‘It’s a good spot’: Preston’s changing face reflected in tight race

“I remember going to Preston Market when we were growing up,” says Adam Racina, the chef behind Reservoir wine bar and restaurant La Pinta.

“Mum would always shop there, and it would definitely be all the Italians and Greeks and other ethnicities shopping there. But now you go there, and it’s just full of younger people, especially on a Sunday morning.”

Adam Racina grew up in Preston and opened the La Pinta wine bar and restaurant on High Street in Reservoir.Credit:Joe Armao

Racina didn’t expect the northern suburbs he grew up in could be home to a hospitality scene. But a burgeoning population of young renters, professionals and new families created a customer base – and paved the way for Labor’s grip to loosen on the once-safe seat.

Independent candidate Gaetano Greco, the face of a campaign to keep the Preston Market as it is, is in the strongest position to unseat Labor, with a 20 per cent swing on a two-party preferred basis.

Greco could yet be declared the local member and believes whatever the result, voters rejected proposed development of the 50-year-old market. The Andrews government should not just block the private owners from moving stalls onsite to make room for thousands of apartments, he says, but compulsorily acquire the land he calls the “beating heart of Preston”.

“If Labor doesn’t understand that, Labor will never understand Reservoir and Preston,” Greco says.

Gaetano Greco contested for the seat at last weekend’s election, and campaigned to protect the Preston Market.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The electorate, starting at Bell Street in the south and covering the sprawling suburb of Reservoir 11 kilometres north of the city, is known for its older Italian and Greek migrant community.

Carmencita Brunetti, 83, the president of a local Italian seniors club, declares she has lived in Reservoir for “61 years!” since moving from the Abruzzi region of Italy, near Rome.

“Since we came and lived here, there was nothing. Now, there is everything. We are comfortable,” she says. “It’s a good spot, I like it.”

Close to half of people in the electorate (48.2 per cent) spoke a language other than English at home in 2006, according to the census, but that trickled down to a still-strong 43.4 per cent by 2021.

The data is not a direct comparison because the boundary of the electorate has shifted north.

Almost 40 per cent of the Preston population rent their home, compared with the state average of 28.5 per cent, with cheaper prices ($366 a week) than the rest of Victoria ($370).

The median weekly income in the electorate ($1623 a household) is lower than the state average ($1759), but mortgage repayments averaging $2000 a month are above the Victorian norm of $1859.

Rows of townhouses have also overtaken suburban homes, and there were 3452 apartments in buildings taller than 10 storeys under construction in the overlapping Darebin City Council last year, according to government data.

Apartments and townhouses are replacing old homes.Credit:Joe Armao

Mary Sarakinis, who helps run a Greek senior women’s club in Preston, says the growing dining options make the area more European.

“It’s full of cafes and young people, and it’s nice,” Sarakinis says.

“In a way I preferred the houses. Now they’re building all these apartments, and it changes a lot, maybe in some ways better, in some ways it loses all these beautiful Preston [houses].”

Dozens of residential lots in Reservoir are the beneficiary of a rare state planning rule blocking them from being subdivided under “restrictive covenants”.

High Street, Preston.Credit:Joe Armao

It means the northern suburb should always have big backyards attached to three-bedroom homes, currently valued at $875,000, according to Domain, cheaper than the Melbourne average of more than $1 million.

Racina only recently thought about moving back to the area – and opening La Pinta next to fancy dress shops, bathroom warehouses and mechanics — after working closer to the city in Melbourne’s inner north.

“What creates a good suburb is having a good diversity, in not only ethnicity, but also in socio-economic levels. And I think Preston and Reservoir have really got that now. You’ve got a lot of renters, and then you’ve got a lot of older migrants, and you’ve got a lot of the Baby Boomer generation still here. So, it’s got a nice mix,” Racina says.

“I think somewhere like Fitzroy has just got to the point where everyone’s priced out … which in my opinion doesn’t make for a good vibe in a restaurant because it’s just one demographic.”

Stalls at the Preston Market.Credit:Wayne Taylor

While the streets slowly change, a local campaign has fought to stop wholesale changes to the market.

The Andrews government and the Victorian Planning Authority view the privately owned site as an opportunity for renewal to add much-needed housing supply on well-connected land, next to the new Preston station.

“Planning the precinct is vital because, like many areas throughout Melbourne, Preston is facing transformational growth, with the population forecast to double in size to 68,000 by 2041,” the authority explains.

Greco says the multicultural and working-class electorate has not lost its family vibe, which ought to be protected from becoming the next “Docklands”, and areas of serious disadvantage need better investment from the state government.

“Do we just let the market [go and accept] gentrification as an inevitable thing? It’s not inevitable, it’s a social construct, and being a social construct, you can address it. It’s not part of nature.”

Kent Burgess, the chief executive of Your Community Health, which has two centres in the electorate, says public housing residents and people on the aged pension were struggling with the rising cost of living.

Young families have also moved into the area and were in mortgage stress, while some patients have moved out of the area looking for cheaper rent.

Greens candidate Patchouli Paterson, 31, who grew up in public housing and rents in Reservoir, says gentrification could not fully explain the swing against Labor.

She got a sense locals noticed investment in the neighbouring southern seat of Northcote, which Labor successfully defended from the Greens, and there was an appetite to make Preston marginal.

“We got votes from lots of different people,” Paterson says. “Labor’s taken a really big hit, and it has gone to the left.”

Labor entered last Saturday’s state election with an outright majority in Preston. But the seat is still too close to call after a week of counting, though the government is confident of retaining the seat with newcomer Nathan Lambert, Labor’s former national assistant secretary.

A final result is not expected until next week.

Steph Price, from the Victorian Socialists, believes Labor failed to connect with deeper parts of Reservoir and the preselection of Labor candidate Lambert, viewed as a blow in after the resignation of former member Robin Scott, fed cynicism that the government had taken the seat for granted.

“I don’t think it’s changing that rapidly. There’s a lot of public housing,” Price says.

The biggest swings against Labor on a two-party preferred basis, on current numbers against the Greens, were in Reservoir East (29 per cent) and Reservoir Central (27 per cent).

COVID-19 lockdowns in the north of the seat came up as an issue for voters during the campaign.

Susanne Newton, the Greens campaign convenor for Preston, agrees gentrification has not been uniform in the electorate, which was always seen as the “next territory” for the Greens.

“I certainly take this area seriously, but I think the lesson from Saturday is that seats like Pascoe Vale, Preston and Footscray are winnable now,” Newton said.

Racina, who sources some of his produce from the Preston Market, said changes in the area were good.

“But I don’t think anyone wants it to become like Prahran, to morph it into something that’s clean cut. I think the fact it’s always been slightly grungy has been a selling point.”

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