The Courier-Mail reported the death of a son and his elderly mother in their Brisbane home earlier this month under the headline “Left to die a lonely death in the suburbs“. Their bodies were not discovered for at least a week. The paper said that “at some point before Mark Thomas died in his suburban home, possibly of a heart attack, he had confined his elderly mother Irene to her room for her own safety”.

Note the repetition of the word “suburbs”. It’s a tragic story but the suburbs — which get a good going over in the way the story is framed — have nothing to do with it. The family lived in suburban Enoggera, but it would’ve made no difference if they lived in inner-city New Farm, West End or Red Hill.

It’s clear from the full story that this was a household that kept to itself. Mrs Thomas suffered acute dementia and her son was her primary carer. The reporter says “neighbours told of a pair who kept to themselves — a self-imposed solitude that contributed to the fact no one had noticed there was a problem”. Some quotes from the neighbours:

He wouldn’t answer the door and never mixed with anyone.

She couldn’t speak very well because of her dementia but she tried.

She never seemed to get out and you’d see him occasionally driving past. It’s very sad but I didn’t know them.

There might be an issue here about the adequacy of support for carers, but this family’s separation from neighbours wasn’t a function of the housing type, the location, or indeed anything physical. They would very likely have behaved in the same way if they lived in a Kangaroo Point high-rise or a Paddington walk-up.

I can’t see that inner-city neighbours would’ve been any more solicitous of their well-being either. If anything, perhaps less interested since it’s more likely they’d be younger and out working or partying than neighbours in Enoggera.

The Courier-Mail’s report illustrates the long-standing antipathy of the media and elites towards the suburbs. As QUT’s Professor Terry Flew contends, suburban life in Australia is diagnosed as if it’s a kind of neurotic condition. There’s a long history of hostility towards suburbia in Australia, characterised by:

a recurring tension between the desire of large sections of the population to own their own home (the fabled quarter-acre block) in the suburbs, and the condemnation of suburban life from an assortment of intellectuals, political radicals and cultural critics. This was the point succinctly made by the economist and urban planner Hugh Stretton in his 1970 book Ideas for Australian Cities, where he observed that “Most Australians choose to live in suburbs, in reach of city centres and also of beaches or countryside. Many writers condemn this choice, and with especial anger or gloom they condemn the suburbs”.

We’re familiar with the criticism that suburbia promotes unsustainable, car-dependent lifestyles. Marxist geographer David Harvey goes further and censures suburbia for a range of other sins.

Professor Flew observes that Harvey’s widely-read 2008 attack on suburbia, The right to the city, includes its role as a site “for the expenditure of surplus capital, as a safety valve for overheated finance capitalism”; as a place “where working class militancy is pacified through the promotion of mortgage debt”; as a place where “intensive possessive individualism … (is) actively promoted through the proliferation of shopping malls, multiplexes, franchise stores and fast-food outlets, leading to pacification by cappuccino”; and as a place “where women are actively oppressed”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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