-north Melbourne suburb of Preston for five years.  Most people know Preston from Courtney Barnett’s wonderful song DePreston, where a young couple decide to ‘look out further’ for a house, and end up at a deceased estate in an empty, depressing slab of suburbia.  My own experience was a little different.  To start with, I moved there from Ballarat, and believe me, Ballarat made Preston seem like the kind of pulsing, neon-lit metropolis depicted in Blade Runner.  For the first week I wandered around dazed by stimulus, muttering: “People! Markets! A tram depot!”  And then, after I’d calmed down a bit, I registered something else: Preston was undergoing gentrification, and my apartment block was located right on the boundary.  Turn one way and you found restaurants and cafes and bars; turn another and you found used-car yards and paint stores, and an office equipment outlet and a leather factory.  So I was able to observe, from quite literally outside my front door, the transition of Preston from one kind of suburb to another.

So, what was Preston like? Well, Barnett’s song starts with her observing some street-crime: she sees ‘police arrestin’ / a man with his hand in a bag.’ And in fact, Preston did have a rough side. Personally, I had stuff stolen from the car park of my apartment block four times. The first time I could understand: I had foolishly left my Fender Stratocaster in my storage cage, which in retrospect was like placing a photo of it on Gumtree saying ‘small town hick in need of life lessons: please welcome him to the jungle’.  But the second time was bizarre. The thieves cut open the cage to take a commemorative coin, some notes and a small infant’s teething toy named Crabby.  Six weeks later they brought Crabby back, still in the Tupperware container I had placed him in, leaving him neatly in front of the storage cage they had previously cut open. I have no idea why they returned it, and nor did the policeman who I called to explain it to.  “I have never,” he said, “heard of that happening before.” “Maybe,” I suggested, “they felt bad?  Maybe they’re trying to turn over a new leaf?” “Nah, mate,” said the police officer. “Not in Preston.”

Another time in the car park of my apartment block, two young New Zealand guys who had just moved here had to confront a thief trying to steal tools from their ute. The Kiwi guys were so new that they didn’t know to call ‘000’, and so they just chased the thief with their camera-phone into the foyer. They showed me the footage: the thief had a bedraggled beard and looked startled and panicky, and had his hand up to the camera as though he were Brad Pitt and the Kiwi boys were paparazzi.  Confusingly, in the foyer he then had an asthma attack and asked them to help him off the floor. They did so, because they were kind lads – but they shook their heads as they told the story, as if bewildered by the pitiful feebleness of Australian thieves.

So yes, there was crime.  But there was also charm.  My local café had skateboards on the wall and a cuckoo clock that children would watch on the hour, and a gentle and in