UNIVERSITY HAS DONE THE WORLD FOR FOOTSCRAY

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By Peter Dewar

Bec Carey-Grieve wandered the world before coming home to Footscray to take up the role as chief advocate for Victoria University’s Nicholson St Metro West program. And we’re glad she did.

“I really do love my job,” says Bec Carey-Grieve, Victoria University at Metro West’s program coordinator, finishing her sentence with a gentle laugh. Our conversation is coming to end, and it’s clear my tired, old idea of Footscray could do with a makeover.

A few years ago, Maribyrnong City Council and Victoria University (VU) joined forces to revitalise Footscray with one idea in mind: turn it into a university town.

VU campuses already bookended Nicholson Street. Metro West is where VU decided to plant its flag in Footscray CBD. A stepping-off point, really. In the centre of town, a front door to the university would now open. As well as community space for: seminars, events, art exhibitions, psychology clinic, public hot desks. And Bec’s office.

She loves her job. Who wouldn’t? This softly-spoken community arts administrator wearing periwinkle nail polish gets to light the town blue, pop-up a store or invite guests over to hear celebrity landscape designer Jamie Durie speak about drawing wisdom from nature.

At nine in the morning, on my way to the interview, I’m walking damp streets. Nicholson Street is waking up after a night of storms. The air is still. The footpath is mine. It’s as if I’m in a theatre once the performance has ended and audience has gone home. People … at last. A few locals mingle on a table outside upbeat Kulan Eatery in conversation sipping on wake-up latte’s.

The same calm continues on inside Metro West. VU describes this exhibition and engagement space as a hub. It feels like
a labyrinth – and one, in stark contrast to the mishmash streetscape, is stylishly decorated. Past defunct Co-Op cafe,

a small group attends a seminar. Around me are exhibitions, more than I can take in while I’m looking for Bec. I make a mental note: return and take a good look at Dangerous Deeds, a snapshot of Victoria’s disability movement. And check out the free WiFi and hot desks.

Animator becomes administrator

After studying animation, Bec started what was to become a decades-long career in arts administration, some of it spent in Glasgow, Scotland. She was general manager at Footscray Community Arts Centre before taking up the position as Program Coordinator for VU at Metro West – an opportunity to “spread her creative wings”.

Bec became a local four years ago. Not that Footscray
was unfamiliar. Her father worked at Footscray Institute of Technology for thirty years, commuting from Ashburton; as a girl she would sometimes come with him to work. Not exactly full-circle, but Bec’s choice of suburb to live and work in amuses her father. “Dad thinks it’s hilarious,” she says.

Bec has been struck by the strength of community spirit. “School drop-offs turn into work meetings.” Last night she was up all hours stitching. The Threads of Footscray exhibition showcasing Footscray opens early December; the needlepoint artwork had to be finished.

Cornucopia of creativity

Through Bec’s eyes, Nicholson Street is enticing – a toy box filled with international eateries, multicultural enclaves,
a thriving arts scene, industrial heritage and close-knit community. “It changes a lot,” she says. “Walking from one campus to the other there’s a very different feel from the residential to little Saigon, through the mall, over the railway area to VU Nicholson Street … different flavours and different personalities all along.”

I’m about to find out how deeply Bec’s optimism for Footscray is felt. She is telling me about night walking tours. I make a quip about needing a security guard – possibly adding to the list of Dumb Ways to Die. “But you don’t!” says Bec. Her laugh is sharper this time. “That’s the thing. You don’t, actually.”

Work to be done

She’s not blind to social problems on the doorstep: “there are some big things that Footscray needs to tackle”. She knows that’s what people tend to focus on, though. And all the while, there’s another side. “I feel pretty safe in Nicholson Street,” says Bec who is eager for more night-time events. Nearby Maddern Square was turned alive with light projections, live performances and street art.

“We’ve done a night time and day time activation at Maddern Square, and they’ve both been fabulous,” says Bec. “And really well received by the local community who have said it was a great use of the space – made it feel safer. It was a diverse mix of people there … a lot of people coming from the market and coming by seeing, you know, rap artists …”

People are going to want to live here…

As for the future, a multi-storey apartment development has started on the original Forges site, which will have retail down the bottom. On Footscray’s fringe, hipster cafes and breweries are popping up, signalling middle-class affluence is on the march. “Gentrification is coming, and we’re not going to be able to stop it. It’s inevitable. I guess it’s how we transition through,” says Bec.

That means original shop owners or newly arrived communities won’t be shuffled along. Bec hopes “it’s still a place that cares for its community”. She expects we’ll find a more active vibrant CBD and would like to see more theatres and creative spaces as well greater integration with Victoria University. “People are going to want to live here.”

Nor is VU at Metro West standing still. The cafe was unsuccessful and is now a meeting place; the bookshop temporarily transformed into a pop-up store, now houses an exhibition. “The presence we have in Footscray may shift,” says Bec.”We may bleed out into other areas and businesses.”

So long as it stays a food capital, I’m all for Bec’s all-inclusive, artsy, forward-thinking inner suburb. If it’s to take shape, the time has come to let go of ‘nasty town’ as the defining notion
of Footscray.

While we’ve been talking, a group of South Eastern Asian seniors have settled themselves on the chairs behind us. Unhurried, they make tea from the urn sitting on the counter and are enjoying one another’s company. VU at Metro West is unlike any other university I’ve known. I like it.

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