Reading Fitzroy: Social aesthetics in a Melbourne suburb

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The Australian socio-linguist Michael Halliday described a city ‘as a place of talk’ within which inhabitants reassert and reshape the basic concepts by which urban society is defined (Halliday 1978: 154). This essay is about ‘talk’ between residents in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. It explores the social aesthetic landscape, addressing how different members of the community use space, and the codes through which they communicate. The speech through which a city talks to itself needs not necessarily occur verbally, person to person, but may be encoded in representations of place, and in the urban environment itself. The city environment is a cultural landscape, and, as such, may be considered “an inscribed surface, akin to a map or a text, from which cultural meaning and social forms can […] be read” (Pannell 2006:63). In this essay, I suggest that these sensory qualities are often intentional, in the sense that they have often been selected to signal something to someone about that space, and may be considered a semiotic code that presents a mythology or narrative of the place. In Fitzroy, this narrative is of the working class, migration, bohemianism and most importantly, egalitarianism.

The social aesthetic codes analysed by anthropologists are not only sensory but extend to proxemics. The locations of housing, eating, and entertainment are not shared between social groups in Fitzroy, but are divided in time and space across language, ethnicity, age and income. Different groups leave their marks on the landscape through distinct styles. I explore how two of the dominant social styles of the suburb compete as a defining feature of the space. The dominant styles are associated with hipsters and transient youth, and the owners of cottages and houses. The owners are often the older generation of artists, writers and academics, as well as the remaining, now retired, working class and post-war migrants, and a new generation of highly educated professionals. The confrontation concerns proximity of the graffiti to heritage houses in domestic back streets. Here, a contest between home owner, or renovator, and graffitist takes place. Walls are painted, tagged, tagged over, and repainted in a constant flux of colour and style. Yet, a shared code has developed between transient youth and the people who can afford to own the gentrified workers’ cottages. The medium of this code is the seat on the front veranda, and it is through this code that residents engage across social divides.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSoziale Ästhetik, Atmosphäre, Medialität. Beiträge aus der Ethnologie.
Subtitle of host publicationSocial Aesthetics, Atmosphere, Mediality. Contributions from Anthropology
EditorsPhilipp Zehmisch , Ursula Munster , Jens Zickgraf, Caudia Lang
Place of PublicationBerlin Germany
PublisherLit Verlag
Chapter9 (Part 1)
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9783643339119
ISBN (Print)9783643139115
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • social aesthetics
  • graffiti
  • garden
  • walking
  • heritage
  • Erving Goffman
  • cultural landscape

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