Joyce Ave, Sth Oakleigh: from Anglo-Saxon working class to multicultural middle class

Neos Kosmos is running a new series on how the suburb you grew up in has changed. We kick start the series with contributor Dora Houpis's look back on being the only Greek family living in Joyce Ave, South Oakleigh, in 1974, compared with her living in the same street today.

It doesn’t matter where I set up home or for how long, in times of turmoil and change, I always come back to Oakleigh.

More specifically, my parent’s house in Joyce Ave, South Oakleigh, where I grew up.

Petrified of being trapped in my one-bedroom Richmond unit, I moved in with them for six weeks in March 2020 just before the State Government announced its first COVID-19 hard lockdown.

I did it again in September 2022 to help my sister and brother look after my 90-year-old parents.

But, Oakleigh has been in my blood since may family came to Australia on 18 March 1971. My parents were aged 38 years old, my sister was 10 years old, my brother eight and I was four. We came on the second last ship to Australia on the “Patris.”

Within weeks we were living in Oakleigh.

My parents couldn’t afford to rent a whole house and the non-Greek property investors didn’t want a family of five living in their apartments and units. The Greek community were more accommodating: established Greek families offered us rooms to rent.

The rooms we rented were all in Oakleigh along a 3km stretch of Melbourne’s south-eastern main arterial, Warrigal Rd.

Initially, we rented a room from a young Greek couple. It’s there I saw television for the first time as a four-year-old. The Marx brothers were on. I remember Harpo Marx with his top hat, curly hair, trench coat and horn. I giggled as his horn made the funniest sound.

Then our family of five moved a few 100 metres down Warrigal Rd to live behind another Greek family’s house in a fibro-sheet granny flat before we were evicted when neighbours dobbed us in. We are still friends with this family and recently went to the wife’s funeral.

Following that eviction, my father rented two rooms of a Californian bungalow owned by another Greek family on Warrigal Rd, Oakleigh, for $20 a week. Being good people – who we still keep in contact with- the wife helped my mother secure the house my parents would buy in Joyce Ave, South Oakleigh, in 1974.

Always together: Mr and Mrs Granger were the first married couple to move into the former Oakleigh Council’s Clarinda frail aged centre extension, as reported in the local paper, on 5 December 1984.Photo: Supplied

Talk about location, location, location.

The house was on the right side of the street, in the middle and almost on the elevated peak so it never flooded. I also walked to English and Greek school for 12 years. At the end of Joyce Ave was Oakleigh South Primary School, a street behind us in Bakers Rd was the technical school which doubled up as a Greek school on Saturday mornings , two blocks away in Farm Rd was Huntingdale High School and around the corner was the stop for the 733 bus route that went directly into Monash University, Clayton.

Oakleigh South Primary School was an average Government school then and the former Huntingdale High, that also took in students from the popular Greek suburbs of Oakleigh, Clayton and Clarinda, had at least 15 students or half the class whose both parents were Greek migrants. Sales at the canteen dropped by 50 per cent the week before Greek Easter when we Greek kids were fasting and eating only vegan.

I remember the first day of year 12 HSC when the teacher told it to us working class kids straight.

“It doesn’t matter what any of you do, 30 per cent of you will fail HSC. It’s standardised,” she said.

She went on.

“Of the 70 per cent of you who will pass, only 30 per cent will get into university.”

“Oh, my God,” I thought. “I’d better study and get into uni or I’ll end up a checkout chick at Woollies.”

“Wog chariot”: I sit on the green Valiant family car parked in our driveway as my mother, Panagiota, looks on, in January 1980. Photo: Supplied

My classmates, Greek and non, must have been thinking the same. From our 1984 HSC class the school produced teachers, a cardiac nurse, microbiologists, engineers, a pharmacist, entrepreneurs, a doctor, MBA holder and a scribbler in me. Many of us meet up in the famous Hellenic restaurant precinct, in Eaton Mall, Oakleigh, not far from the former Huntingdale High, twice a year.

It was even worse for my brother. He remembered the first day of year 7.

“We were sitting in the big gymnasium and we had a test,” he said.

“And on the strengthen of this test I was in form 1E.”

He said every year level after that he was always in form “E”.

“I thought that was great because I was always with my friends in forms IE, 2E, 3E, 4E and so on,” he said.

“Two years in, it occurred to me that form “E” anything was for the least academic kids and the school was sizing us up for the factories.”

One teacher predicted an even bleaker future for him.

“Houpis”, he remembered the teacher shouting, “You’ll never amount to anything.”

“I will, and you can’t teach,” my brother retorted.

High maintenance: My father, Spiro, spending his Christmas holidays painting the outside of our weatherboard house, in Joyce Avenue, South Oakleigh. Photo: Supplied

As much of a rough diamond the former Huntingdale High School was, the tech school got the worse wrap. It was rough and tough the stories went with students having their heads flushed down the toilet as some sort of initiation.

I didn’t know anyone who actually went to tech school, but the tech building was a hive of activity. The education department ran school holiday programs, local groups- including Greek ones – held big events with rides, animals and live bands and the Keating Government ran free English classes for established migrants, in the early 1990s.

My then 60-year-old father held a notepad and pen as I walked him to the tech school for his first day at English school. It was packed: Packed with former Greek factory workers he had worked with.

“Lucky country,” my father said. “Free country.”

But it wasn’t all harmony and sweetness in the early years.

Some Anglo-Saxon neighbours refused to talk to us after my father joined the ALP in Australia and had erected a huge wooden Labor Party election sign in our front yard for the upcoming general elections following the Whitlam Government’s 1975 dismissal.

