Close your eyes and imagine you’re on the train to Brisbane central. Suddenly, there’s a message over the loudspeaker, “This train terminates here at Darra Station, all passengers, please detrain here at Darra.” How would you feel? Concerned because Darra’s got a bad reputation? Excited by the prospect of Vietnamese rice paper rolls for lunch? What’s the suburb of Darra really like? Is it somewhere to avoid or a place worth knowing?
Who lives in Darra?
To get a clear sense of Darra, the first thing to do is talk history. The suburb has long been a home for new Australians. European migrants settled in the area after World War II, with the largest groups being Italians and Poles. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in 1975, and over time the local Vietnamese community formed. These migrant communities shaped the area and remain part of its fabric.
So who lives here now? Everybody. Long-term residents who have been here for many decades. First home buyers who bought in the area because the price was right. Newcomers to Queensland and Australia. The children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of refugees and migrants who found safety and community in Darra. There are people renting, people renovating, people in public housing, people who want to live close to public transport and people who want a bigger yard but still live close to the city.
What’s the Darra community like?
Here’s a tip for anyone who wants to get an accurate feel for a place in Australia — check out the local state school. State schools are essentially microcosms of the local community and they often include people who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths in their daily lives. These state schools reveal a local community’s gifts, strengths and values. They also shed light on a community’s complexities and overall health.
As for Darra, the first thing evident about the local state primary school is the diversity. At the end of 2019, Darra State School had 142 families with 18 different first languages.
If you spend some time at the school, you’ll quickly discover that the diversity of the school community is one of its key strengths. When you see the kids in the playground, it’s pretty clear there is no “other”, no separation or segregation. The kids are just in it together, and the sense of belonging among them is quite striking.
Now while our kids seem to have diversity all sorted, for us adults, the experience can be trickier to navigate. Sometimes people wonder whether living in a place where your neighbours aren’t like you is fraught with trouble. I remember one afternoon a fellow school parent new to Australia declined my handshake in front of a large group of people (a pre-COVID-19 handshake rejection). It was awkward for both of us. Did I offend this man in some way? Was it unfriendliness or hostility?
In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman speaks of a vague sense of anxiety, or a tinge of fear or uneasiness that can come from not knowing people’s cultural signals. Greetings and eye contact, in particular, can be a place where we can get out of sync. Looking back at that moment, it’s pretty clear that’s what I experienced, misaligned social cues and expectations.
When you’re living in a diverse community, there will always be out of sync moments and missed cues. It’s ok though, goodwill and hospitality consistently trump awkward, and you get better at it with practice.
The real key to being happy in a diverse neighbourhood is getting to know your community. Get to know your neighbours and your neighbours’ neighbours, and get to know the parents of your kids’ school friends. Learn their story and their aspirations, what they value, and what they’re struggling with. When you do this, big differences get small.
It can be a bit confusing, perhaps jarring to the eye,
you must look a little closer to understand the why.
Possibility sits at its heart, the new Australian’s dream,
generations have made homes here, found their community.
This weaves a certain fabric of humility and grace,
of hard work and of gratitude despite the hardships faced.
It’s an eclectic montage, a juxtapose of sorts,
there are statues and some bonsai, cement oceans and some lawns.
The dragon fruit’s abundant, mint runs along the ground,
watch out for the cats though, they don’t make a sound.
If you chat with the locals, they’ll tell you what they know —
“The place is very welcoming, I wouldn’t want to go.
Don’t listen to the stories, you’ll find fault if you look.
See it with clear eyes and author your own book.”
What’s with the Darra streetscape?
Another thing that often strikes visitors to Darra is the contrast of homes within the same streets. It can feel a bit jarring like there is a lack of rhythm and repetition in the streetscape. On the same block, you might find renovated Queenslanders, empty blocks, 1950s homes with rose gardens, cement yards filled with fountains and statues, empty and run-down houses, elaborate topiaries and bonsais, units, flash brand new homes and an old temple. It turns out a diverse community brings diverse visions of what home looks like.
Is Darra a safe suburb?
Sometimes I get asked, “Do you feel safe living in Darra?” My answer lies in my choices. I’ve lived here for close to 14 years and chose to raise my family here — an equivalent of a big fat yes.
My neighbours are nice. The cockatoos, on the other hand, are raucous. They have repeatedly vandalised my sunflowers and last summer one threw a pine cone at me. Don’t get me started on the lorikeets.
A sense of safety is often about what happens within our own walls and relationships more than external factors, but if you want to talk statistics, you can always check out the Queensland Police Service Crime Map. If you look at the total number of in offences for the last 12 months (June 2019 to June 2020) the postcode 4076 (which includes Darra but is much broader), there were 1317 offences. The postcode 4075, which includes “leafier suburbs” along the river recorded 1455 offences for the same period. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, what they do say crime happens everywhere.
A local police officer once told me the way to promote household safety where you live is pretty simple. “Get to know your neighbours, add some sensor lights at the front and lock your car and back door at night to stop opportunistic crime.” Seems like sage and simple advice.
Is the Vietnamese food in Darra that good?
As for the rumours about Vietnamese food, they’re all true. The pho is plentiful and delicious (as is the other Vietnamese fare).
Over to you!
Darra is a culturally rich and evolving place. It’s the true opposite of a gated community, and while the lawn men are scarce, the dragon fruit is abundant. As for the question of whether Darra is a good suburb, jump on the train, grab those rice paper rolls and take a look for yourself.