Shaw Davey Slum Shafts Students31 May 2018
The interior is hollow. A few patrons litter the pub, the pool tables stand empty and the upstairs bar is shut. Where lining up to get a beer was once considered a chore, a mission to navigate a stormy sea of students saturating the pub, the front bar is now almost always vacant. Today, the Shaw Davey Slum is a ghostly shadow, an ethereal relic, of its former glory.
For years, Shaw Davey has been a bastion of student social exchange—a hub of activity for generations of students at the University of Melbourne. Appealing to their student-dominated customer base, the pub’s owners, Retail Savvy Group, laud Shaw Davey as a “unique environment… providing incredible value for money”. Indeed, for many years the pub fulfilled this promise. Although Carlton’s streets are punctuated with countless pubs and bars, few could rival the appeal of The Shaw Davey Slum. Offering seemingly unbeatable prices on its food and drinks, Retail Savvy Group quickly succeeded at luring students to its bohemian establishment. They had capitalised on a winning formula: bargain prices coupled with the proximity of the pub to the University. As such, the continued predominance of The Shaw Davey Slum as the preferred watering hole for students at the University of Melbourne seemed cemented.
However, 2018 has seen the allure of The Shaw Davey Slum quickly and decisively vanish. And with it, a once vibrant culture has been destroyed. Like most violations of fundamental rights and freedoms, this cultural destruction has occurred tacitly. Changes have been made incrementally, subtly—in a fashion never significant or sudden enough to arouse suspicion. By speaking to students, I set out to explore the reasons behind, and impacts of, the decline of this once great venue.
Understandably, the appeal of The Shaw Davey Slum is intimately connected to its pricing. At a time when insecure work is the norm and the number of young people either unemployed or underemployed is at historic highs, most students want a venue that satisfies the golden ratio. Not Michael Maestlin’s decimal approximation of the natural universe, but the ratio of standard drinks to dollar cost. Accordingly, when the pub began increasing its prices in early 2018, its popularity suffered.
Since 2014, The Shaw Davey Slum has offered several deals aimed specifically at students: $5 pizzas, $1 pots and $12 for a chicken parmigiana with chips being among the most scandalising. These specials attained an almost folklorist quality among students. However, January 2018 saw the promise of $5 pizza suddenly and discretely erased from the menu. This disappearance was immediately noted by many students who felt they had been cheated by their beloved pub.
University of Melbourne student Jamie McDonald lamented the change. “It has always been a super popular place, they’d be making heaps. I don’t understand why they took [the pizzas] off [the menu] … it was obviously one of their most popular things”, she said. After noticing the change, McDonald voiced her frustration with the pub’s management—who refused to explain why the pizzas had been removed from the menu, nor if they would ever return. Following the incident, McDonald has made a point of not visiting the pub and encouraging her friends to not go either.
Next, happy hour was abruptly shortened. Previously, students could purchase pots of house beer all-night every weeknight for $1. In February, students were told that “discounted drinks” would only be available between 6–8pm. Adding further insult to injury, these same drinks would now cost $2. Finally, in March, the pub egregiously increased the price of the humble parmigiana from $12 to $15. And as if this increase alone was not insulting enough, the pub insisted patrons pay an additional $1 for cheese on their parmigiana.
Paying extra… for cheese… on a parmigiana.
While taken individually, any of these adjustments may have been tolerable, taken holistically they have served to make Shaw Davey what it ironically proclaims to be, “a Slum”. These changes have left a hole in the heart of our University.
The Design and Environment Students’ Society (DESS) is one of the largest and most active student clubs on campus, with over 700 members. DESS Committee Executive Member Camden Whitney-Hopkins explained that these changes have meant that The Shaw Davey Slum is no longer a viable venue to host club social events and gatherings. “We have used the pub for years. It’s an unbeatable location to kick-off a pub-crawl after o-week each year… show the first-years a good time… we can’t use it anymore, it’s too expensive.”
But the battle isn’t over yet. Students are standing up and fighting to wrest their iconic pub from the cruel, unflinching hands of market capitalism.
Isa Pendragon has attended the University of Melbourne since moving in 2015 from Moe, a small rural town in the Latrobe Valley, to study a Bachelor of Arts. “Coming from a small working-class family in far-Eastern Victoria, money has never been a luxury. Immersing myself in the uni social culture has always been a challenge.” However, the pub’s cheaper prices gave Pendragon a real chance to participate. “I used to go there almost every day after class with friends. We could relax and unwind with a cheap beer and pizza”. Like many of his fellow students, Pendragon has found the price increases prohibitive. “There’s nowhere else to go really… Prince Alfred has re-opened on Grattan Street but it’s way too expensive”.
The creation of a grassroots community campaign was the only option Pendragon had left. In March, Pendragon created “Save Shaw Davey Slum” Facebook page in response to the changes introduced by Retail Savvy Group. The Facebook page has proven a hit as it aims to “document” and “protest” the callous decisions to increase prices for students. The page has grown significantly in popularity as it posts regular updates about the pub and the ongoing campaign to reduce prices. “We’ve seen more and more students engage positively with our content, it’s clear that people love this place, they just resent what it has become,” said Pendragon.
These student-led campaigns have exhibited serious promise. In April, Retail Savvy Group announced the Shaw Davey was “back [with]… the biggest deals in town”. The pub’s management had decided to once again make “happy hour” available “all day, every day” for students. While this only goes a fraction of the way to addressing the concerns raised by students, it’s an encouraging start. Students feel as though their voices are being heard. Hailing the backflip as “another win for #grassroots activism”, Pendragon said this “victory, however insignificant” will add “fuel to the fires of our efforts”. When asked whether DESS would ever consider using The Shaw Davey Slum again for club events, Whitney-Hopkins said, “if they sort out the pricing problems, of course… it would be great to get back there.”
These changes alone will not be enough to revive the embattled pub. But there is hope: an infectious longing amongst students to see the pub restored to its former glory. The Shaw Davey Slum boasts a rich tapestry of history closely interwoven with the University of Melbourne. The Slum can be saved, and only the unique optimism and unbridled passion of students can save it.
Note: this article previously mentioned a Change.org petition to “save the slum!”. This has since been deleted because the petition was removed from the website.