Another neighbour, unhappy that my parents still couldn’t speak English and the family was still keeping the Greek ways invited himself to our house. He sat in our loungeroom telling us we were too slow to assimilate. Unsure of what to do, we served him coffee and sweets. When he continued scoffing every time my parents spoke Greek, we served him more food. When he rolled his eyes as we children interpreted for him, we gave him more food still. Fed-up, he eventually left, only to return once again shortly before he died.

Today, my former Oakleigh South Primary School at the coveted location on the corner of Beryl St and Golf Rd abutting the world-famous Metropolitan Golf Glub will become an aged care facility and retirement village. The former Huntingdale High moved to the tech site and became South Oakleigh College, and Oakleigh South Primary School moved to the former high school site and became one of the top five government primary schools in Victoria. The tech school disappeared.

It may have changed now, but South Oakleigh like around Joyce Ave was steeped in working class and World War II history.

Our late next door neighbours World War II veteran Ray and his wife Betty would tell us the area belonged to farmer Baker who had three daughters named Beryl, Norma and Joyce. Hence the female street names, as well as Bakers and Farm roads.

The houses in Joyce Avenue were all the same design, built after 1945 from weatherboard because there was a shortage of bricks after World War II, and offered to returned servicemen and their new brides with little or no deposit, at less than 1 per cent interest. Beryl Ave where the primary school was built was developed much later and sported large brick homes, some double-storey on double blocks. Beryl Ave even had a famous television personality at the time, Ziggy the Star Dog and his owner, living there.

My parents’ road to home ownership was much harder than Betty and Ray’s, but typical for newly-arrived migrants.

In the country three years, more than 40 years old, with three kids now under 14, no collateral and nobody to go guarantor, they bought their Joyce Ave house under a “vendor’s terms” loan for $23,000 with a $3,500 deposit, in March 1974. Then, after establishing equity, they took out a personal loan for $11,000 with the State Savings Bank of Victoria, in June 1978, and became joint proprietors of the house. As hard as it was, they paid off the mortgage. Newly-arrived migrant factory labourers like my parents would have no hope today of buying a house in Joyce Ave – under vendor’s terms or not.

Today, there are no houses under $1million in the street and many of the renovated or newly-built ones go for much more. My brother started the trend thanks to our other neighbours, Mr and Mrs Granger. They were old world neighbours. They were the first to greet us into the neighbourhood, guided us, cared about us and never complained.

“My goodness, your mother puts up a lovely washing,” Mrs Granger would say.

All grunt: The green Valiant family car, complete with my father’s “P” plate, parked in our driveway. Photo: Supplied

There was no bigger compliment you could give my mother than about her housekeeping.

In return, my father mowed their lawn, we took them Greek Easter and Christmas treats and whenever the fence needed repairs my brother, Thomas, did it for free.

When it came time for Mr and Mrs Granger in 1984 to sell their house and be the first married couple to move into Oakleigh Council’s extended Clarinda frail aged centre, they told us first that they were selling the house and asked if my brother “Tommy” wanted to buy it. All our neighbours called my brother “Tommy”.

I can pinpoint the time the neighbourhood was about to change. It’s when the white Commonwealth Government cars started appearing in the street. They came to pick up the sick and dying Diggers. With their Gold Card health care, the “white ambulance” would arrive and take them to their medical appointments. I remembered Ray waiting for hours for the big white car to come as it made its way through the suburbs picking up veterans and taking them sometimes four in the car to their doctors’ appointments.

My brother did buy Mr and Mrs Granger’s house next door and lived in it for many years with his young family before knocking it down and building the street’s first double storey house. Now the street has five double storey houses, two townhouses and one family has an in-ground pool. The shorter Norma Avenue has five townhouses, four double-storey duplexes and one double storey house.

Driving really old used cars used to be the norm in Joyce Ave. My father’s first car was an old green Valiant. My brother’s was a second-hand hotted up red Charger coupe with a fox’s tail flying from the aerial and a horn that played the theme song from the smash 1960’s Greek movie, “Never on Sunday”, staring Melina Mercouri. Growing up, the only time I ever saw a Mercedes in or around Oakleigh proper or South Oakleigh were the ones coming out of the Metropolitan Golf Course.

Pedal power: My sister, brother and I show off our new bikes in our new home, in Joyce Avenue, South Oakleigh, circa 1974. Photo: Supplied

How things have changed. Today, prestige cars fill the driveways of many Oakleigh houses. At last count, there were five BMWs, two Mercedes, 13 4WDs, and an Audi, Porsche , Range Rover and Saab parked in Joyce Avenue.

The increase in property prices and influx of prestige cars are not all that has changed in South Oakleigh. We were the only Greek family in Joyce Ave before another family came for a few years. There was also a German family who ran a butcher shop. Other than that, it was a white Anglo-Saxon street predominately with returned servicemen and their young families.

The abundance of schools in the area will always attract young families, but many of these Australians now hail from south-east Asia, the subcontinent and Middle East. It’s their turn for a go in this country. My parents had theirs.

The Greek Orthodox Community of Oakleigh celebrated its 60th anniversary in May last year. With its big Greek-speaking community, Greek schools, businesses and doctors, the famous Hellenic restaurant precinct in Eaton Mall, my parents chose the perfect suburb for Greek migrants to live in.

In buying that weatherboard house in Joyce Avenue, South Oakleigh, they chose the perfect house for their children’s education – walking distance to primary and high schools and a bus ride to Monash uni.

I came back to South Oakleigh for four weeks on 3 September 2022 to help my siblings look after our parents. I’m still here. I might be here for a while yet. Duty demands that I come full circle. The truth is the pull of Oakleigh has always been too hard for me to resist.

*Do you have a story to tell about how the suburb you grew up in has changed. Please send your reflections to