Sun sinks on Footscray's Little Ethiopia

Adam Carey
'We are almost out of business. If you're borrowing from people to pay the rent, you are already out of business.'
'We are almost out of business. If you're borrowing from people to pay the rent, you are already out of business.' Photo: Justin McManus

Abeselom Nega stands outside his shop Queen of Sheba, one of a clutch of small African restaurants on Nicholson Street in Footscray, a stretch dubbed ''Little Ethiopia''.

Business is deathly quiet. In the 75 minutes Fairfax Media spends with Mr Nega and five other local restaurateurs on a midweek afternoon no customers come or go. Not a single pedestrian or car passes by and the shop phone doesn't ring.

Aside from us, the only sign of life is the din of heavy machinery on the other side of the temporary fence 50 metres up the street towards the railway line.

The Nicholson Street bridge closed two months ago as part of the regional rail link project and will stay shut until mid-next year, but already Little Ethiopia is dying.

The rail corridor is being widened and the bridge torn down and replaced, cutting off the strip of shops from the heart of Footscray, forcing pedestrians and vehicles to take a roundabout detour of up to 500 metres.

The regular clientele - African taxi drivers, shift workers, factory workers - have stopped coming and the six restaurateurs say they cannot sustain the loss of trade.

Mr Nega presents a default notice his landlord issued this week for $7777.43 in unpaid rent, which he paid by taking out a loan.

The $4.8 billion regional rail link project is Victoria's biggest, generating thousands of jobs as 90 kilometres of track is laid through Melbourne's west and two new stations are built.

When it opens in 2016, it will remove rail bottlenecks that delay trains and create capacity for an extra 23 Metro and 10 V/Line services in the peak. But for now, Footscray endures disruption.


Regional rail link authority spokesman Bob Neilson says it is not possible to complete the project without closing the Nicholson Street bridge, and the authority wants to help affected businesses.

The authority will host a street festival on December 12 and has offered to purchase food vouchers for the project's army of workers.

But Mr Nega says this does not make up for ''blocking our bloodline, our customers''. The authority should meet the businesses' fixed costs such as rent and power bills while the road is closed, he says.

Colleen Hartland, Greens MP for the western suburbs, agrees, saying compensation is the least Little Ethiopia's restaurateurs deserve.

But Mr Neilson says there is no legislative framework for such financial compensation.

Berhan Ahmed, chairman of community advocacy group the African Think Tank, says Little Ethiopia is not merely a row of restaurants, but a new migrant group trying to establish itself. If the businesses die, the social cost to Melbourne's African communities through lost income and opportunity will be large.