It was a recent match of junior footy, watching my youngest son play against the local Bullants, that brought me back to Preston, the first time in a long time. It has been the best part of three decades since I came to this northern borough semi-regularly, during the 1970s and 80s, to visit my grandparents, who came to Australia as refugees from Slovenia in the late 1940s.
This was at a time when Melbourne’s north opened its arms to European migrants, not only from the former Yugoslavia but also Italy and Greece. Interestingly, my grandparents moved to Preston in the early 1970s from Northcote, where they’d lived first for almost 30 years, to get away from a nearby factory and into a spanking new cream brick veneer house.
Their story is typically that of Preston in the second half of the 20th century. Known originally as Irishtown – but rebranded by English settlers who farmed the land – the area grew in bursts as economic conditions rose and fell, with waves of migrants – English, European and then Asian, particularly Chinese and Vietnamese – providing ready labour to local industries, originally building materials, for example, and later textiles and footwear.
Dining precinct on High Street, Preston. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Preston Market has provided fresh produce and international food for 45 years. Photo: Wayne Taylor
In recent decades, Preston has undergone another transformation, with young buyers, including families and an inner-city set, discovering the suburb. “The new Northcote and Thornbury is the easiest way to describe [Preston],” says Ray White agent Ian Dempsey, who has lived in the area for the past decade since moving to Australia from Ireland. “It’s all the hipsters moving in now.”
He points to the new generation of edgy restaurants, cafes and bars more like those you’d find closer in, The Food Truck Park and Preston Fresh Hood Market, a converted bingo hall that recently opened alongside the iconic Preston Market. Moreover, it has its own vibrant arts and culture scene. And at nine kilometres from town, Preston is still considered an inner suburb.
It’s not only premium prices in neighbouring Thornbury and Northcote triggering the latest exodus but apartment buyers in these suburbs profit-taking and reinvesting into larger properties next suburb out to start a family. Apartment developments are also springing up on main thoroughfares, driven by investors. “There’s a rental market for students going to La Trobe and Melbourne universities,” says Dempsey.
Where else to look: Northcote may stretch budgets, as may Thornbury. Parts of Preston, west of St Georges Road nearest Thornbury, though, can fetch more than its next-door neighbour because buyers are after bigger blocks. Coburg is comparable ($810,000 median house price) while Reservoir further north may be more affordable – although prices along Reservoir’s Gilbert Road, from Regent Street to Edwardes Lake, can go higher than Preston.