Brunswick calling

Brunswick bar owner Oussou worries rising rents will drive him out of business
Brunswick’s reputation as a bohemian hub is under threat but locals aren’t having a bar of it. Harriet Gledhill reports.

Oussou stands out front of his self-titled bar, smoking a cigarette and staring at the ground. The French-Senegalese born entrepreneur is one of at least 50 bar and restaurant owners facing closure due to Brunswick’s increasing gentrification and rising rent prices.

“When I first came here 11 years ago, the area was full of artists and musicians. We won’t survive now. I won’t be able to afford the rent much longer,” he says.

“Just Oussou,” says the entrepreneur, asked his surname.

Located 5km north of the CBD, Brunswick was once known as the Greek and Italian heartland of Melbourne but later gained notoriety as a diverse bohemian neighbourhood, inhabited by a variety of musicians and artists.

In the early 2000s, a mix of Middle-Eastern bakeries, boutiques and grungy music venues made Brunswick the suburb of choice for those priced out of perennial hotspots, Fitzroy and Carlton. Demand for housing increased, peaking in 2014 when the Moreland City Council approved 2,802 new residential buildings in the greater Brunswick area.

It was at this time Oussou’s rent began increasing and he noticed a huge shift in the neighbourhood’s demographics.

“It’s all young families now and they aren’t interested in us. They don’t want live music. The landlords who own our buildings don’t care either. The prices keep going up and they don’t want to support us,” he says.

Moreland City Council forecasts that 3500 new developments will be approved in Brunswick by 2036.

According to Moreland City Council data, residential development requests in Brunswick are higher than any other suburb in Melbourne. It is predicted that by 2036, the area will grow by another 43.2 per cent, but Oussou says his and other bars on the strip will have already disappeared.

“We’ll be long gone. You’d think all these people coming in would help our business but it’s the complete opposite. We’ve been priced out,” he says.

Oussou says he believes it’s not just increasing rent prices that are worrying venue owners, but the added threat of noise complaints from new apartment dwellers.

“Don’t get me started on it. People decide they want to move here, don’t do their research and then get upset that there’s noise on the street,” he says.

A recent decision by Moreland City Council to reject a proposed 74-apartment complex next to popular live music venue Howler, is being described as a big win for Brunswick’s hospitality community.

Howler bartender and activist, Sophie Bliss says the councillors were right to predict that building an apartment block next to a live music venue would be problematic.

“I know exactly what would happen if they were allowed to go ahead. Families and older people would move in and complain about the noise every weekend. We’d end up being shut down,” she says.

In NSW, the issue of noise complaints closing long-standing music venues, has been widely documented. In November 2017, a State Government inquiry into Sydney’s music economy received 425 submissions and found that the “incomprehensible rules” imposed on venues were often the direct result of a single noise complaint.

“There was a lot of fear that we’d follow the same path as Sydney and that this end of Brunswick would become a cultural wasteland, but the council had our back and it was amazing to see,” Bliss says.

Moreland City Council received 400 objections to the eight-story development.

“It was the best part of the community rallying together. It felt like the Brunswick I remember when I first moved here in 2009,” she says.

Bliss says Howler’s fight continues as the developers go to VCAT next month to try and overrule the council’s decision.

“It’s David and Goliath and it’s not over yet,” she says.

Local bar manager Sebastian Rumore says his Sydney Road venue, The Penny Black isn’t affected by rising rent prices because the building is owned by the bar’s parent company.

“I do worry about residential rent rises, though. I live locally and my rent’s gone up three times since I’ve moved in. I live with students and they’re struggling to keep up with the payments each month,” he says.

In 2016, 15.3 per cent of Brunswick’s population were enrolled in tertiary education, which is more than double the average of greater Melbourne. Rumore believes that if the students are priced out, business at The Penny Black will be negatively impacted.

“It’s a big web. If the students are priced out, we have to re-evaluate our position and vice versa. The whole of Brunswick is being affected right now. The soul of this community belongs to the students, our business depends on their patronage,” he says.

Rumore says the reason most of his friends chose to live in Brunswick, was for the thriving music scene.

“That’s why we came here. I love this area and spend my spare time exploring different bars and bands. If that was to disappear there would be no reason for me to stay,” he says.

Moreland City Council didn’t reply to requests for comment but Deputy Mayor Natalie Abboud told The Music recently, that the council fully supports Brunswick’s entertainment venues.

She says the council “could not underestimate” the cultural value these business’ add to the suburb.

Oussou says this appreciation of cultural value should include protecting businesses that provide safe spaces for Brunswick’s ethnically diverse groups to congregate.

“The council holds multicultural festivals but they don’t realize that it’s small venues like mine that give different ethnic groups a chance to hang out and express themselves all year round,” he says.

Bar Oussou runs weekly poetry and music nights that encourage local Turkish, Arabic and African community members to share their heritage through artistic expression.

“These customers share the same worries I do. They worry about rising rent prices and having to leave the neighbourhood. They don’t want to leave and neither do I,” he says.

Statistics indicate that cultural diversity in Brunswick is diminishing. In 2016, 29.3 per cent of the population was recorded as being born overseas, with 20.5 per cent of those coming from non-English speaking backgrounds. In 2011, the numbers were much stronger with 32.7 per cent of residents born overseas and 25 per cent of those from non-English speaking backgrounds. This represents a loss of 319 residents.

Oussou says these figures don’t surprise him and that if the council doesn’t start taking action against greedy developers, Brunswick will continue losing diverse businesses and people alike.

“Brunswick will start to look like Docklands. Apartments everywhere and nothing to do”, he says.

Oussou says he will hold onto his Sydney Rd shopfront for as long as he can and encourages other traders to follow suit. Especially with Howler’s recent success in mind.

“What else can we do? We can’t let go without a fight”.